Carmela Valdivia




Carmela Valdivia




Carmela Valdivia


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Salser Family Foundation


Boonville, California


Kim Greene


NOTE: Susan Kerr volunteered to translate this interview.

Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Carmela. It is March 8, 2007. It is 5:01 p.m. and I'm in Boonville, California. Thank you for doing this interview with me. Could you please tell me about the quilt you selected for the interview? Tell me the story.

Carmela Valdivia (CV): I made this quilt all of the love of my heart and it tells the story of when my father began to take my older brothers and sisters to work in California, my brother and sisters and I stayed behind, the younger children stayed behind with their mother. I was the oldest of the five that stayed home with my mother. My mother took care of all of the children by herself with my help.

KM: Is this your mother here?

CV: Yes. There were thirteen in the family, eight boys and five girls, five, five boys and eight girls and most of them now live in the United States. So little by little, or one by one, or two by two my father brought them to the United States. Some of them crossed the river; some of them crossed the border in cars. My mother cried a lot when her father began to take the children to the United States because she knew that many people died in the river or died crossing the border. I was very frightened as a little girl when I would hear the stories about people dying on the way to the United States, either in the river or in the desert, and I remember when her father came and told my mother that he was going to be taking the children. So I asked my dad, 'Are we not going to die when we are trying to cross the border or trying to cross the river, and he said 'No you won't die because I will take care of you.' So he said that I would be able to work there and he encouraged me with his words. You are going to work there and you are going to have a better life because it is very hard here in Mexico. My mother raised animals. She used to fatten up pigs to sell. She bought us dresses or different things with the money that she earned that way. So when my brothers and sister went to work with my father, they helped him and that was when we began to see the difference in our life. So once my father came back, he brought money that my brothers and sisters had given him and that is when he began to build. He built a bathroom of cement for our house and he built another room on the house. He made us a patio, a cement patio. When he brought the last of us and my mother, we crossed in cars and it was safer. So we arrived here in the United States. I was fifteen when I came here and I began to work in vineyards.

KM: How old are you now?

CV: Thirty-six.

Susan Kerr (SK): Where did you arrive in the United States?

CV: San Diego.

KM: San Diego to Boonville?

CV: San Diego to Boonville. I began to work, I worked in the vineyard and then I got married and I continued to work. I have two children.

SK: Two children?

CV: A daughter of thirteen and my son is eight. So I didn't know anything at all about sewing and now I am appreciative, I appreciate very much the opportunity to come and to sew here in the Even Start Program. I love to make the quilts. The illegal immigrants who are coming, it really speaks to my heart.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your work?

CV: This is my fourth quilt about crossing the border.

KM: How many quilts have you made?

CV: At least ten, I think more. I have sold a lot of quilts. I have actually made six crossing the border quilts. I also really like to make quilts about Mexico and about the people and how they lived there. About how they struggle there and how little they are paid. That is the reason they struggle and they keep on struggling. It is hard, they keep trying to get across the border and to be able to make a life and have something for their children and their families. I make all of my quilts with great respect for the people who cross illegally; because I have been through that myself and I know the risk that they are taking. So all of my quilts of crossing the border are dedicated to the people who cross and also to my family because they came that way. I am very grateful to the United States for the opportunity I have had here to have a better life and to be able to give more to my children. I am very grateful to have worked here and to live here. I am working now in the vineyards again, but I have had some time in the afternoons to sew, so I do and I love doing this, I love quilting and making my quilted pictures.

KM: So when did you start?

CV: January 2005.

KM: So when the group started? One of the first ones to begin? So how did you hear about it?

CV: I was taking English classes here with the English teacher and I heard that there was going to be more classes about families so I came. This is where we started making quilted pictures. Some of us have worked with Laura [Fogg.] She has come several times to give an afternoon and demonstrate and Deanna [Apfel.] and Lee [Serrie.] come and work and I have worked. Molly [Johnson Martinez.] always is motivating us and helps us to keep going.

KM: How do you feel about the group?

CV: I feel good about the group. I especially love to come and help the ones who are just starting. I am trying to get my work mates to come and I keep encouraging them. I am going to take quilts to show the people I work with, the women I work with so they will come and make quilts too. People think that they do sell [the quilts.] some people think they are very expensive but that it really depends on what we put on them and how much work you put into them. Mine are very detailed and have a lot of work.

KM: How much do your quilts sell for?

CV: The most expensive quilt I sold so far was seven hundred. This new one is eight hundred.

SK: I was asking you about your Day of the Dead quilt, which was smaller than this, but extremely detailed and you think it sold for six fifty.

KM: How do you feel about selling your quilts?

CV: I feel really good and then I feel really motivated to buy some more fabric and thread and the things that I need to start making more.

KM: Do you have a sewing machine at home?

CV: Si?.

KM: Where do you sew in your house?

CV: I have a table in the corner of the living room and that is where I have my machine and I have all of her fabric underneath in plastic bins. I have a lamp over so I can see. I work there in the afternoons whenever I have a chance.

KM: How much time a week do you spend quilting on quilts? On an average.

CV: Maybe one or two hours in the afternoon since I started working. I come home from work, I will cook dinner, do my chores and then I will sew. I am starting another one that shows the desert with Mexico down towards the bottom of the quilt, but it is different from any others that I have done. I have already made the part that is the desert. I make the little figures and then I put the clothing on. I make the figure and put it on, then I measure it and make the shirt and pants and then sew them on.

KM: How wonderful. How has quiltmaking impacted your family?

CV: A lot. A lot. They are very encouraging of my work; they say it is beautiful. My work is like at the center of my family and they are all encouraging me. I have been including her family more in the quilts I make. The very first one I made had my two children and husband. I would like to make one that shows me working on my quilts with my machine and fabrics and everything. I would have my children in it; they would be standing behind me asking me to make something to eat. So I would go from the kitchen to the quilting and back again. A little bit at a time. My family, my husband and my children and my mother are very supportive. People have said that they are not going to sell because they are too expensive, but I don't believe that, I love to make them.

KM: Let's talk a little bit about the process. Do you make a drawing? Do you just do it intuitively?

CV: They are in my mind. So I remember how things were and just start making them. Partly because my father told me so many stories about immigrants and so it comes to my mind a lot, so I make them. Sometimes I make a drawing of things that come to my mind. I work from the top to the bottom. I do the sky and mountains or whatever.

KM: Then work your way down?

SK: That is something Laura taught us.

CV: I sew down the backgrounds. So I cut those and put those on and sew them down and then I start adding the details.

KM: That is good to know.

CV: I work out perspective that way as well. I learned that here. Basically what we learned, the women thought we couldn't do anything like this. We didn't know how to sew, and we thought we just couldn't do it. We have learned. We have had support from the teachers, but we also just learned that we could do it. We really appreciate all the people who have given fabric and sewing machines and thread and so forth. Heartfelt thanks to everybody who has given. It is a big help, it is a big support.

KM: We are all in this together.

CV: We still need a lot of supplies to make quilts like ours; everybody's quilts are so different.

KM: Everybody's quilts should be different. It would be boring.

SK: There is nobody else who could have made this quilt.

KM: It reflects your personality, who you are, your life experience and that is great.

CV: Si?

KM: Do you consider yourself an artist?

CV: I think I am starting or still trying or beginning. [laughs.]

KM: You do very well.

CV: Si?. Thank you.

KM: Do you like writing the stories that go with the quilts?

CV: I love to write the stories, especially when it is a quilt that I am really inspired by.

KM: Does the story come first or does the quilt come first?

CV: So the quilt comes first and then I write the story for it. I am making the quilt and the story is in my head so the story is already here and then I write it down on paper.

KM: Which one of your quilts is going to be in the book?

CV: The other border quilt.

KM: The other border quilt?

CV: This was my first big one that I made. I had many cut out figures. My work has evolved and gone beyond, because originally I cut out things [from pre-printed fabric.] and now I make my own, and now I make these myself. I just put in some things like that for print, the cows. Those are people picking grapes.

KM: This is the one that will be in the book. What do you think about the book?

CV: I think it is a really good idea and I will love to have it as a remembrance for my family to have.

KM: This is wonderful, but this is sold right?

CV: Yeah.

KM: Do you have any quilts hanging in your home?

CV: No.

KM: None?

CV: [laughs.] My husband he says this is mine.

KM: You didn't give it to him?

CV: [laughs.] I need the money. I say I need the money.

KM: You need to have one at home, don't you think? It is wonderful. I can see a big improvement. I can see that you are growing and getting better.

CV: Yeah. It is very different.

KM: It is very different.

CV: Yeah.

SK: Sorry.

KM: That is okay. We are looking at the differences between your first work and your more recent work and how much you have grown.

SK: Amazingly.

KM: How much you have grown, it is really wonderful.

CV: The border.

KM: The border is difficult.

CV: Yeah. [laughs.]

KM: I was going to ask you what your least favorite part is, it must be the borders.

CV: The borders.

KM: The borders.

CV: It is hard for me to choose the borders and make it go with the quilt.

KM: I can't image that being a problem for you.

CV: I try.

KM: That is good. I mean that we should all be learning.

SK: One of the things that stands out to me about Carmela's work is the carefulness, the neatness, the precision of her work. Everything is finished. I love the quality of her work. I love all of these little figures of her family, they are all so well. The little crucifix, your mom, your mom is bigger.

KM: I love there is dimension and depth.

SK: Everywhere you look you find something else in her work.

KM: Right.

SK: Like this is so great. There is the Negra, and there is another one riding a horse. I love that part of your work.

KM: I agree.

SK: I love the way you make the figures in the water, the half out and half in. This is so nicely done. It is just a wonderful. Your work is just a wonderful surprise to me.

KM: That is a nice thing to say.

SK: Thank you.

KM: That is a very nice thing to say. Can we talk a little bit about the movie? Are you in the movie?

CV: I have been interviewed once. Lee [Serrie.] has interviewed most of the quilters one on one about one of their pictures, so I have been interviewed. But also I will appear many times in the footage that Lee has taken of people working.

KM: How did you like being interviewed for the movie?

CV: I liked to talk about the quilt. I was interviewed about the one about the island. I liked talking about how we used to like to go to the ocean. My family loves to go to the ocean. So this is, my family and I went to Colima which is a seaside estate on the Pacific [in Mexico.] and that is what my memory is there.

KM: That is the one you were interviewed for. It will be very interesting.

SK: I think so too.

KM: You will all be very famous very soon. A movie and book.

CV: We will keep on, we will make more and more.

KM: That is good. That is very, very good.

CV: My mom was brought here on by a Coyote [a person who charges money to get people across the US/Mexico Border.] on a motorcycle on the beach. I am going to make a quilt of that. [laughs.]

KM: Your mom on a motorcycle that would be great.

CV: She was very, momma was very, she was shaking, she had to hold the Coyote around the waist around this, and what if he takes me off somewhere mama wondered! [laughs.] It makes my mom really laugh to think of me making the quilt. [laughs.]

KM: I think that would be a great quilt. I think you should do it. Your next one.

CV: So these are the redwoods. I love the redwoods.

SK: I don't know if you have seen the Hendy Woods Park over by Deanna's [Apfel who lives in Philo.].

KM: Yes.

SK: The giant redwoods.

KM: It is wonderful. I think they are beautiful. Beautiful place. I really enjoyed it. Is there anything else you would like to share?

CV: When I sell a quilt I put the money in the bank and I save it so that we can take our trip to Mexico in December.

KM: Wonderful.

CV: They go, they drive.

KM: So do you buy your own fabric?

CV: I use [the fabric.] mostly from here. I buy special pieces that I need in Wal-Mart. I buy lots of brown thread.

SK: We buy batting by the roll. Deanna takes care of that [the ordering.]. [10% of the profit earned from a quilt goes back Los Hilos project to supplies such as batting and thread, the other 90% goes to the artist.]

CV: I would like a larger machine that does more.

KM: Don't we all.

CV: I have machine that I bought at Wal-Mart for about one hundred dollars, that I bought with the first money from my first quilt sale.

KM: I am so glad.

CV: Now I would like something better.

KM: I think that is good.

CV: My mom had a pedal machine when I was little and my mom made dresses and she used to try to encourage me to come and sew but I didn't want to. So I learned here.

KM: In Georgia, where I have my group they have crank sewing machines. So you have to crank with one hand and guide with the other.

SK: So you could hardly do free motion quilting.

KM: No it was very difficult. I guess when you have always done something and you become very good at it, you just. I got a grant and they have little Burnets now, but it's very difficult to do large pieces because it is very small. I am assuming that it is the same problem that you are experiencing. It was just the.

SK: That is something we could use, some longer arm machines like a Gammill.

CV: That is why I would really like to buy a bigger machine.

KM: I can understand that. Well thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your work and your quilts and your stories. You do wonderful work and I truly appreciate it.

CV: Thank you for coming to Boonville.

KM: It is my pleasure. I am going to end the interview at 5:45.


“Carmela Valdivia,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,