Maria Herrera




Maria Herrera




Maria Herrera


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Chicago, Illinois


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Maria Herrera. We are at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois. Today's date is February 14, 2009, and it is now 12:40 in the afternoon. Maria thank you so much for doing this interview with me.

Maria Herrera (MH): Thank you for having me.

KM: Tell me about your quilt "My Father's Journey.”

MH: My quilt obviously is based on my dad's journey from Mexico to the United States. My dad is a big storyteller. I wish that I would have been actually able to tell his story more in the quilt, but I'm very happy with how it turned out. He came here in the 1950's, early 1950's and he was very fortunate to be one of those immigrants that was able to his papers together and come in with a work permit. My dad's story is that he crossed the river and that he suffered, and he went through everything that all of these immigrants went through. Not that he is making fun or joking about that, but I think he wanted his story to sound just as much as the immigrants in how much they suffered. So, he crosses over and he comes in on bus, but yet he always says, 'Oh no, I had to cross the river and it took me days to cross the desert.' I was always like, 'Oh my dad, my poor Dad.' Then he says that the first place that he stopped after he came over from Mexico is in California. At the time he only had my brother, Richard, three of my oldest, which was Richard, Art, and Maria and he came over--and, oh Emma, I'm forgetting her, and came over into California. He stayed there and worked there for a few years where he states that he met very famous people and he got to know all these singers and now when we watch certain documentaries or stories of old Mexican artists, 'Oh I met so and so when I was in California when I came over, I was so fortunate.' There is nobody here to prove that since he came by himself. These are all his stories. That was his first stop, California, Hollywood. He met all these famous people, worked very hard of course. He had to send money back to my mom and the kids. My mom stayed behind, of course, with the rest of his family and her family and he would go back and forth because he had that luxury and I call it a luxury because at the time it probably was. He didn't have to go through the struggles of crossing over every time as an immigrant and going through the hardship that a lot of people did but he was able to do that. Go back and forth. His next stop, after he crossed back to Mexico, was New Mexico where he worked in the railroad station for about three years. He explains that he was one of a few Latinos at the time, which weren't many. There were more African American and Caucasian that they laid down the tracks for the train in a certain part of the state where it was still much desert. That was his job there and he worked there for three years and then he mentioned that a brother of his also joined him and they worked together for three years. Up to this day, we haven't been able to verify his story. Since he is now retired, fifteen years, he still insists we need to go back to New Mexico to claim that retirement from the railroads. I Googled. I have gone on the Internet, and I cannot seem to find any form of information on that, so he might have struggled on little odd jobs or something or maybe he did work on the railroad but up to now it has become one of his great stories that he keeps talking about. My brothers just go with it and think that is part of his journey and that is how it happened.

He moved into Kansas and did some cotton picking and did some cucumber picking, which is very hard he said. It was extremely hard for him. He said the hours were long and it was very hard work, but he always felt that America is a great country to live in. America, my father loves the United States of America. We come from a family of seven brothers and three sisters, and I believe I truly believe that if he would have had all boys, he probably would have sent them to the service. That's how much he loves this country because he feels that we need to protect our country. He feels that we have a right to fight and serve our country regardless of what politics are going on. It's a great country to grow up in. It's a great country to live in. He absolutely loves this country, very faithful to his country, never says anything wrong, whether the economy is good or is bad or politicians, never. It is always a great country.

He moved to Michigan. Stays there for another few more years and also does some picking of cucumber and then he goes back to Mexico in the 1970's. By then he has already fixed some more of my brothers' and sisters' papers. He is traveling back and forth with them, bringing them legally in at this time. I was born in 1968. I was the first of his ten children to be born in the United States. At the time, my mom was visiting. They went to visit her parents and they came back and that was when I was born here. I was the very first one to be born here. He is going through all this process of going back and forth, bringing us all back.

He decides now that instead of living in Michigan he will try Illinois. So, he moved into Illinois, and he gets himself established right down the street, right on Truth and 17th. He lived there. My older sister was there with her husband. She was there and my mom had to stay behind at the time. So, it was just my dad and my oldest brother, my oldest sister with her husband. They lived there for a few years. My dad started working the meat company right over here on Racine and 16th. Stayed there for a few years, did little odd jobs. So finally, he was a permanent worker there. So, with the meat market, he knows everything. He went from being a movie star, mayor, whatever, cotton picking, cucumber picking, railroad working man, butcher. That was his career. He became a butcher here in Chicago. He stayed with the Water Market until they closed it because of course it's changed. He moved over to Pershing Avenue and worked there until his retirement, which is another meat packing company. He worked there for thirty-five years. Again, very faithful to his work. Never missed a day unless he was forced to take his vacation. I remember his manager or supervisor at the time, Mr. Casey. Mr. Casey that was his name. We never knew his last name. My dad would just call him Mr. Casey. Very nice man loved my dad. He was a very hard worker, my dad. He always used to say that Mr. Casey would tell him, 'Oh I hope you don't think of retiring too soon or whatever because you are really good for my younger kids are coming in.' Of course, my dad's chest would go out and he would feel like, 'Oh yeah of course I will teach them.' He stayed there until he was sixty-seven years old. My dad could have retired at sixty-five but decided to give two more years. He loved that man. He was very faithful to his work and my dad is a man, again like I said, of many stories.

He is a mad scientist sometimes where he will try to build something and just doesn't quite right come out. He will try to lay down grass, you better believe it there is going to be a patch with maybe just sand, a patch of grass, and maybe some weeds on that side and he will be so proud. That is the kind of man that he is. He will try to screw a light bulb and it just won't work. But he is always proud, he has always been like that. That's how I know my dad. A lot of his stories--I know my brothers and sisters sometimes, especially the older ones get very impatient because they have heard them through their whole lives. I'm forty-one. I can remember my dad's story from maybe about five [years old.] because he started telling me that when he was in Mexico. Because when you turn eighteen in Mexico, you have to join the service and fulfill your term. I think for two years, and my dad would tell me that he was a pilot in the service and that he flew all these missions. I think now sometimes, Mexico didn't have any pilots in that time. Now I'm thinking, 'Oh my god all this time I believed my dad was a pilot and he was this great man,' which he still is. To me those stories are great. All the movie stars that he met in California. All the trains that he probably road on and drove probably himself and all the tracks that he laid from New Mexico to Michigan, that is part of my history now. Even though my brothers and sisters are sometimes just tired of it, I can't get enough of it and even now as an adult I still love to hear my dad's stories. He will be eighty-one this year and he is still telling his stories now even to my sisters and my brothers. Maybe some of those stories might have a little truth to them because he is always telling that story exactly the same. They never change. If he were lying, they would change. They [siblings.] go, 'Oh you're crazy. You are turning just like my dad.' I started now recording my dad's stories because I want my child--I have one son. He is five. I want him to grow up hearing my dad's stories because I know that he might get to an age where my dad might be around anymore. I want him to grow up hearing the stories that I grew up hearing because he might not have that opportunity to hear everything.

I felt that when this class was brought up to me, the only person I thought about was my dad because we were very fortunate and very lucky for my dad that he was able to fix all our papers to come here legally. Our struggles were that we didn't have as much as other families did because we only had one income and ten kids. I think when you have so much love from my mom and dad. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. We even talk about it now as adults. We never missed it. We never missed those Christmas' where we didn't have all these toys like other people. We didn't have a Christmas tree until I was seventeen. We think back and we are like we really didn't need it. We didn't miss it because they made up for it with their love or other things and we were lucky we got a give on Christmas. If we didn't get anything, it didn't matter because the way they made us feel, I think to didn't have to be something that we had to have. I felt that I should honor my dad in making a quilt for him. Even though I had no idea how it was going to come out, how I was going to begin this project. I didn't tell my dad and when I did, he almost felt a little embarrassed that I was going to talk about his stories. He was like, 'Well just don't tell them everything.' I was like, 'I won't Dad. I will just tell them the ones that most of the family and some of our friends know.' He said, 'Okay because I don't want them to think I'm crazy or anything.' I said, 'No, they won't think that. Everybody knows you. They know how you are.' I just thought to honor him. I thought this would be great and I began with a much larger quilt.

I remember mentioning to Karen, 'You know Karen, I don't like my quilt. It is very boring. It just looks like I have the country of Mexico and the country of United States with buildings and a very blah desert in between. I don't like it.' My whole thing with Karen was, 'I don't have any colors. I don't have any color, Karen. I don't have any color. I don't know what to do.' Karen is like, 'Well Marie, I would try to incorporate color. Try to expand your mind.' And I did. I started doing that. I expanded my horizon. I expanded so much that my quilt was much larger that one day I went home, and I started working on it on my own and to my surprise and my carelessness, I burned my quilt. I burned the center of my quilt as I was ironing it. I was distracted and left my iron, come back, good Lord, I thought I was going to faint. [laughs.] Then I got so nervous I couldn't even find Karen's number to call her. I didn't want to bother her because it was during New Year's Eve, but I called my other friend and I'm nervous. I'm crying I don't know what to do. The only thing I can do, I felt at the time was to just save whatever I could around it, cut out my states. I went to Joann's, bought a small sample of material and I just downsized the quilt. I can actually say that my burning my quilt was probably the best thing that happened because I had a breakthrough. It came into the form of color. I started putting my states together the best that I could and I'm very happy to say that I love my quilt. Now a finished product, oh my God, I just can't get enough of it. I'm just thrilled. It's not the best because obviously it's my first and I probably be my worst judge all the time that it will never be the best, but I think for being my very first quilt ever and doing the kind of sewing that you showed us in the quilting and the methods. I believe that I did a very good job in honoring my dad. I know that when my dad sees this quilt and a little bit of his life on this quilt, I know he is going to start crying because he is such a big baby. I'm very happy with it. It took a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of patience, but I'm very happy with the results. I'm very happy with how it came out and I believe that a little story of my dad's journey is being told through this quilt. I mentioned to Karen that I find myself observing these quilts that I see now so carefully because I'm like, 'Oh my God how did they do that and how did they do this? I just think what an amazing art. It really is. Before this class I never would never see a quilt as an art form. Never because I didn't know about it. You just look and think, 'Okay somebody grabbed a sewing machine,' but it really takes quite a bit of technique, quite a bit of learning. I just think it's wonderful that my dad will have this until the Lord keeps him from this world from us and my son will see the honor that I have given my dad through this. I hope in my family it is appreciated, but now I'm in the hot seat because now my mom is going, 'Oh you have something for your dad.' [laughs.] So now I'm committed to making a quilt for my mom and since I think I've done pretty well with the basics of understanding the making of a quilt. My next project will be a quilt for my mom in the form of just asking everybody to give me a piece of special material of theirs so she can have all of her children and grandchildren on this quilt. Eventually I will make one for my husband, my son, and myself, my family. I'm very proud of myself. I think the colors are great. I'm very happy with the color because I didn't have any color before. I think overall I've done a very good job.

KM: What was your favorite part of making the quilt?

MH: My favorite part? I have to say at first, I didn't like trying to come up with a combination on how I'm going to put it together but then after I burned it, and something sparked in my brain and I understood that it is art. You have to figure out the colors and the method. I think it was when I started doing this [points to the mountains in the quilt.], when I started creating my mountains or when I started creating my background [points to the desert.] and how I started just putting color, adding color, I this became my favorite part. The mountains and the desert part. I had already done this, this didn't seem like it was much work for me because I just thought well, I will just cut out my states and I will paste them. It was like a cut and paste, but I thought that if in the future I work at this a little bit more, this will become great, working in the center part, my backgrounds, my backing. Then of course, my border. I loved that. I loved the border part because then to me once I put the border, I was like, 'Oh my God, what different. What a difference a border makes.' First, I was nervous when I messed it up and then I thought it was so ugly and crooked and then you cut it and I said, 'Oh my God, it is so straight now.' I couldn't understand how Karen was going to do this, but she did. Then when the border came on, I thought, 'Wow! This is great.' I think this part right here where I started doing the quilting, the mountains and the desert and then of course the border. I think a border really makes the quilt come out. If you don't have the right balance, I don't think that it will show as much of your quilt because you can make a mistake because if you put too much on the outside then people might focus on the center part, your story. I think I have a good balance here and I have to always remember that, to have a conscious of that if I do borders to always make sure not to take away from my story. I loved doing the borders. It was great.

KM: Has any of your family members seen your quilt?

MH: One of my sisters.

KM: What did she think of this?

MH: She started crying. She started crying. I'm telling you everybody is going to cry. She keeps insisting that I don't show it to my dad now and she thought that if I could hold out until his birthday which is May 15, but if they are going to be displayed [at the museum.] I thought it would be better if I would bring him to the museum and just say, 'Oh Dad, let's go see. They have something going on,' or whatever. Then he would see his quilt hanging. I thought that would be nice instead of waiting so far into May. I think that is what I'm going to do. She started crying and she said the same thing that it was such an honor for my dad. My dad is a very--believe it or not even though he is such a big storyteller, he is also very serious. People look at him and are like, 'Oh boy, let's just sit over here on this side.' My dad is a great storyteller, and he is a very nice person once you open up and you start talking to him. Then you can't shut him up. They are like 'good lord what did I do, why did I start talking to this man'. She loved it, she started crying. She couldn't believe that I had done this. She is like, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?' I said, 'Yes, it was me and my teacher of course,' but she loved it. Nobody else has seen it. My husband thinks I shouldn't show it around too much. He thinks everybody should see it at the same time.

KM: What does he think of it?

MH: He loves it. He loves it and he is always telling me, 'You have that creative artist in you.' I always like doing little crafts here and there, but that is on paper. You know scrapbooking, crafts. I do a little sewing but just straight lines, whatever, basic stuff, but for him to see this, he said, 'I'm not surprised, and I know the more you do it, it is just going to be more fabulous.' So, he loved it. He absolutely loved it, and he said the same thing, 'Your dad is just going to cry.' It is going to be such a tribute to him to his journey and even though I joke about how he came over to the United States, it was still very hard for my dad. It was still very hard for him to work, and it was very hard for him to separate and have his family in Mexico while he was over here. Even though he talks about his stories of how he met all these movie stars, he makes the story sound so great like there was no struggle, but we know he did struggle because we look at some of the old pictures. His little place had nothing, so we knew my dad struggled and he says it now, 'It was hard,' but somehow my dad pulled through and on one income he was able to raise ten children and his wife. We all came out fine. We all went to school. We all had a great education. He says we owe that to being in such a wonderful country like the United States because only here you can have an opportunity to take advantage and become somebody and do something with your life, which we all have. All of my brothers and sisters. Sometimes I wonder how did they do it. I have one child and I say, 'My God, it is so hard.' I sit with my mom, and I talk with my dad, I always tell them how much I love them. I know my dad struggled. I know he did, because even growing up we could see the struggles on one income. He had to work so hard. Again, we didn't have a lot of things that people had. It was hand-me-downs from the top to the bottom. If you were lucky and you got a pair of shoes without a hole in them, boy they were like brand new. I think this is great for my dad and I feel that it is a shame that it is so late in his life that we are doing something like this for him, but we also acknowledged to him how much he meant to us. I think now he will see it and I hope that he is happy with it and I hope that it brings him happiness. Just to see a little bit of his journey and his life on this quilt.

KM: From the first class until now you have a completed quilt, how do you think your view of quilt making has changed?

MH: Oh my God, it has changed a lot. As I mentioned, now I find myself obsessed whenever I see a quilt hanging somewhere. I was just at a doctor's appointment over at Rush University and they have these beautiful quilts that people donate, or they make for like the cancer children or what have you, anything. Now I find myself like I'm just a magnet just focusing, and I just come up to it and I'm just looking. You can't touch but I find myself almost mesmerized sometimes. What did they do here? How did they do that? It's really a beautiful art. It really is. If you don't know it, you will never be able to understand it or just think about how this was done. The time that it takes, the patience, just everything. I love it and I have a whole new respect for people who have done this all their lives and what beautiful art. Now when I watch all these documentaries and they are able to find quilts that were made in the 1800's or whatever and I think the people or the women that must have done those quilts. You really have to hand it to them because I'm sure all of that was done by hand. Now we can use the sewing machine, even though we don't know how to use it but it is still a big help, especially if you are making a really big quilt. It is really a true art form. It really is and I think it is just wonderful and what a great thing to know.

KM: Are you really excited about having them exhibited within the museum?

MH: Yes, I am very excited. I really, really, I'm just excited that I finished it so it is even a bigger thrill.

KM: You were the first one to finish.

MH: I didn't even think I was going to finish it after I destroyed it. I don't know, it is exciting. I'm very emotion, I really am. I've become, I have such a bond with this quilt. I think because it's my dad and it almost I don't know.

KM: It's good. It is.

MH: It makes me emotional. I love my dad and I'm-- [cries.] I'm sorry.

KM: It is okay, you just did such a fabulous job and to overcome the burning I think was really great.

MH: I'm very proud of this quilt, I really am. I think because it is for my dad and in his honor, I think that it is even more special.

KM: I hope I'm there when he sees it. That would be so much fun to be there.

MH: He is such a crybaby lately as he's gotten older. I know he is going to be very emotional. He is not going to be able to say anything. He is just going to shake his head, but I know that the way he is he will catch me later and say some nice words to me. I feel a special bonding to this quilt and I'm just happy that I was able to finish it on time and that I'm very happy with how it came out. We could be very hard on ourselves when it comes to art. We are never satisfied, or the stitching is terrible, and I expected to make many errors with this quilt because I don't know how to use a sewing machine that well and it takes special sewing techniques by hand to also do it. Even though my errors are in there, my mistakes, I still think that it came out really good.

KM: I think it came out fabulous. I love watching your confidence level get higher and higher as things went on.

MH: Especially with color. I'm a realist. It is either black and white or just solid colors. I could never get out of ' Well if I'm just doing the desert it is going to stay cream or brown,' but I could mix other colors in there, oranges and reds. Look at my mountains, they are red and gold and white and there was no way that I could have done that before, because I'm like, 'No way am I making red mountains. They should be brown or black'. This quilt helped me express color. It really did and I'm very happy with it. Remember when I started my Chicago buildings, all the towers, they were in black because that is the way I saw it. Just black or white and then you bring this beautiful material in [points to the Chicago part of her quilt.] and it is full of color, and it worked out even better.

KM: You were so happy. [both laugh and talk at same time.]

MH: That was my first color, and it looks perfect, it looks great. This class actually helped me to express myself a lot with color, which I'm very black and white or just greens stay green, yellow stays yellow, don't mix them up together. But here it's an explosion of colors for me, and even if it is really subtle for me this is a lot. It really is. I love it. I'm very happy with it.

KM: Is there anything else you want to share that we haven't touched upon?

MH: Thank you.

KM: You are welcome.

MH: Thank you, because of you I was able to create this wonderful quilt. Because of you and your patience and your ideas and helping me to express myself. [KM cries.]

KM: I can't wait to see what you do next.

MH: Yeah. [laughs.] Me, too. It was a great class. It was a great class. It was a wonderful experience. It was wonderful meeting you and just looking at your art and your quilting it is amazing. It is amazing really. I hope that now that I've learned this art form that it will stay within me and that I will keep doing this as I get older and just keep making quilts. I really do hope that it works out like that for me. I'm going to try really hard to keep it. I really am.

KM: That is good.

MH: It was a great experience, and I don't want to lose this opportunity in my life of just stopping and getting lazy and that because I think that it doesn't have to be just a quilt of immigrants or whatever, it could be anything, it could be just a regular quilt in color or basics or people next door or anything. I hope that I can continue and keep it in my life so that I can keep growing with it and maybe not make so many mistakes. The more I work at it the better I will get, I hope.

KM: You can't learn if you don't make mistakes.

MH: That is true, you always have to have mistakes and you always said any mistake can be corrected.

KM: And you corrected it.

MH: Yes, I corrected quite a few. [laughs.].

KM: I don't think you believed me when I said it [KM and MH laugh and talk at same time.].

MH: I didn't think I was going to be able to correct it after burning it. I learned a lot and thank you very much. It was a great experience, it really was. A great teacher.

KM: You are very sweet. I want to thank you for taking time and sharing this story about your dad and your quilt and your experiences. We are going to conclude our interview at 1:12.


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