Maria Tortolero




Maria Tortolero




Maria Tortolero


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


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 Tortolero. We are in Chicago, Illinois at the National Museum of Mexican Art. It is now 4:10 in the afternoon on March 28, 2009. Maria, thank you for taking time to do this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt "Entre dos Mundos."

Maria Tortolero (MT): I'm going to start, when you asked us to do whatever we wanted to, whatever came into your mind and the first thing I thought about was my small little town in Mexico where I came from. I was raised over there and I was very happy little kid over there. [laughs.] I loved to play and I could do anything. It was almost like a playground. I have a lot of cousins so we all play together. We would ride horses. We bathed in the river. We climbed trees, mountains, and it was a happy place. I went to school. I loved going to school. My school was across the street from my house and I couldn't wait to go. In the summer time, I used to get very bored with nothing to do. I was a dreamer so I used to dream a lot. I used to go into the apple wood and dream about all the places I want to go. If I want to dream about the ocean, I would just close my eyes and think that I was flying and going to the ocean. I used to get sort of claustrophobic so I used to image how the next town would look, or how big the city would look, because I never saw city, only on TV, but I never watched TV. I would see pictures in my school books and I just image how the big city was, so it was just in my imagination. The biggest city I'd seen was the Municipal City where my town belongs. It was very small so there wasn't much to do. I used to dream a lot. My imagination went wild. [laughs.] When I finished my sixth grade, there was no more school in the little town so many of the kids had to go somewhere else. Since my mom had no money to send me away that was it for me. What you did was get married there or become a nun I suppose. [laughs.] I was there for a couple of years fooling around with boys, I mean not in a bad way, but kind of driving them crazy. [laughs.] Every time my relatives or friends were going to work, mainly the boys they would go north to make money, I was always saying, 'Why can't I go? What am I doing here? Doing nothing. I don't want to get married. I don't want to have kids and become like my older friends or relatives.' Then you become ugly and I used to hate man because they did that to woman. I always blame the men. [laughs.] I didn't want to do that. One day my mom's friend, comadre came to my mom's house and she was coming for my sister, but my sister had gone already. I was the only one left and she said why can't I go, and my mom says, 'She is too young to go.' I was only 15 years old, and she says, 'No, no, you're not old enough.' 'I am not that young. I want to go.' And she says, 'No, you can't.' I wouldn't rather stay here and do what. She finally let me go. I went with this lady that I had never seen before and I didn't even know who she was. She was like an 80 year old person, so I trusted her. She looked like a nice person. My mom thought, 'Well she can go, but you are going to take care of this kid.' She did let me go [to the U.S.] and she said that I could go for a year. When we got to the big city to get my passport the government say, 'No, she can't go because she is a minor and she doesn't have all the papers. She needs to get a passport. Besides you need the father.' I told him my father was dead and I had no papers to prove that my mom let me. I didn't have a letter or anything like that. It was just the word. We had to give a lot of bribes in order to get a passport and from there I had the Visa. That was a struggle to get here because it was so long the drive [laughs.], I was so sick of it. Anyways I got here in January and the shock of the cold, it was crazy [laughs.] to me. I had no proper shoes or coat so that was it for me. I got here and I was living with this lady, she was very nice and all I had to do was stay with her, watch TV, whatever, but it was not enough for me because you can't have a happy kid, 15 years old being with a lady 24 hours a day. I started reading books, learning English. We had a park across the street and I was trying to find friends. The lady's grandchildren were kind of my age so I used to go to school with them even though I didn't study. That was my life for a while. I got really depressed because the shock of being here and not knowing English. This was different. It was so different I had no liberty of going places. In Mexico, I used to go to dances. I missed my friends, my family. I was depressed like for a year, but I didn't want to go back because I knew what was waiting for me over there. I got to stick with it and see what happens. The second year came and things got better and then I went to the library to study English as a second language. That is what I had to do and then I would go out to the movies even though I didn't understand much of it. [laughs.] I went to the movies and to museums that is pretty much it, what I did plus bowling and stuff. I met my husband [Carlos Tortolero.] the first day I got here because he was a grandson of this lady. We started going out, not in the open because I knew that they would get upset because in Mexico there is classes and a poor kid doesn't marry a better social class. You know what I mean. [laughs.] We were hiding the relationship and when we got married we didn't tell anybody. We just run away and we got married. [laughs.]

KM: Your quilt is divided in half.

MT: Right.

KM: Half of it is Mexico and the other half is Chicago.

MT: Right. I put in Chicago the last year for me. I love the city. I love the lights, especially at night around Christmas. There would be lights showing in the lake, and I would go, 'Oh there are lights.' [laughs.] I love all the Lake Shore Drive. When we got married we lived in Rogers Park and my husband worked in South Chicago and when we travel north, it was on Lake Shore Drive. I got to see most of the city all of the time and I just love the city. When my husband started the museum [now the National Museum of Mexican Art.], it was for nothing. I used to be the secretary. Our dream came through and I was all the way with him. He had to have a pay cut and a lot of late nights and I was alone a lot of times because it was a big struggle that he had to do in order to live this place that is now the museum. My kids grew up here mainly. I represent in this quilt the life from Mexico to my life here and all the stories. They [my children.] are behind it. Like I said, my kids grew up here. We came here almost every day and we got to know a lot of people and I enjoyed working the artists, with all of these people. The artists come visit every year. What was I going to tell you?

KM: What are your plans for your quilt?

MT: My husband wants to frame it and put it in the living room. [laughs.] The curator from the museum like it and he asked me if it was for sale.

KM: How did that make you feel?

MT: I was so proud. When my picture was in the invitation I go, 'Wow! Why?' 'That is the one that looks the best,' they said, so they picked that one. I am very, very happy and I'm glad you came into our lives and made us happier.

KM: I am glad too.

MT: Introduced us to a new form of art.

KM: Now we are having an opening.

MT: Yes we are. We are having a big party today and we are going to see how everybody likes it.

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

MT: My favorite part? Wow, oh I love it. I can't really say what had a better time doing. I enjoyed designing the little river because I used to swim in there. I enjoy the little hill because I used to go up there and look way, way far. What else can I say? The city, all the art pieces, the sculptures, the lake. I even put a fantasy boat in there from Remedios Voro. Back in Mexico, the sun used to reflect on the water. When I went to visit the ocean and I used to walk on the sand, the beach was so, so long I used to get lost walking. Also the highway, it is one of the main ones in Mexico. It was like next to my town, so I used to look at it and we used to look at all the cars in town then and when we were driving by [laughs.] we used to throw rocks on the American cars and they used to stop and give us candy. That was a thing we used to do, throw rocks on the cars and the American ladies would stop by and give us a lot of candy. That was funny. [laughs.]

KM: You did a lot of embroidery on your quilt. Do you like to embroider?

MT: I love to embroider, yes and that was one of the curriculums we had to do in school. They used to give us the afternoon off like twice a week to embroider so in Mexico that is one of the things they teach you.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

MT: My creative process, gosh, that just came out of my head. I didn't put it on paper. It just kept coming as I went along a new idea came out. It is like my childhood. When I think about my childhood, what did I do? Okay, I used to do this and that and that and it just came out of my head, everything that I did and I put it into my quilt.

KM: It is your first quilt.

MT: It is my first quilt. [laughs.]

KM: But not your last?

MT: Not my last, not my last. I did other things like embroider, but that was about it. I never really touched the sewing machine.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

MT: Why? It is beautiful. I love quilting. I did like bedspreads, like quilts in the store that I bought before. I got a Christmas one and I got another one for summer, but I never know I would be able to make one even nicer. [laughs.] I do, I do. My mom used to sew. My grandma sewed. I had the idea of learning, but I never had the chance to do it. I always wanted to buy a sewing machine. I never did, one of those things you want to buy, but didn't do.

KM: Now you have a sewing machine. And now you want a better one.

MT: That is right because that is too small and every time I quilt it is too light, but yes, I think it is fun. It relaxes me and I have a lot of fun with it.

KM: Do you consider yourself an artist now?

MT: Sure, I always have. [laughs.] Everybody is an artist. You have to discover what you are good at it, right? [KM nods.] Yes.

KM: What are your plans in the future with quiltmaking?

MT: Get better I suppose. That was my first step and I hope that I continue with it. Learning about fabrics. Looking around the internet and looking at all the shops and the fabrics and I love what they have. In Mexico, when I go now I go in the stores and look at the fabric shops and go, 'Oh wow.' There is a store called Pariciana which is huge and I just like to go in there and not buy anything.

KM: How come you're not buying anything?

MT: Because it is just too much and I get overwhelmed. [laughs.] I love it.

KM: What advice would you give someone starting out?

MT: To start small. [laughs.] To start small and don't get crazy. You go one piece at a time and just let it go, let your imagination fly.

KM: Is there any part of quiltmaking that you don't like?

MT: What is it that I don't like? Actually I enjoy every part of it. There is not one thing that I don't like, that I dislike. I may like something else, but I can't really think of anything I dislike.

KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we conclude?

MT: About the quiltmaking, love it. I love it. I just like to say thank you so much for bringing my this new art form that I didn't know I had.

KM: You are more than welcome.

MT: Thank you so much.

KM: Thank you. We are going to conclude our interview at 4:30.


“Maria Tortolero,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,