I remember exactly where I was when I first thought of this project. I was biking home from the grocery store in Princeton, New Jersey, almost two years ago now. I was on a bike path that hugs an old road and then juts off to the east along a pasture before entering the woods at the back of the Princeton Battlefield. It’s a place where I usually could not help but think about American history and about the soldiers in the Continental and British Armies who fought each other there, but my mind was also on what we would now call the beginnings of the European refugee crisis; it was late April 2015. And so I was thinking about what makes a person leave home, what makes a person seek a new nationality.
So often, this is a decision based in necessity: freedom of worship, as in the case of my Quaker ancestors, who settled in Pennsylvania not that far from Princeton; economic need, as in the case of my great-grandmother, who left the Canary Islands for Cuba as a young girl; or personal safety, as in the case of my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and uncles, and father, who came to the United States as political refugees after Castro came to power in Cuba.
I am proud of my family’s history. I wanted to make something that would demonstrate that pride and pay tribute to the many times my forebears began again in a new place. On that day in Princeton, I started sketching this quilt. The bottom row represents me, the next my parents, and so on. Over time, I gathered the information I needed. I picked out fabric for this version, which is only a small pillow cover, really a test version. Each fabric represents a different place of birth. (It turns out I needed quite a few different fabrics—20 for 31 people.) Last winter, I pieced it, and last spring, I hand-quilted it. Over the summer, I finished it.
I am also proud of and grateful for this country where we have ended up, a country we have helped to build. Yet I am ashamed of its current policies toward immigrants and refugees, people like the little boy who grew up to be my father, whose lives are in jeopardy because of a rash and baseless order. I can’t point to a perfect past—we have had dark days before—but these days are also very dark for me.