Sewing machines chug and hum over the sounds of conversation in a small room on the second floor of the Forsyth County Central Library that overlooks the front lawn facing Fifth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, where the national and state flags wave in the breeze.
The artist collaborative Díaz Lewis, comprised of Alejandro Figueredo Díaz-Perera and Cara Megan Lewis, brought their 34,000 Pillow Project to Winston-Salem last week in collaboration with the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Wake Forest University, among other community partners. Human Rights Watch, a global fact-finding and advocacy nonprofit for human rights, invited Díaz Lewis to create an art project centered on immigrant detention centers in the United States.
“The fact that there’s a mandatory quota of 34,000 beds that’s not based on anything was what made us really upset,” Díaz-Perera says. “We decided we needed to do some sort of project that envisions these beds and we decided to make pillows in response. Then we raise funds through [selling the pillows] to give to local organizations that help immigrants.”
A pillow costs the same amount the government spends per detainee bed per day: $159.
Díaz Lewis began constructing the ever-growing pile of pillows in Chicago where volunteers used fabric solely from undocumented people’s donated clothing, and then took the project to a handful of other US cities over the last two years. Funds raised from the collaboration will benefit El Buen Pastor Latino Community Services.
“This iteration has become more like a peña, like a… cultural space where people are singing and reading poetry,” Lewis says. “It adds another dynamic element to the piece, other art forms added that speak to the same issue. Yesterday, students were reading poetry about immigration as they were working. They didn’t stop pinning [together fabrics]. The designing piece isn’t necessarily for everyone, so incorporating other art forms lets everyone contribute in their own way.”
Lewis says she’s noticed increased attentiveness to issues around immigration given human-rights abuses documented in detention centers.
“There’s been a lot more dedicated engagement since the escalation of detention at the border and the news that has come out of that,” Lewis says. “I think people understand the issue now where before it was veiled. This has been going on for 10 years but… our job is less about awareness and education than it is giving individuals a way to actually feel like they’re enacting change.”
Jordan Buzzett, a first-year Wake Forest student, is one of the volunteers who’s stuck in Lewis’ mind most. Her high school guidance counselor set up tutoring relationship between her and a teen, who hadn’t had access to formal schooling for years and had been recently released from a detention center in Texas.
“I asked him what his family did in Guatemala, and he said tomatoes and potatoes, so when I saw the red fabric I decided to make a tomato and potato for him [on my pillow],” she says. “I didn’t really know much about detention centers… but this is my first year at Wake and I feel like in my first couple weeks here I’ve heard so much about immigration detention centers already. Knowing this project is here and has been going on all this time when I didn’t even know about the issue, it’s definitely mind-opening for me, and a little embarrassing. But it’s also nice to know more people are noticing.”
Wake Forest professor Linda Howe — who collaborated with Elvia Rosa Castro to bring the 34,000 Pillows Project to Winston-Salem in conjunction with SECCA’s Cubans exhibit — wants her students to be thinking how they can enact change in Winston-Salem.
“You don’t want people in academic bubbles their whole lives, so it’s good for them to be out and about, gaining an understanding of the issues people are facing in the community,” Howe says. “So it’s good for awareness but also they are making connections between social issues and their own lives and understand that they’re part of helping people.”
Anthony DeVincentis, a student who recently joined her on a month-long cultural program in Cuba, plays guitar throughout the afternoon work session — everything from “Wagon Wheel” to crooning in Spanish. Castro, one of the curators of Cubans: Post Truth, Pleasure, and Pain at SECCA, spends much of the day stuffing freshly sewn pillows with fluff.
“Linda asked me for a project that could involve the students and the community and organizations that support immigrants and I thought, Oh my goodness, the Pillow Project! Seems to me this is a noble cause, and has been beautiful,” she says. “You can see how art is capable of engag[ing] people with different ideas, nationalities. These pillows are beautiful; you think they are made by designers or artists… but you see people here cutting fabrics maybe for the first time.”
Wake Forest students certainly weren’t the only volunteers; over the course of five workshops, parents with young children, women from a local quilt collective, Sawtooth School students and others in Winston-Salem all took time to memorialize the time that thousands of people spend waiting to be released from detention, remembering that each detainee comes with their own story, despairs and dreams alike.
“These fabrics are full of histories and that’s an important thing,” Castro says. “These fabrics belong to somebody who has a history. God knows if they have conflict or not, if they are immigrants or not. But with this project, these pillows fill up with history.”