A grandmother stitched a memorable Jalisco dress but sewed up tightly the truth of her origins.
My nana, Aurora Martinez, was a woman of secrets. Reserved and often stern, she avoided talking about herself or telling stories, and none of her children or grandchildren knew much about her beyond the basics. We knew she was raised in a big family from Calexico and everyone called her “Lola.” She wasn’t a great cook, she wasn’t flamboyant, and she wasn’t the center of attention. She was a devout Catholic, she tried to stay out of the sun as much as possible, and throughout most of my childhood, she traveled to Tijuana annually to purchase Spanish-made, porcelain Lladró figurines, adding to her treasured collection of “investments.”
Nana Lola even kept her job a secret. “One day I came home from work and your Nana wasn’t here,” my grandfather liked to tell us and laugh, recounting the story of Lola’s first job after they were married with children. They moved from San Bernadino in the late ’50s, and soon Nana Lola was part of a mid-century workforce of Tucson women who labored both in and out of the home. Even her day job in K-Mart’s toy department was a secret from me while I was in school.
But one secret that wouldn’t be kept was that my Nana Lola was a master seamstress.
Somewhere in between her hours at the store and keeping house, Nana Lola found time to attend a few classes offered at a local sewing machine shop. She bought a half dozen books on the basics of sewing and figured out the rest on her own, over decades of practice. My mother doesn’t remember wearing store-bought clothes until she was around twelve years old –my grandmother made almost everything she wore.
Since I often stayed with my grandparents, Nana Lola’s sewn creations were all around me—from the curtains to the bedding to the placemats to the furniture covers. She even sewed the car seat covers for her 1968 Chevy Impala.
From my perspective, her most important sewing projects were my dance costumes.
On Mondays, Nana Lola picked me up from school in that blue-green Impala and drove me to dance class. My beloved teacher, Leticia “Leti” Durazo, ran a small dance studio out of her home, and every forty-five minutes another group of little girls in leotards and leg warmers would rotate in. We all wanted to jump and jolt to ‘80s music, but Leti was our guide into grace and cultural pride. She taught ballet, tap, Spanish classical, and Ballet Folklorico. I came to love them all.
When I was in third grade, it was my class’s turn to learn to dance to “El Son de la Negra,” a song made so popular by Mexican cinema it was often referred to as the second national anthem of Mexico. Even before we learned the choreography, we could all imagine our skirts circling in unison, curving like rainbows. After weeks and weeks of practice, we knew the zapateado and combinations, so Leti allowed us to select our dress colors. I remember feeling grateful to get royal blue.
At last, Nana Lola would make my dress.
She carefully measured, cut, and tailored the dress to fit my third-grade body perfectly. She even sewed bloomers for me to wear underneath my flying skirt. I had never worn a dress like this before, but somehow I felt like myself in it. The style was from Jalisco, often considered the birthplace of Mariachi music, but now an iconic style representing all of Mexico: brightly colored fabric, ruffled and trimmed with ribbons and lace, and yards of tightly gathered material creating a skirt wide enough to whirl overhead.
Me and my blue dress made the circuit of school fiestas, folk festivals, and church fundraisers. I swung my skirt and pounded my feet all over Tucson. On the day I performed “El Son de la Negra” for the community center recital, I joined a hundred other girls on stage with ruby red lips, slick Dippy-Do hair, and big gold earrings. I loved my dress, certainly, but I also loved the heat of the bright lights, the smell of makeup and aerosol hairspray in the green room, and the sound of violins, guitarrón, and trumpet ringing out from the speakers. I loved that Nana Lola was in the audience.
Within a year, I grew out of my blue dress. My mother packed it away in a cedar chest that held everything she couldn’t part with, but as the chest filled with more and more keepsakes, the dress had to be moved from the house, to the garage, to storage shed, to God knows where.
On a cold night in the first week of 1993, having fought a long battle with cancer (after keeping her first diagnosis a secret), my Nana Lola died in her Tucson home. I was asleep in a bed down the hall, right next to her sewing machine. She was 68 years old. The days and weeks after her death felt strange, almost mysterious to me.
Still, I felt I knew my Nana better than most people. I knew about how she would fight my Tía Emilia over who would get to wash the dishes after a family meal. How she watched every minute of the Pope’s televised visit to the US–even recording it on VHS tape. How she always hung her wash on a clothesline. How much she loved baseball, and her favorite player, Fernando Valenzuela, pitcher for the L.A. Dodgers. How, one year, she gave up telenovelas for lent, then for good, because she thought she was becoming too addicted to them. And how she never let any of us sit on her lime green tufted and curved sofa in the living room because it was only for special guests.
I learned these things from spending so much time with her, but when a cousin found my Nana’s birth certificate while conducting ancestry research, I learned what she had kept close. Nana Lola had not been born in Calexico, CA as I had earlier understood. Nor were her parents who she had claimed. Because Nana was born en el otro lado.
As a child, I used to ask my Nana Lola lots of questions, probably to her exasperation, but I wish now I had asked so many more: Did making my blue dress–so infused with Mexican symbolism–stir memories of her birthplace? Did she remember valleys of cotton and vegetables quilting over Baja California when she selected red and yellow satin ribbon, white lace, and ric-rac trim? Did a cool coastal breeze from La Paz, the city where she was baptized, brush past her forehead as she pressed fabric with steam from a hot iron? Were her memories of the Sea of Cortez always tuned and ready, like her Singer sewing machine itself? And would a press of the pedal and spin of the spool of thread let those memories hum inside her?
Who was her mother?
Who was her father?
Where was home?
Earlier this year while doing some spring cleaning, I opened up a crumpled paper bag and found it inside. My blue Jalisco dress. Over thirty years old, but no rips, not even a loose thread.
As a flamenco dancer and a mother, I’ve sewn my share of costumes over the years, but nothing near the greatness of this blue dress. Unfolding it after so much time, it seemed someone supernatural had made it. Flawless, but still real. Otherworldly, yet right here in my hands.
Looking closely, I saw that every one of Nana Lola’s seams was a perfect line. Every hem, precise and crisp. Even her hand-sewn snaps and hook and eyes were perfectly straight and secure. Of course my Nana had high standards for me, herself, and everyone else. She communicated a strong moral code in her dichos. “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” She may have had secrets, but Nana Lola’s work was always direct and honest.
All those times I slipped on this blue dress to spin around the dance floor as a girl, to celebrate an ancestry I still don’t fully understand, I never realized I was wearing something worthy of an art museum exhibit. I never knew, by her hands, I was wearing Nana Lola’s gospel truth.
Melani “Mele” Martinez is a writer, mother, and flamenco dancer from Tucson. A frequent contributor to BorderLore, she is currently at work on a memoir entitled The Molino and works as a lecturer at the University of Arizona teaching first year writing and food writing courses.