Threads of Culture Bonyang Michaels: The Folk Art of Laotian Weaving

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BorderLore interviews TMY tradition bearer Bonyang Michaels, with translation assistance from her daughter, Vil Rosales. Bonyang Michaels is a weaver from Laos, one of more than 100 folk artists who will demonstrate their craft in the Pima County Courthouse Courtyard at TMY.

TMY tradition bearer Bonyang Michaels

TMY tradition bearer Bonyang Michaels, a weaver from Laos. Photo: Steven Meckler.


B: How long have you been coming to share your work at Tucson Meet Yourself?
BM: Since 1980. 36 years.

B: When did you first learn to weave?
BM: I was 13 years old when I started to learn from my mom. After 3 or 4 years, I understood how to do my own designs.

B: What is the tradition of weaving that you practice?
BM: In my country, Laos, we lived in a small town. There were no stores. You had to make your own food and clothes. The mother would train the kids how to make material for dresses, blankets, clothing, and you had to make it yourself. That’s how we learned. There were cotton farmers and we would go pick the flowers. It was hard work. We would make dyes from plants and flowers — red, green, dark blue.

B: When did you come to the US?
BM: I came as a refugee in 1979, to Tucson, on April 24. With my husband and children, but I’m no longer with my husband.

B: How old are you?
BM: On October 10 I will be 72.

B: And you brought the loom with you?
BM:  Yes. I went as a refugee to Thailand and there the sponsor who brought us to the US told me to bring my weaving materials. They said I could have some good sales. So I packed my things and brought them. But we didn’t know who could build the loom.

Vil Rosales (VR): My uncle put up the wooden loom in our carport. My dad made it so she could demonstrate her weaving skills. And people would come to see her.

BM: Jim Griffith’s wife, Loma, was teaching English to refugees, so she met me and came to see me and then Jim came and invited me to Tucson Meet Yourself.

VR: That loom came across the ocean a long ways, in good condition. It has a lot of string, each one with a different weight, like a piano kind of. I’ve seen American Indian weaving, but this is different. It requires a lot of skills. My mom is one of the few people who brought a loom to the U.S. and is still doing it.

B: Do you know how to weave as well?
VR: No! My mom can’t pass it on to me. She says I’m too old.  I don’t have the patience. It would take me 50 years to learn what she does.

BM: She doesn’t pay attention. You have to pay attention to make designs and you can’t make mistakes.

B: What kinds of designs do you make?
BM: A lot of animals. Elephants, dragons, chicken, or bird. Whatever you want.

B: When you are weaving do you think about Laos?
BM: Yes. Sometimes. But when I sit now to work and my mind is paying attention on the work.

B: What do you miss about Laos?
BM: I miss everything. My family and my hometown. The last time I went to visit was in 2003.

Bonyang Michaels

Bonyang Michaels weaving in the Pima County Courthouse Courtyard at TMY. Photo: Dan Stein


B: What do you love about Tucson?
BM: I love Tucson. Tucson is kind of like my country, the weather, hot and cold. Only different. Tucson is hot and dry. My hometown is sticky and humid.

B: There is a Laotian food booth at Tucson Meet Yourself. What kind of food do you recommend?
BM: Eggroll and shish kabob and fried rice and noodle.

B: What is your favorite part of the festival?
BM: Oh, I love to go there. I enjoy showing how I make my weavings and having people come and see and ask questions.

VR: It’s a sight to see. Her foot and her arms are going at the same time, and then her hand whips around her head. It’s complicated.

BM: They tell me to take a break two or three times a day so I go walk around. I walk and look at the dancing and singing. I see the Mexican kids dancing, I love that. I see Chinese and Indian dance.

I see women who make flowers and colored eggs and the Chinese writing people’s names. I love all that.

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