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How my mother helped us stitch together a life in the U.S., one piece of fabric at a time

Garment work is common among women in Nicaragua. So naturally, when my mom came to Miami in 1979, sewing was a trade she could pick up easily. And the sewing industry in Miami was massive, so much so that the municipality of Hialeah was considered the ‘mecca’ of the clothing manufacturing industry. When I was growing up, there were at least tdisenador-rene-ruiz-abre-nuevo_323x216hree sewing factories that my mom visited weekly.

Hialeah was full of warehouses packed with industrial machines of all kinds. There were always more than a dozen people moving quickly through rows of heavy machinery that stretched as far as I could see.

WATCH: Immigrants and Fashion

When I was growing up, I belonged to a family that took part in this rich community. My mother employed mostly women, and mostly Nicaraguans. Each of these women had their own piecemeal textile manufacturing setups in their homes, where they worked as their own bosses and subcontracted other workers. Women came and left my house at all hours of the day.

nephew pic
My living room was always filled with fabric and scissors. Our specialty work was souvenir sweaters. We’d get pattern pieces and rolls of fabric, then my mother and her team would sew them together, piece by piece. My siblings and I were quality control. Then we’d fold the sweaters and help package them for distribution. My house had a cutting table, several long extension cords hanging from machines, and milk crates stacked on top of one another with multicolored threads. We didn’t have traditional home furnishings, but this was our home, and our workplace.
Although the manufacturing businesses thrived in the 1990s, it began to slow by the turn of the century. By 2002, the work orders stopped coming. My mother was hiring fewer people. We tried to adapt by venturing into different specialty markets, such like imitation Tommy Hilfiger jeans, or women’s clothing. But it kept getting increasingly difficult. In 2003, the U.S. started to actively promote new free-trade agreements with Latin America, as an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Manufacturing jobs in Miami were outsourced to Central and South America.

20150311_113601At age 14, we moved into a sewing factory. My mother had leased it for a few months since part of our rental had grown mold and couldn’t hold the extra machinery. When work slowed, our family could only afford one rent, so we chose the one that would make us money. We lived in the sewing factory for about a year. Along with my siblings, my mother, and her remaining workers, we sewed until midnight every day. When I finally crawled into bed each night, I could still hear the hum of the sewing machines around me. We were more than a family, we were a business.

“At age 14, we moved into a sewing factory.”

By 2005, my mother finally gave up on the sewing industry. She cleaned offices for a few years and those of us old enough to work sought “regular jobs” bagging groceries or working at the deli. The economy didn’t do my mother any favors. Before she knew it she was out of a job again. After dabbling in various unreliable jobs, she opened up a business venture with my siblings.

When I started researching my story, I traced back to the places where we spent the greater part of childhood: the factories, the homes, and the wholesale warehouses where my mother bought her equipment. Most of these buildings are now long gone. The factory where our family hit rock bottom is now a Publix — a sign of gentrification. The textile niches that we’d established 20 years before have evolved into successful businesses.

I rummaged through my house for albums from decades ago, looking for photos of our years in the factory, and of the women we worked with. But my family doesn’t have many pictures of sewing machines from that time. All I have are the memories of a time where my mother, along with the small network of Nicaraguan women, stitched together a better life for us out of tiny pieces of fabric.

Additional Credit: Gabrielle Costa

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