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Crafting Belonging

How Kristina Wong and the Auntie Sewing Squad created their haven

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Writer/performer Kristina Wong during the curtain call for the opening night performance of “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre on Feb. 15, 2023 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

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Writer/performer Kristina Wong during the curtain call for the opening night performance of “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre on Feb. 15, 2023 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

When her performance at the University of Santa Cruz was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Kristina Wong had no idea where to turn to. Suddenly, she went from bowing on stage in front of audiences to sheltering in her apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles. As the world slammed to a halt, Wong couldn’t help but worry. Will somebody please think of the actors?! she screams during Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, a humorous testament to the fear of the label she was given: unessential.

Enter the Auntie Sewing Squad (yes, she knows the acronym spells A.S.S.), a group Wong formed on Facebook for a communal cause. Make masks, save lives, and hold on. The group consisted of individuals from across the nation. Representing the Aunties in an interview with Center Theatre Group, Brenda Valdez, Marjan Vayghan, Badley Licked Bear, and Wong’s mom, Gwen, came together to recount their experiences with the Overlord.

Most of the Aunties had no former connection to one another, but many of them embodied skills that would prove to be useful for the group.

Valdez holds 35 years of service in the medical field as a nurse, which was her inspiration for joining the mask-making group. She tested positive for COVID-19 during the first weeks of the lockdown and was unable to help her community directly at work. Valdez joined the Auntie Sewing Squad to help combat the pandemic while recovering at home.

As a college professor, Bear knew they were going to be involved with the group from the beginning, as their institution was engaged with triage. Their work consisted of supporting the Navajo Nation with the distribution of personal protective equipment.

Operating her own professional sewing shop and art studio, Vayghan was prepared to use her space to help create masks for those in need. With the world around them in chaos, the call to action was not an option, but a necessity—both for the country and themselves.

Others had begun making masks independently but found the group in their collective efforts. Vayghan for one, had the materials necessary to create the masks on her own, but found that joining the group aided her in feeling less alone. Their collective efforts reminded her that everything was, going to be okay.

For the Aunties, loneliness was a factor of the pandemic that the Sewing Squad directly combatted. They never felt lonely at all, but instead consider themselves the lucky ones. Within their group, the Aunties were able to form a sense of community online, regardless of the events occurring outside their homes. Bear echoed these sentiments, sharing that there [wasn’t] a single day where [they] felt [they] had a lack of purpose. Wong shared the Aunties sentiment, describing the group as a whole family now in my life. Their mutual desire to help those in need unified the would be total strangers.

In addition to combatting loneliness, the group was a source of strength for the Aunties. Through their collective efforts, every member felt that they were able to take initiative and create change. This was important for their work, as they navigated internal and external challenges, such as collecting materials and maintaining their own health. But even with obstacles in their way, the Aunties worked hard to make and deliver masks, supporting the vulnerable communities around them, such as unhoused people and Indigenous people living on reservations. Together, as a whole…we made it all work. Valdez shared while reminiscing on the group’s accomplishments.

Though their main goal was to make masks for those who couldn’t access them, the Aunties were able to take care of one another through their own internal mutual aid. For Wong, it was important to ensure Aunties [felt] appreciated for what they had to bring. She noted that there were people who did not sew but were able to contribute in other forms. They were great at making meatballs…or taught yoga classes on Zoom. That was important as part of our lifeline. she shared.

The Aunties were able to make hundreds of masks that were distributed across the nation, but the group has since officially retired. Still, members of the group have gone on to continue their work in mutual aid, after finding inspiration within the Sewing Squad. But the stories and connections Kristina and the Aunties made are forever immortalized in Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, showing that unessential people can, in fact, be the lifeline in time of crisis.

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