Rosa Elena Egipciaco is from the town of Moca, Puerto Rico, famous for mundillo, a form of intricate bobbin lacemaking. Her father, Nieves, owned a cafetín, a small grocery store, and her mother, Doña Salud, owned a fonda, a restaurant, and made mundillo.
The youngest of five, Rosa Elena began learning mundillo at the age of four from her mother. She wanted to learn because she loved the sound of the bobbins clicking against one another as her mother worked on her mundillo loom. Ever since, mundillo has been part of her life.
Rosa Elena tells a story of how lacemaking started in her hometown. “My grandmother told me that her mother told her that two españolas (women from Spain) came to live in Moca. They lived in a house in front of the plaza, across from the Catholic Church. When they started teaching girls to make lace they were paid 25 cents for a class. Back then if a person was able to pay a quarter they were considered well-to-do. Girls taught other girls and it spread.”
When she was a little girl, Rosa Elena and her friends would “play house” on her patio and she would imagine making lace. “I walked to the lemon tree and I took the leaves and the thorns and started making patterns on the leaves using the thorns.” She looked for patterns everywhere. She remembers while sitting in church during Mass, “I would look at the designs on the floor of the church and think of them as patterns. I saw squares and I was making mental holes and margaritas [a daisy pattern] just in my mind, making designs.”
Doña Salud liked to make lace by the yard to use as trim on her daughter’s dresses. She didn’t like to make set pieces like zapatitos (baby booties) but loved to create yard upon yard of lace. Rosa Elena learned this from her, but she also learned from friends to make other pieces.
During summers as she grew older, Rosa Elena would gather with friends on the balcony of one of their homes to talk, watch the boys pass by, and make mundillo. She never remembers working on mundillo alone, it was always a group activity.
The creativity in lacemaking is very important to Rosa Elena. She makes her own patterns instead of using pattern books. She also invents new stitches. Geometry and artistic sensitivity are needed to create a balanced and beautiful pattern. Rosa Elena says, “For me mundillo is an art, because, like the painter who has in his imagination what he wants to create on the canvas, so it is for us: we create, invent, and design what we want to make in lace.” Like her mother before her, Rosa Elena does not sell her work. For her it is a work of art without a price tag, so she makes pieces for family and friends on special occasions.
In 1986, Rosa Elena moved to New York City. Her children were attending college, and she wanted to be closer to them. “I love New York. I always came in the summer to see museums; bringing my children here to meet people and expand their knowledge. Before I came I thought to myself, maybe I should go to a warmer place, but I love New York.”
In New York City, mundillo is hard to find because there are so few lacemakers. There are many more in Puerto Rico. Of the handful in New York City, Rosa Elena stands out for the quality of her work and her tireless work upholding the tradition. She regularly demonstrates at festivals and exhibits. Her efforts to promote mundillo as a Puerto Rican folk art are important for Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans from New York).
Rosa Elena has a long history of teaching mundillo. In Puerto Rico she taught and also organized the Festival de Mundillo to celebrate Moca’s distinctive legacy. She also teaches lacemaking many places in New York, for example New York University and El Museo del Barrio. She likes to see her students appreciate how a pattern emerges from a little thread and a piece of wood.
Teaching has always been important to Rosa Elena. She remembers, “I’ve loved teaching since I’ve been in the first grade. What we learned in the morning I would teach to my classmates in the next class in the afternoon.” As an adult Rosa Elena became an English as a Second Language and Spanish teacher for high school and college courses. She also has a long history of teaching mundillo.
Rosa Elena feels it is essential to preserve and present her culture. She wants her students to take pride in what they do and strive to become not just a lacemaker, but a lacemaker who always tries their best to make work with beauty and love.