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After someone brutally murdered Gloria Escobedo’s 22 year-old son in the summer of 2003, the San Antonio Express-Newspersonalized her loss by reporting that “during his jail stays, Andrew Escobedo painted elaborate images on handkerchiefs, including one with hearts and roses that he sent his mother on Mother’s Day.”
Such expressions of faith and love on handkerchiefs, called “pañuelos,” probably originated in the 1940s among Mexicans incarcerated in Texas jails. The indigenous art has flourished among inmates, and it continues to be the artistic domain of Catholic-Hispanic males. As an example, an artist used a Fruit of the Loom handkerchief to depict Juan Diego kneeling before the Virgin, with the Basilica of Guadalupe in the background. The prisoner inscribed the drawing a week before Christmas, “To my loving Mom and Dad with love, your son, Juan D. Gonzales, 12-17-76.”
Prison artists still send pañuelos to family members and loved ones, but over the years handkerchief art has spread to prisoners of other ethnic backgrounds throughout the United States. Prisoners often trade them with other inmates or sell them on the outside for spending money. In fact, pañuelos are so popular that art galleries are displaying and selling them, and museums are mounting exhibitions of these expressive little squares of cotton fabric. On any given day, electronic visitors to eBay, the leading auction site on the World Wide Web, can find at least a dozen pañuelos posted for sale. Several additional Internet sites feature them as prison art. Prices range from about $10 to $60, or even more if serious collectors of folk art are competing for the finest examples.