Meet 95-year-old Nellie Vera Sánchez, also known as Doña Nellie.
Sánchez was recently named a 2021 National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The fellowship, which includes a $25,000 award, is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
“The diverse art forms of the National Heritage Fellows allow us to experience and appreciate the rich cultural traditions that make up America,” Ann Eilers, acting NEA chairman, says in a statement. “It is inspiring how these artistic practices continue the legacy of generations past while blending contemporary elements as they continue into the future.”
Sánchez was recognized for being a Mundillo Master Weaver. Mundillo is an artisanal form of handmade bobbin lace from Puerto Rico. Sanchez’s mother started teaching her how to weave at the age of seven in their town of Moca, Puerto Rico, which is known as the “Capital of Mundillo.”
She continued knitting mundillo during her free time while studying education at the University of Puerto Rico and working as a teacher. “For me, it’s a beautiful art,” Sánchez says in a 2019 video produced by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. “It calms the nerves. It helps a lot, and it’s entertaining. It keeps you busy.”
In 1982, Sánchez co-founded the Borinquen Lacers, a collective of mundillo weavers. She was also a leader in the Taller de Artesanos Mocanos, a nonprofit organization that supports artisans and helped establish the Museo del Mundillo in Moca.
Over the last two decades, Sánchez has been recognized for her mundillo weaving by several institutions, including Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. In 2015, she was inducted into Puerto Rico’s Artisan Hall of Fame.
“[Mundillo weaving] is my way of life,” Sánchez says. “Without it, I wouldn’t be here.”