Texas Marine, designer and teacher sew masks around nation

By MATTHEW WILSON | The (McAllen, Texas) Monitor | Published: April 26, 2020

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MCALLEN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — One unforseeable outcome of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been a minor renaissance in sewing. People who haven’t sewn in years have been dusting off their Singers, downloading facemask patterns from the internet and getting to work.

Rio Grande Valley residents are no different, making masks for family and friends, donating them to first responders and medical personnel, or selling them as a way to make it during the economic turbulence of the pandemic.

As The Monitor has found out, Valley natives also are making masks around the country. We’ve received reports of ingenuity, generosity and many sewing feats.

These stories are some of the most poignant: a McAllen Memorial grad who sewed masks for his fellow Marines, a fashion designer who grew up in Mercedes who has shifted his business model to making masks and gowns in order to keep his tailors working through the crisis, and an Edinburg native who spent part of his stimulus check to fund mask making efforts for his special-needs students.


The Marine

Carlos V. Cruz, a McAllen Memorial grad, has served in the Marine Corps for the past 28 years and is now a chief warrant officer in North Carolina.

Cruz learned how to sew in a home economics class at Travis Junior High when he was 14.

He never thought he’d use the skill again; he was wrong.

“Our system is obviously depleted, so we didn’t have any types of masks or face coverings for the Marines,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they were safe and their families were safe, and the individuals they came into contact with. Particularly where my Marines work at, we see about 300 to 400 customers, other Marine service members and family, per week. So that’s a large population.”

Cruz, who previously was stationed in Japan, reached out to some friends with the State Department there in search of a pattern.

“A friend of mine works at the embassy in Japan and so they sent me the pattern; it’s a pattern that Japan has used and taught to their schoolchildren for many, many years, cause as you know, in Asia, they wear masks all the time, even when there’s not pandemics there,” he said. “I read a little bit of Japanese, learned it when I was living over there, and sure as heck, it worked.”

So far, Cruz has stitched about 300 masks, some black and some camouflage to match Marine fatigues. He made the masks out of cotton, with the ability to use a paper filter.

“It’s easy to maneuver into the mask and put it in there,” Cruz said. “Then I took some military 550 cord and used that to create the string to tighten it down and strap it around your head.”

Cruz said the reaction to the masks has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I provided some to a couple of doctors and they’re even wearing them,” he said. “They were really impressed.”


The designer

Arturo Castañeda, who grew up near Mercedes, is a fashion designer in New York. He learned how to sew from his mother and went on to become the lead designer at Ralph Lauren for 10 years. Now he has his own brand, clothing professional athletes and celebrities.

The economic shutdown caused by COVID-19 jeopardized that business.

“I didn’t want the families to lose their paycheck,” Castañeda said. “It was hard when we closed, it was an emotional moment.”

Castañeda was determined to fight to stay in business and he decided he would pivot to producing masks and hospital gowns. He contacted the FDA and an attorney, working toward getting certified to supply the city with protective equipment.

“I had the capabilities and I had the equipment, and I just felt like it was my way to give back,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose my team and I wanted to stay afloat as a business, and that was the only way we were going to do it, was if we jumped into this thing.”

A week and a half later, Castañeda heard back from the city. Taking the time to get certified had paid off.

“Long story short, we’re the only FDA-certified facility in New York manufacturing official PPE for the city,” he said. “We went from the bottom of the list to the top of the list because of the FDA certification. Now we’re leading the charge, and they’re asking other factories to come under my factory.”

When Castañeda and his team began producing PPE, he purchased equipment from Germany and Detroit and a ton of material. He and about a dozen employees began pushing out masks and gowns by the thousands.

“We actually are providing to Elmhurst Hospital, which is the hardest-hit hospital here in New York,” he said. “They buy directly from us, we just leave them and immediately, they put them on. It’s just crazy.”

Castañeda is getting ready to build a $1.5 million facility in Brooklyn to continue the manufacturing. He expects to have about 50 employees making PPE by May 5.

“The goal is to produce 20,000 to 40,000 gowns a week, and then masks, with the new equipment, we’ll be able to do about 360,000 masks a week,” he said.

Castañeda says he is the only Latino owner of a PPE factory in the U.S.

“We went from a luxury manufacturer to exclusively PPE production in a complete 180,” he said. “That’s the kind of stuff that does get me excited, not how much the contract is for. I’m from the Rio Grande Valley, I grew up in a colonia there in Heidelberg right outside Mercedes. I’m so proud of that, that we’re here.”


The teacher

Like teachers across the nation, Edinburg native and UTPA grad Ruben Caceres found himself separated from his students when the pandemic broke out.

Caceres, who teaches in Dallas, learned how to sew from his grandmother. He decided to use those skills to work providing for the students he teaches in Dallas.

“I’m a special education teacher, so I work with kids that are severely disabled and medically fragile. All my kids are nonverbal; for some, we have to do little medical procedures every day with them. Most of them are wheelchair-bound. Sometimes, they’re the last ones people think about, and I wanted to do something for them because I can’t see them physically now,” he said. “I wanted to make them masks so if their parents wanted to take them out on a stroll in the neighborhood or to a park or anywhere, they would have some protection.”

There was one small problem: Caceres had stopped sewing and no longer had any of the equipment necessary to make the masks. He asked his mother for a loan to buy supplies and promised to pay her back when he received his stimulus money from the government.

“I told her that when I got my stimulus check, I would Venmo her back. So she Venmoed me the money and that day I went to Walmart, bought an $80 sewing machine and materials, and that was it,” he said. “This sewing machine is good for what I’m doing. For $80, it’s not too shabby.”

As of last week, Caceres had made 23 masks, enough for all his students.

“I made one for each of my kids and for each mom,” he said. “I relearned how to use a sewing machine. It’s basically like riding a bike, once you get started.”

Caceres said he’s not done sewing. After being covered by a local outlet in Dallas, he began receiving donations to make more masks.

“I’ve been getting a lot of material now. I keep getting package after package,” he said. “I’ve already been thinking ahead to what I’m going to do with that material.”

Caceres plans to begin making masks for other teachers’ special-needs students in his district.

“I want to start making some for those babies now, and start making them for anyone with special needs who needs them,” he said.

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