News

At Detention Camps and Shelters, Art Helps Migrant Youths Find Their Voices

Originally published by The New York Times

The young migrants often arrived at night. They were teenagers from Central and South America, brought by border agents to the Tornillo Detention Facility and led to rows of metal bunk beds in military tents ringed by barbed wire. Human touch, even a simple hug, was rare inside this secured temporary city, where nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors at a time were confined between June 2018 and January 2019. In this harsh environment, the Chihuahuan Desert, imagination and faith helped them make it through.

The Rev. Rafael Garcia, a Jesuit priest from South El Paso, got his first inkling of the creativity within the camp when he noticed a cross with a red Sacred Heart entwined in yarn, handmade by incarcerated youngsters. Seeking asylum from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, they would go on to create ingenious tableaus inspired by their homelands: a miniature soccer field with pipe-cleaner players kicking a polka-dot cotton ball, for instance. Or an elegant church with a crepe paper dome resting on a painted sign that read “Female UAC” — unaccompanied alien children. Someone had borrowed it from the restroom.

The inventive artworks by children who wound up in Tornillo are the subject of a haunting exhibition, “Uncaged Art: Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp,” at the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the University of Texas at El Paso, through Oct. 5. Crafted from memory, the scenes were fashioned from humble materials like bottle caps and Popsicle sticks as part of a social studies project in which a few creative teachers assigned to the camp asked the children to commemorate their native cultures. Birds — especially the emerald-tailed quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala and a symbol of freedom — were a recurring theme.

“If you cut the wings of a bird, it is no longer free,” explained a 17-year-old Honduran youth who gave his name only as Freddy. He spent two and a half months at Tornillo and is now living with a family member in Texas, awaiting an asylum hearing. Freddy traveled alone by foot, bus and car from his rural village. Through a translator, he spoke of swimming across the Rio Grande, and said it took him five hours to locate border agents to request asylum. For him, the most difficult moments were seeing children faint or weak from hunger left behind en route. Freddy said he wondered whether he might at Tornillo for the rest of his life.

Tornillo was opened to help the federal government manage an influx of children entering federal custody, those who had traveled alone as well as those who became “unaccompanied” after being separated from parents at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The temporary tent shelter was operated by Baptist Child & Family Services under contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement; typical stays were between 60 and 70 days. But some detentions stretched into months, in violation of the Flores settlement agreement, which limits the length of time children can be held in an unlicensed facility to 20 days.

While no one is claiming that art saves lives, professionals working directly with detained youths in Texas and elsewhere have pointed to the healing properties and confidence art can engender in those who have felt powerless and alone. Attorneys and human rights activists routinely use art as a vehicle for communication that is independent of language and literacy. Crayons and paper “can be the portal into the child’s brain and what they’ve seen,” said Holly S. Cooper, a co-director of the University of California, Davis, Immigration Law Clinic, who frequently uses art to elicit information about traumatic incidents from detained migrant children.

The design of the “Uncaged” exhibition recalls the Tornillo confinement down to the chain-link fences and bunk beds that teens enlivened with bits of yarn. The show’s 29 paintings, drawings, costumes and elaborately detailed dioramas were salvaged before the camp was closed in January. Among them is a Honduran national park with a fountain crafted from upside-down cups, and a cut-cardboard cathedral wrapped in vibrant aqua tissue paper with Popsicle stick pews for the faithful.

That any art survived is due largely to Father Garcia was one of a handful of priests allowed inside the facility to say Mass. As the tents were taken down, the staff threw away hundreds of artworks. The pieces now on view were destined for the trash heap, too, until Father Garcia intervened. He contacted Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva, an associate history professor and director of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute of Oral History. When the rescued art arrived there, most of the creators’ names had been redacted. The only identifications were the military-style nicknames organizers gave the children’s tents and units — “Charlie 1” and “Bravo 20.”

“These are unaccompanied minors,” Father Garcia said, in an interview in Duranguito, a historically immigrant neighborhood of El Paso. “But they are also talented children who have a desire to be productive human beings.”

Despite their circumstances, the children’s’ work was often infused with buoyancy, wit and prideful affection for landmarks of their native countries.

Despite their circumstances, the children’s’ work was often infused with buoyancy, wit and prideful affection for landmarks of their native countries.

Despite their circumstances, the children’s’ work was often infused with buoyancy, wit and prideful affection for landmarks of their native countries.

Despite their circumstances, the children’s’ work was often infused with buoyancy, wit and prideful affection for landmarks of their native countries.

The nonprofit recently took over a Walmart-size warehouse, christened Casa del Refugiado, whose Red Cross cots can accommodate up to 1,100 migrants To make the site more welcoming, young local artists were enlisted to spruce up the 125,000-square-foot space with vivid murals. One includes the word “esperanza,” or hope.

Even half a crayon can offer a calming, absorbing activity for children when their parents are speaking with attorneys in crowded trailers, recounting the violence that led them to seek safety in the United States. “These things give a degree of normalcy,” said Dr. Anita Ravi, a family physician in New York who specializes in sexual violence. “I think kids ache for that.”

Trauma manifests itself in different ways, said Dr. Ravi, who has assisted asylum seekers at the South Texas Family Residential Center through the Dilley Pro Bono Project. “The older adolescents, especially the girls, would sometimes sit there and quietly cry,” she said.

The nonprofit recently took over a Walmart-size warehouse, christened Casa del Refugiado, whose Red Cross cots can accommodate up to 1,100 migrants To make the site more welcoming, young local artists were enlisted to spruce up the 125,000-square-foot space with vivid murals. One includes the word “esperanza,” or hope.

Even half a crayon can offer a calming, absorbing activity for children when their parents are speaking with attorneys in crowded trailers, recounting the violence that led them to seek safety in the United States. “These things give a degree of normalcy,” said Dr. Anita Ravi, a family physician in New York who specializes in sexual violence. “I think kids ache for that.”

Trauma manifests itself in different ways, said Dr. Ravi, who has assisted asylum seekers at the South Texas Family Residential Center through the Dilley Pro Bono Project. “The older adolescents, especially the girls, would sometimes sit there and quietly cry,” she said.

The nonprofit recently took over a Walmart-size warehouse, christened Casa del Refugiado, whose Red Cross cots can accommodate up to 1,100 migrants To make the site more welcoming, young local artists were enlisted to spruce up the 125,000-square-foot space with vivid murals. One includes the word “esperanza,” or hope.

Even half a crayon can offer a calming, absorbing activity for children when their parents are speaking with attorneys in crowded trailers, recounting the violence that led them to seek safety in the United States. “These things give a degree of normalcy,” said Dr. Anita Ravi, a family physician in New York who specializes in sexual violence. “I think kids ache for that.”

Trauma manifests itself in different ways, said Dr. Ravi, who has assisted asylum seekers at the South Texas Family Residential Center through the Dilley Pro Bono Project. “The older adolescents, especially the girls, would sometimes sit there and quietly cry,” she said.

Read more:https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/arts/art-detention-centers-migrants.html?searchResultPosition=6&login=email&auth=login-email

Leave a Reply