Uncaged Art: The visions of migrant youth from Tornillo

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by Kimi Eisele

Last December, a group of migrant children held in a detention camp made a model of a national park in Honduras, their home country. They used popsicle sticks and bottle caps to create picnic tables and benches and drew smiling people playing in the park. They even made a “papas fritas” stand.

Parque National de Honduras; photo by Justin Hamel of Frontera Studio
Parque National de Honduras; photo by Justin Hamel of Frontera Studio

The model and all its tiny, creative details is one of 29 pieces that form “Uncaged Art,” an exhibit of artwork made by children who lived inside the detention camp in Tornillo, Texas on display at the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP).

“I call that piece the ‘anti-camp,’ says historian David Dorado Romo. “It’s such a vision of what their space could be like, what they would want.”

Romo worked with his longtime colleague historian Yolanda Chávez Leyva, who directs UTEP’s Institute of Oral History, to organize the exhibit. The two co-founded of Museo Urbano in 2010 as a way “to reclaim, research, preserve, exhibit, and interpret” the history of the borderlands, especially El Paso-Ciudad Juárez. So when Leyva got a call from Father Rafael Garcia, a Jesuit priest who had visited and performed mass inside the Tornillo tent city, asking if they might be interested in children’s art from the camp, she said yes. “They were throwing everything away, astro turf, bunk beds, and all this beautiful art,” Leyva said.

Leyva said she wanted to make the work visible to the public to reveal the dignity and resilience of the youth. “Everything we read was about trauma and suffering. I wanted people to see what was inside of the children, which to me was a lot of creativity and beauty.”

The artwork came out of a four-day project, in which visiting social studies teachers to the camp, engaged children in arts activities focusing on history, culture, and sense of place.

In one piece, a young artist used a sign as the base for a sculptural drawing of a church she remembered from her hometown in Honduras or Guatemala. The sign originally indicated the facility’s bathroom—“Female UAC Bathroom.” UAC stands for Unaccompanied Alien Child, meaning a migrant youth under age 18 who’d arrived to the United States without a parent or guardian.

Church model with bathroom sign
Church model with bathroom sign

“She took a humiliating thing and built a church on top of it,” Leyva said.

The exhibit aims to illustrate the children’s “capacity of transforming the ugliness around them, not succumbing to it but transcending it,” Romo says.

The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy in 2018 resulted in the separation of over 5,500 children from their parents. Adults were placed in criminal facilities and children were held in camps such as that in Tornillo, which was operated by Baptist Child and Family Services, under contract with Health and Human Services. Other detention centers are operated by private corporations. Southwest Key Programs, for example, operates migrant youth facilities in Texas, Arizona, and California, where youth have reported both physical and sexual abuse by program staff.

The Tornillo camp was built in June 2018 and drew national attention as activists, celebrities, and several legislators visited it, condemning the family separation policy.

The camp was a secretive place, Leyva said. “We heard nothing from the kids except via the attorney’s testimony, and maybe via one Vice video,” she said. “Kids were not allowed visitors. They could only speak for 10 minutes per week on the phone. They couldn’t receive gifts.”

Leyva said Father Garcia called the camp “a cross between Disneyland and a concentration camp.”

The artwork, therefore, offers a window into children’s visions and experiences.

The first time Romo saw the artwork, he says, “It was almost like being an archaeologist. You see clues, the material remains, but you have no idea who they are.”

Drawing of a quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala
Drawing of a quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, made by a group of children; photo by Justin Hamel of Frontera Studio

But meeting with the social studies teachers helped him understand more about the artists and their vision. One colorful drawing of a quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, bordered by symbols of the Mayan calendar, was made by a group of children, the teachers said. A boy who led the effort told the teacher, “You know the quetzal can’t be caged, because it will die of sadness.”

Romo and Leyva worked with UTEP’s theater department to create an installation inside the Centennial Museum. Walking into the gallery approximates walking into one of the bunk rooms of the detention camp, as the space is delineated with white plastic walls, similar to the white tent canvas. They also chose to display some of the 3D works behind chain link fence. “We wanted you to feel the emotions of what it might have been like in there,” Romo says.

interior installation
Interior installation, which approximates walking into one of the bunk rooms

They then hired two local artists to create small piñatas of birds to hang above the exhibit. “We really loved this idea of flying over the fence.”

The exhibit includes text panels about other camps where children were incarcerated without having committed crimes—Terezin in Nazi Germany, Japanese internment camps, and El Paso’s Fort Bliss, which held 3,500 men and 1,500 women and children who came seeking refuge from the Mexican Revolution in 1914.

“This isn’t something that started last week or even with the Trump administration,” Romo says. “It is part of historic injustice. In these utterly dire situations, people can create beauty.”

As a historian, Romo is aware that making identical comparisons between these camps and those that have been built to deal with the current asylum crisis is problematic. “But there are many similarities,” he says. “For example, over 4,100 pieces of artwork came out of Terezin. Many included floating objects—butterflies, birds, and rainbows. They communicate the notion of wanting to escape confinement. Just like these do.”

Soccer players
Soccer players made from pipe cleaners; photo by Justin Hamel of Frontera Studio

In one three-dimensional artwork, a soccer field is made on a large cardboard, with players made from pipe cleaners. “It’s opposite to the soccer field in the camp,” Leyva says. “With two men on horseback, grass and red flowers, people in the stands. Not astro turf with armed guards, but their perfect field.”

Soccer, a game played throughout Central America and Mexico, was a favorite activity in the camp. “Kids often kicked balls over the wire fence,” Leyva said. Eventually they started signing their names on the balls and kicking them over.” One of those soccer balls is included in the exhibit—it was retrieved by an activist named Joshua Rubin who traveled to Tornillo from Brooklyn and lived in an RV for three months to bear witness.

Signed soccer ball
Signed soccer ball from detention center in Tornillo, TX

In June 2019, Trump administration announced it would no longer fund extracurricular activities like soccer, activities, English classes, and legal representation in migrant detention shelters.

David Carey-Whalen, director of Centennial Museum, said the exhibit helps give visitors a feeling of being encaged, but also a feeling of freedom, in moving beyond the wall. He says visitors have left a range of comments, some showing support for the Trump administration’s policy and others showing support for migrants seeking asylum. “We want people to respond honestly,” he said. But by and large, response to the exhibit has been less about politics and more about shared humanity. “We are a community of migrants and immigrants. We are welcoming,” he said.

A two-site installation, “Uncaged Art” went up in Centennial Museum on the UTEP campus and also was reproduced on banners that were hung on fences surrounding Duranguito, an El Paso neighborhood which has been fenced off as the city plans to build a sports arena in its stead.

Museo Urbano had been displaying other art and history on those fences, in part to bring beauty and attention to the neighborhood. “The medium is the message, and the message was transcending fences and confinement,” Romo said.

The banners in Duranguito were drawing large audiences, Romo said. “But the city removed them. They said the wind might knock down the fences.”

Indigenous fighter
Indigenous fighter; photo by Justin Hamel of Frontera Studio

Romo is careful not to label the children’s work as “prison art” or “outsider art.” To him, it’s indigenous art. “If you look, you see colors that are very indigenous—vibrant colors. It’s indigenous vibrancy, the kind that gets restricted.”

He refers to one drawing in the exhibit showing in exquisite detail indigenous warriors fighting against the Spanish conquest. “This drawing was by a kid 13 and 17 years old. To be able to memorize that detail means that you carry that history with you, that indigeneity.”

Romo hopes that that kind of knowing–of one’s self, one’s history, one’s homeland will go a long way towards safeguarding children’’ resilience. “We don’t have their voices, but we have their vision.”

The detention camp at Tornillo closed in January 2019. The 1,500 migrant youth housed there, down from a high of almost 3,000, were released to sponsors or other Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities. A joint investigation by the Associated Press and Frontline released in November 2019 reported 4,000 migrant youth remain in U.S. government custody.

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