Uncaged Art: El Paso, TX

A child from the Tornillo migrant children’s detention camp painted this quetzel

While in detention, a child at the Tornillo camp explained to the teacher that the quetzel bird can’t be caged or it will die. The children too, can’t be caged or their souls will follow the same fate as this bird; and the children knew it. The resplendent quetzel (painted above) is the national bird of Guatamala. It is a beautiful bird that lives in the tropical mountains of Central America. It is the perfect symbol for this moving art exhibit on display at the University of Texas in El Paso. Like the bird, the children can’t be caged. Their hope and love are stronger than the tents they were kept in.

As we moved through the exhibit, the symbolism and art work was explained to us in wonderful detail. We learned that this bird, who needs to be free to live, symbolized the simplicity of what the children, who are seeking acceptance and entry into our country, wish for. The art work, and thus the children who created it, takes your breath away through its beauty, love, and hope. Yet, here they were living in tents away from their families. After months of fleeing unimaginable violence and/or the extreme poverty and starvation due to the effects of climate change, they fled. They fled their homes. I try to imagine what it would take for me to grab my children in the middle of the night and flee my home. I struggle with that thought. These children and families then travel thousands of miles through dangerous and difficult terrain to reach our southern border. They made it. They have done what international laws, which have been in place since the end of WW II, allows them to do. They ask for asylum because they fear for their lives. For many this, arrival at our border, is when their journeys are the most dangerous and difficult. Asking for asylum at the southern border of the richest, most powerful nation in the world, and who proudly boasts openness and religious morality, they are then most likely to be treated with intense inhumanity by our border patrol. There are of course some documented cases of kindness, but not many. The first stop for many after crossing our border are the ice boxes. These cages have many people in them and they are kept very cold. There is only one reason for subjecting traumatized people to this. Jeff Sessions explained it all very clearly to us. The cruelness is intentional and used as a deterrent. They are often kept there for days, overcrowded, sleeping on concrete floors, and with mylar blankets that make loud crackling sounds and which are not warm. Many children are taken from their families and sent to detention camps. That was a common story of the children who were held at Tornillo as well as other camps and facilities around the country. Now things are different and as hard as it is to imagine, they are even worse. Breaking international laws yet again, those seeking asylum are not allowed into our country unless they Mexican nationals and a few other exceptions. But even they are returned to Mexico to wait in extremely dangerous situations until they can plea their cases. We took one of the most inhuman policies in our country’s history, family separation, and made it worse. And then the men in charge openly bragged about it on national TV.

When first approaching the exhibit there is a mock set up of a tented area with bunk beds similar to what was at Tornillo. The intent is to put us in a similar looking setting to help us see what it was like for the children. The children’s paintings can be seen through the opening of the tent. While walking through the tent opening and looking at the art work, something amazing jumps out at you. Most of the paintings and 3-D creations are beautiful and full of love and hope. Some communicate a strong sense of honor. How is it possible that these children who were taken from their families and living in a horrible place after witnessing such trauma and violence, are able to hold onto so much love and hope? It was astonishing and heartbreaking to see.

Thank you Yolanda for a beautiful, moving, and important exhibit.

May we all work to help those children and their families find peace in their new homeland.



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