Larissa Martinez graduated at the top of her class at MicKinney Boyd High School in McKinney, Texas, with a 4.95 GPA. The Texas teen’s accomplishments paid off. She was admitted to Yale on a full ride. Martinez accomplished all of this while being undocumented, a fact that was a secret up until her valedictorian speech.
Martinez bared her soul over the course of her nine-minute speech, telling her classmates that she and her family (her mother and sister) fled Mexico to escape an abusive and alcoholic father, and how she had to give up part of her childhood to raise her younger sister, as her mother worked all the time to afford their one-bedroom apartment. Midway through her speech, Martinez confessed that she was an undocumented immigrant, and asked the crowd for their compassion.
“The most important part of the debate and is often overlooked is that immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, are people, too,” she said, clearly fighting back emotion. “People with dreams, aspirations, hopes and loved ones. People like me. People who have become a part of the American society and way of life and who yearn to help make ‘America great again’ without the construction of a wall built on hatred and prejudice.”
As soon as Larissa Martinez finished her speech, the building erupted in a standing ovation. Before you click the play button, we suggest you grab a tissue.
Between June 2018 and January 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services detained more than 6,000 teenagers from Central and South America in a tent city 40 miles south of El Paso. It was called the Tornillo Children’s Detention camp and was the largest detention center for children in the United States. While detained there, the teenagers, aged 13-17, were asked to participate in a social studies project to create art that reminded them of their home. Their art was on display around the tent city until a story by The New York Times shined a light on the teens’ paltry living conditions, and the government shut the facility down in January 2019.
As Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp was being shut down, workers trashed nearly all of the 400 pieces of art. However, one priest and several community organizations came together and were able to save 29 of the pieces.
Father Rafael Garcia, a Jesuit Priest, was one of the few outside visitors allowed into the camp.
“It is hard to describe the mood there; some kids were very glum and sad, others had no expression,” Father Garcia told NBC News. “Then there were others interacting like normal kids.” The artwork was on display until January 2019, when the U.S. government decided to close the camp. As officers were tossing the artwork, Garcia asked for permission to redistribute the art to others who may want it.
“If I hadn’t been there, and received permission to keep some of the pieces, it probably would have all been thrown in the dumpster,” Garcia said.
With the artwork in hand, Garcia called Yolanda Chávez Leyva, Ph.D., University of El Paso Texas Professor and co-founder of El Paso’s Museo Urbano.
Leyva would go to the Tornillo Children’s Detention Center on her days off to visit with the kids. Garcia knew that she co-founded El Paso’s community museum known for preserving borderland history. Garcia wanted the museum and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to protect the artwork. They did one better and put all the art on display at UTEP’s Centennial Museum.
Father Garcia sees the final outcome–an exhibit featuring their work–as “a ray of light from a grim experience.”
The Museum website describes the exhibit as reflective of “the resiliency, talent, and creativity of young men and women who trekked 2,000 miles from their homes in Central America to reach the United States.” The exhibit, titled ‘Uncaged Art,’ “provides us with a window into the personal world of migrant children whose visions and voices have often been left out of mainstream media accounts,” reads the website.
Still, the art is on display behind a chain-link fence, to remind visitors of the conditions the young artists were in at the time.
The social studies teachers allowed the students four days to create the art and allowed them to create individually or in groups. There were no other instructions other than to think of their home. Those instructions resulted in an array of mixed media art including dresses, sculptures and hundreds of drawings and sketches. Then, “camp officials” judged the art and selected their perceived best works to display around the camp.
Human rights attorney, Camilo Pérez-Bustillo thinks that the camp released the artwork as a PR stunt to look good.
Pérez-Bustillo had interviewed about 30 children from the camp and believes the artwork was essentially curated by the facility. “I think they released it to look good,” Pérez-Bustillo told The Texas Observer. “They had so much negative publicity at the end from the national media, especially after news reports that their employees did not have to submit to FBI checks, they decided to shut it down and cut their losses.”
For now, we don’t know the faces behind the artwork.
In June 2018, Beto O’Rourke led hundreds of protesters to the tent city demanding humane conditions for the ever-expanding tent city. Temperatures were over 100 degrees while the children were living in tents. A DHS spokesperson told the public that the tents were air-conditioned. Some of the children told an attorney that the worst part of the facility was never knowing when they’d get out. Some kids would keep track of the days that passed by scribbling numbers on their forearms.
Still, the government’s response to the problem was to loosen the strict requirements for sponsorships. All of the children are now sponsored by people around the country.
Wherever they are, we hope that they see their artwork is cherished by our community.
We know that the symbol of the quetzal bird created in this artwork is a symbol of freedom for Guatemala. In the words of one of the artists, as told by The Texas Observer, “The quetzal cannot be caged or it will die of sadness.”
One of the worst things about public school is the arbitrary way that dress codes are enforced. However, this isn’t just a conversation about skirt length or bra straps infractions. Uniform coding has a history of enforcing rules that violate individual civil rights — especially for female students, Black students, and students of color.
Now, a case out of Texas is arguing that this sort of civil liberties violation is what happened to a student in April 2019 at a Houston-area school.
The family of middle school student, Juelz Trice, is suing the Pearland ISD School District for an incident last Spring where administration used permanent marker on the 14-year-old’s scalp.
Twitter / @ajplus
On April 16th, Trice received a new fade but it was cited as a dress code violation the very next day. The middle school student — who is Black — was in the cafeteria for breakfast when he was told by the assistant principal, Tony Barcelona, to go to the office because of his haircut. According to the lawsuit, he and Barcelona were met by discipline clerk, Helen Day, and, later, teacher, Jeanette Peterson. There in the office, Trice was given two options: go to in-school suspension for his violation or use a black Sharpie to color his scalp in. Reportedly, Trice worried that in-school suspension would impact his eligibility for the track team so he chose the marker option.
According to the lawsuit, Day then took the black permanent marker and used it to fill in the design of Trice’s fade. Peterson was then asked to pick up another marker and help fill in the middle school student’s scalp. The lawsuit alleges that “They laughed as they took many minutes to color 13-year-old J.T’s scalp which took many days of scrubbing to come off.” Images taken of the boy’s scalp after the fact reveal that the marker made the design far more noticeable.
According to the family’s attorney, there was no attempt to notify Trice’s parents before his scalp was colored in.
Twitter / @mochamomma
The civil rights lawsuit cites the school district as well Barcelona, Peterson and Day as defendants in the claim. According to Randall Kallinen, attorney for the student’s parents, Dante Trice and Angela Washington, the school district has yet to meet with the family. The only thing that has been done to rectify this problem was to change the existing dress code. In May of 2019, after the incident with Trice, the updated code removed restrictions on hairstyles and carvings.
It should be noted that the administrators and teacher involved in the incident did not receive corrective action. In fact, Barcelona, who was a vice-principal at the time, has now been promoted to principal. All three still work at Berry Miller Junior High where the situation occurred.
“I was mad. I was really mad,” Dante Trice said of his son’s ordeal. “I just imagine three people holding him down with a marker against his will.”
In a new conference about the incident, attorney Kallien cited a 2015 Department of Justice study that found that Black students were 143% more likely to be suspended than white students.
Twitter / @MarcelinoKHOU
“We are here today to right this wrong through the court system because apparently, PISD doesn’t care about African American people,” Kallinen claimed in the televised statements.
While Houston has received the title of the most diverse city in America, Pearland — where the middle school is located — is much less diverse. Of its population, nearly 63% is white and only 17% is Black.
While the lawsuit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, that isn’t all it is attempting to fix. Filed in the Southern District of Texas, the suit also requests that the court order school district employees receive racial sensitivity training. Considering this incident, it seems the school could definitely benefit from this.
Local activists have come out in support of Trice and his family, but they have received a lot of encouragement from Twitter as well.
Twitter / @DovieWatson
As this Twitter user expressed, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen alleged racism in school dress codes or from school administrators. In the past, school districts have faced lawsuits over dress codes that declare braids, long hair, and other so-called “ethnic” hairstyles “against the rules.” In these instances, it is usually found that the school district has violated the civil liberties of students.
Some pointed out that instances like these are more like policing than educating.
Twitter / @taylorwestc
A lot is asked of teachers and school administrators. We definitely won’t argue that. However, the number one thing required of them is to teach our young people. When we see stories like these, we have to wonder how much time is being spent educating and how much is being spent policing these kids. When it comes to their hairstyle, it’s best to let the parents and kids take this one.
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