Things That Matter

Artwork Created By Detained Teenagers Are On Display In El Paso In An Exhibit Called ‘Uncaged Art’

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.

Credit: Sacred Heart Church, El Paso, TX / Facebook

“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.

Credit: Borderzine Reporting across fronteras / YouTube

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.”

Credit: UTEP

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.

Credit: Borderzine Reporting across fronteras / YouTube

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.

Credit: UTEP

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.

Credit: UTEP

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.

Credit: “tornillo art” Digital Image. Texas Observer. 23 August 2019.

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.”

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