This month, students and faculty at the University of Maine were given the unique opportunity to view copies of artwork made by migrant adolescents at a detention camp in Tornillo, Texas. “Uncaged: Art from the Border” was exhibited in the Innovative Media Research & Commercialization Center (IMRC) from Nov. 6-22.
The original artwork was found in a dumpster outside of the camp when it closed in January of 2019. Rafael Garcia, a priest from a local church in Texas, came across the art and was able to salvage 29 out of the 200 pieces created by the kids. He donated the originals to the Centennial Museum at the University of Texas in El Paso.
The Tornillo detention center opened June 14, 2018. It became known as the Tornillo tent city due to the large white tents surrounded by fences that made up the temporary center. Nearly 6,200 unaccompanied Latin-American children were kept caged-up in these tents over the eight months that the camp was in operation. Their ages ranged from 13 to 17 years old, mostly boys. The teenagers were given no information on their release, and many marked their arms to keep track of the days, weeks or months they were held in the center.
“Nationwide, nearly 15,000 migrant kids were detained in December . This was the United States’ largest mass incarceration of children not charged with a crime since the Japanese internment camps during World War II,” wrote David Dorado Romo in his article in the Observer.
As an assignment by visiting teachers, the teens were asked to create what they felt represented their home. With limited supplies including construction paper, pipe cleaners and paint, the kids utilized the universal language of art to create pieces of their home.
As the majority of the children came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, these countries were repeatedly featured among the art. Despite the lack of supplies and the children’s bleak environment, the children used their imaginations to create unique artwork that defied the conditions of their situation. Among the creations were colorful flowers, animals, 3-D churches, a detailed soccer field and even some life-size traditional dresses. Guatemala’s national bird, the Quetzal, which symbolizes freedom and hope, also made several appearances.
One of the young detainees told a visiting teacher, “The Quetzal cannot be caged or it will die of sadness.”
The exhibit at the University of Texas was designed to represent the cages that the kids were in during their time at the detention center. Visitors had to walk through a tent upon entering and observe the art through wired fencing.
The displays were open to the public at the Centennial Museum in Texas from April 13 to Oct. 15 of this year.
“To create a complete experience, we want people to be able to feel what is like to go out of the tent, so they can see the art as being uplifting. That freedom is represented through the Quetzal birds that will be flying in the room, because like the birds the kids were able to free out of their cage,” said Yolanda Leyva, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“Uncaged Art” signifies the resilience and hope that the young adolescents somehow maintained while being held against their will, separated from their families and far from their homes. The protection and distribution of the art is an important reminder of what has been happening at the border.