Behind Every Painting, a Desperate Kid: The “Uncaged Art” of Tornillo’s Detained Migrant Children

A new exhibit at UT-El Paso displays works by young people held last year at the immigration detention center.

A child held in Tornillo last year built this model of a church on top of a sign that once marked one of the immigration detention center's bathrooms. Frontera Studio

When a local priest called University of Texas-El Paso history professors Yolanda Leyva and David Romo this past winter, asking if they wanted to showcase art created by children in the Tornillo immigration detention center, they jumped at the opportunity. The pair had co-founded Museo Urbano, a roving “museum without walls” in traditional and nontraditional spaces, to showcase borderland history, and these works fit squarely into their mission. They were also curious, as historians, what these pieces might have in common with art created by other children similarly held in captivity. What themes might emerge? Earlier this month, Uncaged Art: Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp opened at the UTEP Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens. Another portion of the exhibit will be displayed on the exterior fences surrounding El Paso’s oldest immigrant neighborhood, Duranguito, beginning May 4.

TM: Can you tell me a bit more about how this exhibit came about?

Leyva: The Tornillo detention camp opened in June of last year and closed in January this year. And a couple of weeks before it closed, I got a call from a man both David and I have known for years: Father Rafael Garcia at Sacred Heart Church here in El Paso. He said that he had been giving mass for the detention camp—something that neither of us knew—and that he had seen some really beautiful artwork, and it was going to be thrown away. He asked, “Did we want it?” I said, “Of course we want it.”

Two days later, Baptist Child & Family Services, which was running the detention camp, sent a van over to my office. We didn’t know much about the kind of artwork that was coming. Father Garcia had said that there were some models of churches. Suddenly we had 29 incredible pieces of art: drawings, paintings, 3D models, two dresses. Many more were thrown away at the camp, but we received these pieces. Just amazing art.

TM: What’s the difference between the two portions of the show?

Romo: The kind of experience that you see when you’re at the exhibit at UTEP is different from the emotional impact that you get when you’re in this outdoor space we have in Duranguito. At the Centennial Museum, you go inside a mock tent that reminds you of the kind of incarceration that the children are going through, and then you go outside the tent and see some of the artwork.

Now let me explain to you a little more about what Duranguito is. So Duranguito is the oldest immigrant neighborhood, that has a long history of global migration beginning with the Chinese railroad workers back in the 1880s, and right now it’s surrounded by fences—literally surrounded by walls blocked off because the city council was to destroy nine acres of this community to build the sports arena, a basketball arena. Within the community, this is probably one of the most contested spaces probably outside the border wall.

David Romo
Artworks by the children were reproduced on banners displayed on the fences that surround El Paso’s oldest immigrant neighborhood, Duranguito.David Romo

So that’s exactly the kind of space that Museo Urbano goes to. We set up exhibits in contested spaces. And for this exhibit, we reproduced the artwork of the children—the paintings, but also the craftwork—on large banners so that we can display it outside on the fence. It’s going to be thirty feet long by seven feet. It’s almost an ideal space for an outdoor exhibit.

TM: What did you find remarkable about the artwork itself?

Leyva: The art project itself was initiated by two social studies teachers who were there at the camp, and it was a four-day project. The assignment was for the children to remember their homelands, to think about the beauty of what they had left behind: the architecture, the national symbols, the landscape. And that’s very much reflected in what the kids did. You’ll see, for example, many birds were featured in the artwork—especially the quetzal, which is the national bird of Guatemala, but also parrots and lots of birds flying.

On opening day at the Centennial Museum, we were able to bring a young man from Honduras who was at the Tornillo camp for two and a half months. And he said something that I thought was so profound. He said, “Behind every painting, there’s a desperate child wanting to be free.”

TM: Is that desperation depicted somehow, or is that the impact because of the context in which these pieces were created?

Leyva: To me, it’s the context. For example, one of the 3D pieces that we really like a lot is a park sculpture. And you see a teeter-totter and swings and a picnic table, and they put a lot of thought into what they did at that park—and that is not where they are. It’s in such contrast to the actual conditions because Tornillo was very militarized. The kids had to walk in straight lines. They were never ever left alone, even to go to the bathroom. They always had someone with them.

The quetzal, a national symbol of Guatamala, is one of many birds depicted in the artworks. Frontera Studio
Fencing at the Centennial Museum reminds visitors of the incarcerated conditions under which the the art was created. David Romo
Left: The quetzal, a national symbol of Guatamala, is one of many birds depicted in the artworks. Frontera Studio
Top: Fencing at the Centennial Museum reminds visitors of the incarcerated conditions under which the the art was created. David Romo

Romo: Sometimes the artwork almost made us feel like an archaeologist finding artifacts, and we had to deduce what the messages were. There’s one piece of artwork showing this beautiful church, and on the bottom is a sign. This artist appropriated the sign for a female UAC bathroom—the bureaucratic jargon for unaccompanied alien child. She used that as the base of this memory of her home and this sacred space. 

Leyva: We also have two mannequins with dresses.

TM: They made dresses?

Leyva: There’s two dresses. They’re made from leftover cloth from a play that they had done, though the tops—the blouse part of the dresses—are made of men’s underwear. Like cut into a blouse. You can still see the Hanes label on the waistband. In addition to the dresses, we show eight models of things like parks and churches.

Romo: And they also reproduced food. A full plate of traditional food from El Salvador.

Leyva: Connected to the artwork in the exhibit is a soccer ball signed by some detained boys and then kicked over the barbed wire fence. There were always soccer balls being kicked over the fence by accident. But in January, they started to sign their name and purposefully kick them over like a message in a bottle: “We’re here. Here’s our names.”

Romo: Another thing that’s interesting is we see the children’s names on the art have been crossed in black marker, so artwork is only identified by the tent and unit. We see Foxtrot 3, Delta 2. So I guess this anonymity was supposed to protect the children, but as historians we know where we’ve seen almost that exact kind of way of signing names of children art in camps: places like Theresienstadt, the World War II concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. I was surprised by how many parallels there were with the artwork of the children of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, which often shows floating things: butterflies, birds, lots of birds, things like rainbows that transcended the barbed wire around them. Just like the children at Tornillo, they also had to sign their name and block number.

We wanted to show historical context in the exhibit, and so we broke out examples onto panels. One of the examples focuses on the first camp in El Paso on the U.S.-Mexico border where hundreds of children were detained, in 1914. There was a lot of violence across the border at that time, and some of the people that had been fighting against Pancho Villa crossed over with their families, with their children. So there were five thousand people interred at the Fort Bliss camp behind barbed wire. In the exhibit, you see all these pictures of children kind of standing behind barbed wire. And a lot of the narratives that we hear today—”Look at these kids; they don’t have it that bad. They’re playing soccer! They’re having art lessons!”—that same narrative was heard back in 1914. We have a Collier’s magazine that called that camp one of the great picnics in the history of the border. Even though people were killed trying to escape.

The small sign on this model of a church reads "Welcome to the Divina Misericordia Chapper." Frontera Studio
The children were asked to create art "about the beauty of what they had left behind" in their home countries. Frontera Studio
Left: The small sign on this model of a church reads "Welcome to the Divina Misericordia Chapper." Frontera Studio
Top: The children were asked to create art "about the beauty of what they had left behind" in their home countries. Frontera Studio

I mean it’s good to show that this isn’t something that happened just last year. It’s going on literally for more than a hundred years.

Something I would like to emphasize about the art is that this is an opportunity to show that the children don’t fit only the narrative as victims. They are active agents here. They’re capable of something that’s utterly beautiful. And I think that what we wanted to do is emphasize, yes, there are the historic connections and the current political connection. But the majority of the exhibit very deliberately kind of allowed their voices to come out.


Magazine Latest