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.
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.