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In El Paso, 'Uncaged Art' spotlights detained kids' memories of home

“These are children imprisoned for weeks and months. They didn’t know their futures. ... But they still created beautiful art."
Some exhibits at \"Uncaged Art\" are behind chain-link fencing, to suggest the conditions at the Tornillo detention center.
Some exhibits at "Uncaged Art" are behind chain-link fencing, to suggest the conditions at the Tornillo detention center.Courtesy UTEP Communications

EL PASO, Texas — They were children and teenagers known to the world as “unaccompanied migrants” or “detainees.” They were housed in a remote area, living in conditions that experts decried as unhealthy and inhumane. Then, as their existence became a national scandal, they were dispersed across the country.

While they were held at the Tornillo Children's Detention Camp in western Texas, the kids and teens made works of art based on their memories of home. Now, some of this art is the basis for an exhibit that has drawn crowds in a city grappling with grief after a mass shooting on Aug. 3 targeting Hispanics at a Walmart left 22 people dead.

Artwork done by young detainees in Tornillo is on display in "Uncaged Art."
Artwork done by young detainees in Tornillo is on display in "Uncaged Art."Courtesy UTEP Communications

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Museum is hosting “Uncaged Art: Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp,” featuring the art of the young people detained in the tent city. It's on display until Oct. 5.

From June 2018 to January, the Department of Health and Human Services detained more than 6,000 teenagers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and other Latin American countries in Tornillo, about 40 miles southeast of El Paso.

“It is hard to describe the mood there; some kids were very glum and sad, others had no expression," said the Rev. Rafael Garcia of Sacred Heart Parish, one of the few outsiders allowed into the tent city, where he occasionally celebrated Mass. "Then there were others interacting like normal kids.”

A church made by children in the Tornillo, Texas, detention camp.
A church made by children in the Tornillo, Texas, detention camp.Courtesy UTEP Communications

As part of a social studies project, the children were asked to make art that reminded them of their home. They created drawings, sketches, paintings, dresses and sculptures, but most of the 400 pieces were discarded when the camp closed down in January.

But Garcia was able to save 29 pieces of the children’s work, and they are now on display at the Centennial Museum. “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.

Some of the pieces in “Uncaged Art” are displayed behind chain-link fencing and barbed wire, to remind visitors of the conditions inside Tornillo.

Garcia sees the exhibit as “a ray of light from a grim experience.”

Daniel Carey-Whalen, director of the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, said he found the exhibit inspiring.

“These are children imprisoned for weeks and months," he said. "They didn’t know their futures and they were in a period of great uncertainty in their young lives. But they still created beautiful art, that shows hope and the strength of the human spirit.”

A government ruling known as the Flores settlement has limited how long children can be held in detention to 20 days, but children typically stayed in Tornillo 60 to 70 days. The Trump administration is announcing on Wednesday it aims to seek changes to Flores so families and children can be detained for longer periods of time.

In contrast to the military-style surroundings of the tent city, the Tornillo children’s artwork is ebullient and colorful. One recurring motif is the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala and a symbol of freedom.

There is a dichotomy in the artwork, Carey-Whalen said. “On one hand, this is a reminder of a dark stain on American history. And this is something that is ongoing," he said. "On the other hand, these children have shown us that this doesn’t have to be a defining time, that we can transcend this — as they did, with their creations.”

Visitors to the Centennial Museum's exhibit of "Uncaged Art."
Visitors to the Centennial Museum's exhibit of "Uncaged Art."Courtesy UTEP Communications

Outrage over the Trump administration’s family separations led to the president issuing an executive order last year ordering a halt to the practice. Despite this, family separations are still occurring, meaning children are still being sent to detention facilities. Meanwhile, the legal wrangling continues over children in detention continues. Last week, a panel on a federal appeals court issued a ruling forcing the Trump administration to provide child detainees with soap, toothbrushes and other basic items.

Yolanda Chavez Leyva , director of the Institute of Oral History at UTEP, feels a personal connection to the artwork. When the Tornillo camp was operating, she often went to stand in vigil outside, to let the children know that they were not forgotten.

“I hope that people take away two things from this exhibit,” Leyva said. “One is that people see through all the rhetoric and remember these detainees were kids, teenagers, humans. They were not gang members or criminals. The second is that in the midst of ugliness, these kids were able to create beautiful art.”

Many El Paso residents, she stated, are shocked that they knew so little about the camp that was so close by their city.

Leyva still thinks about the children once housed in Tornillo. “I wonder where the kids are now, and what happened to those who did not have sponsors.”

In the aftermath of the Walmart shooting, Carey-Whalen said he believes that “Uncaged Art” can show El Pasoans that there is hope in the darkest of times. “This is a site that recognizes joy and pain and suffering. I feel like this city has really come together — and that the events of Aug. 3 will make us more resilient.”

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