Just a year ago, Visions From the Inside, a project by art collective CultureStrike, told the story of mothers trapped inside Karnes Detention Center in Texas, and their struggles to raise their children in an oppressive environment. Artists illustrated the letters these women wrote while in detention to shine a light on the plight of detained undocumented immigrants. For Honduran-born Delmy Pineda, for example, writing letters served as a form of medication in a place that otherwise treated every ailment with ibuprofen. This year, CultureStrike brought the project back and expanded it to include more voices. And if the first batch of illustrations showed the resilience of mothers, then this round aims to challenge people’s conceptions of immigrants as “criminals.”
“There was very little being said about family detention and the folks experiencing the brunt of this systemic evil.”
Since the widely shared and discussed project’s release in July 2015, a noticeable shift has occurred. “The letters that were used for the last round of ‘Visions From the Inside’ were sent to me out of desperation and as a way to create media coverage on this topic, since there was very little being said about family detention and the folks experiencing the brunt of this systemic evil,” Iris Rodriguez, who started End Family Detention to publish letters written by the detainees, told me. “But after the global response that last year’s Visions project had, there were noticeable shifts, including more mothers speaking out about their experiences publicly after their release, as well as more resistance from within the detention camps – not just in family detention camps but at immigration detention camps as well.”
What hasn’t changed is that Julio Salgado, artist projects coordinator at CultureStrike, has once again brought together people who are actively calling for policy changes in our broken immigration system. The importance of these illustrations can’t be overstated. Given our current political climate, these visual letters are especially pertinent. As presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump continues stoking anti-immigrant sentiment on the campaign trail, these illustrations provide a counterpoint to his depiction of immigrants as nameless, faceless threats, instead demonstrating they are largely people who either valiantly committed to starting life anew in the US or have known no other home than this country.
In 2016, Visions will highlight a total of 14 artists – five of whom participated in the inaugural edition. CultureStrike started unveiling the images on July 4 and will keep sharing one picture a day on Tumblr. The images couldn’t have come together without Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Northwest Detention Center Resistance, End Family Detention, and Families for Freedom. This time around, there will be letters from people at Northwest Detention Facility in Washington, LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana, and Hudson Correctional Facility in New Jersey. While the titular “inside” may have originally denoted a detention center, these works of art will still underline the inner workings of those caught in immigration limbo, including people who have been released and are fighting to stay in the US and those who have faced deportation. Also included are two transgender women’s stories. Queer activist Salgado really wanted to raise visibility for a group suffering abuses in detention centers.
“Many times we tend to focus on stories with ‘perfect migrant’ narratives.”
As a whole, these illustrations want us to move away from misconceptions. “There were a couple of cases where many folks had made mistakes when they were younger and were paying for them as adults,” Salgado, who started putting together the project in February, said. “We believe that these cases are super important to include in a project like this because many times we tend to focus on stories with ‘perfect migrant’ narratives. This is dangerous because it means that people who make mistakes don’t deserve a second chance and we just dispose of them. As someone who pushed the good DREAMer narrative for many years, I think about the many mistakes I’ve made in life. Does that mean I don’t deserve a second chance or to tell my story? How many politicians in power have gotten away with crimes, yet they’re still in power?”
Cindy Martinez, the advocacy coordinator at Families for Freedom (FFF), similarly hopes that these intimate works of art will shed a light on those considered “bad” immigrants – people who are often maligned. Since September 2002, Families for Freedom has organized with people from all walks of life, but in particular works with people with criminal convictions. Those detained first make contact with FFF through a hotline, and later through letters. Every person FFF chose to include in Visions From the Inside has a history with the organization.
This project is a snapshot of what’s gone down in detention centers in recent years. For instance, it illustrates how by the end of 2015, more than 1,000 undocumented immigrants participated in hunger strikes across the United States to protest the deplorable conditions. Or how transgender women, like Mexican-born Nayeli Charolet, have been sent to male detention centers. According to Democracy Now!, despite identifying as a woman, Charolet had to choose between living in solitary confinement, going to a men’s detention center, or a segregated unit known for abusing transgender women.
But even amid all this grim news, some artists tried to find a little bit of hope. Cuban-American Cristy C. Road’s illustration deals with the tolls these centers can take on a person. Young Honduran mother Lilian Oliva-Bardales originally lost her asylum case and ended up at Karnes. The mistreatment from the staff drove her to try to kill herself. The most captivating part of Cristy’s image – made with Pigma Micron ink pens, Chartpak markers, and gel pens – are the words “Resistencia” and “Esperanza,” which capture Oliva-Bardales journey. Resistencia is the suicide attempt that got her deported to Honduras, and esperanza came because the government allowed Oliva-Bardales to return to the US in March 2016.