Surviving the fourth grade, playing with friends, and being un poco travieso. The life of a 10-year-old in the United States shouldn’t be more complicated than that. But for Delmy Pineda’s son, nearly 10 months in 2014 – a good chunk of his life up until that point – were spent languishing in a Karnes County immigrant detention center in Texas, struggling to figure out what was going on around him. As an adult, Delmy had to be the voice of reason, despite not having any answers. But as a human, Delmy faced the same uncertainty and frustration with life in the detention center, a place where days are indistinguishable and ibuprofen is the go-to remedy for every ailment. She started writing letters about her experiences, telling her story in her own words, to spread her message: “This place isn’t fit for anyone, let alone children.”
Now, thanks to a new project from CultureStrike, letters written by people like Delmy– an undocumented immigrant from Honduras – are being transformed into works of art. The project, called Visions from the Inside, was created in collaboration with Mariposas Sin Fronteras and End Family Detention, and it seeks to draw attention to the plight of detained migrants. 15 artists were tapped to bring the experiences of detainees to life; each received one letter, and with the help of End Family Detention, were also indirectly permitted to speak to the lawyers of the detainees, to ensure that the messaged remained the same even as the medium changed. The project was unveiled on Tumblr on July 27, and it will end on August 14; one picture will be shared every weekday. For the most part, those who wrote the letters asked to remain anonymous.
The idea for Visions from the Inside came after Julio Salgado and other members of CultureStrike went to an Arizona detention center and learned just how meaningful letters are for detainees, even in an age where emails, texts, or tweets have replaced traditional letter writing. Since phone calls aren’t permitted in these for-profit detention centers – they’re deemed to have too much of an impact on the bottom line – letters are the main outlet for communication to the outside world.
“We think of them as victims of the system. But they are fighting back.”
CultureStrike was already looking to shed light on the humanitarian migrant issues at the border, especially after a wave of unaccompanied Central American children emigrated to the U.S. in 2014. When they learned that these letters kept detainees from going crazy under harsh conditions, they found their angle. Mothers, in particular, were the main focus of the project because of their fearlessness. “We think of them as victims of the system,” Julio said. “But they are fighting back… When you’re not supposed to say anything, [they’re writing these letters]. That takes a lot of guts. They’re badasses.”
Just a few weeks ago, a federal judge came to the same conclusion as Delmy about the Texas detention centers, finding the conditions unacceptable. The judge gave the Department of Homeland Security until Aug. 3 to demonstrate why she shouldn’t issue an order to release of migrant parents and children. More mothers and children have been released from detention centers, but the fates of many are still up in the air. Therefore, it’s important that these stories reach as many people as possible. These accounts, and accompanying pieces of art, give a voice to those the powerless. “We see the depiction of what’s happening in terms of what the media is putting out there,” Julio said. “But [this way, the detainees] wrote their own narratives to really change the narrative of what it means to be an immigrant in this country.”
“How do we allow this? It cannot be okay for any mother to have to celebrate their child’s birthday behind bars.”
As Julio’s contribution to the project, he worked on a letter from a woman who has been released from the Karnes Detention Center. The center robbed her of a special moment with her child. “She had to celebrate her kid’s first birthday inside of a detention center,” he said. “How do we allow this? It cannot be okay for any mother to have to celebrate their child’s birthday behind bars. My drawing makes a reference to the ice box or hieleras where she was put when detained.” All the letters came from one center, but Julio would like to expand the project to include the voices of queer and transgender people in the future. For now, it will be up to the 15 artists, who come from different parts of the world and are of different ethnicities, to talk about their unique connection to immigration through the small blurb they also provide with their art piece.
Julio himself is an undocumented immigrant, but he’s never been in a detention center. Some of the artists do know what that feels like. Fidencio Martinez, whose art kicked off the project, was detained with his mother and brothers when he was seven. His work showed a mother and child in a cell; she can be seen comforting her child, but in the moments when she’s effectively alone, she sits at the edge of the bed, dispiritedly.
When Fidencio was in the center, he didn’t understand why he was inside and restricted, while others were outside and free. “I don’t think I realized the distinction between the two then,” Fidencio said. “I don’t know that any young child can really make sense of such a situation but I do remember it being the first time I can recall thinking there are differences between people that I yet don’t understand.” The 25-year-old artist from Iowa believes the situation in detention centers have worsened since the time he was living in one, and he hopes the project will show the people in these centers that on the outside, there are folks who care about them.
Fidencio was contacted by CultureStrike for the project, and when he learned what they were trying to accomplish, he knew he had to be a part of it. “My own work deals with coming to terms with how I got into this country, so I knew the right thing to do was to help out and use the technical skills I knew in order to, hopefully, help illustrate what the detainees experience,” he said. “It was only once I had finished my image that I confessed to Julio how grateful I was to have been part of this project.” When he was in the center, detainees did not have the ability to write these letters.
And then there’s Iris Rodriguez, without whom the project would have been difficult to complete. In just our email exchange, it’s easy to see how passionate and knowledgeable she is about this topic. She started EndFamilyDetention.com to publish the letters written by the detainees and to provide a “historical/herstorical digital archive project.” She was also the connection between the lawyers and the letter writers, and the reason some of them were at least able to see a sketch of what their letters inspired. She had seen the center formerly known as the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Texas shut down in 2009, so she was shocked that two centers had reopened in Karnes City and Dilley.
“I have used websites and underground, guerrilla media productions as a tool of war and resistance for the past 13 years, and knew that if I could not get the virality I wanted on the website and those digitized letters, at the very least I could give the moms and kids hopes and a multimedia, multilingual, global megaphone,” she said. “It turns out we also made Internet history by collaborating with students in Guatemala to make a tri-lingual resistance site in two European (English, Spanish) and one indigenous language – Tz’utujil, a Mayan language.” She can now count these beautiful, but heartbreaking illustrations to her growing list of accomplishments.
CultureStrike is an artist collective that looks at topics through a migrant lens. Mariposas Sin Fronteras works to end the abuse and violence the LGBTQ faces in detention centers and prison. End Family Detention is a digital library that raises awareness of family detention. Visit the Visions from the Inside Tumblr for daily art.