A migrant woman stands dressed in a navy blue sweatshirt adorned with big white letters that reads “detention center” across her back. Her face is unseen but images of a deportation order, restless children, and a plane destined for the Czech Republic alludes to the mother’s fate.
The woman is Ms. Horton, a migrant originally from the Czech Republic who was detained, torn away from her sons, and deported because of a loitering charge in New Jersey.
After a decade of living in the US, Ms. Horton was forced to leave her family, equipped with only the clothes on her back, a green shower bag and the memories of her family that only magnified her pain.
Currently, Ms. Horton is back in the US but is being held in a New Jersey detention facility.
Undocumented, queer, trans visual artist of color Rommy Torrico created the illustration based on a letter and three drawings Ms. Horton made of her children. A note from the artist accompanies the illustration:
As I read her letter explaining her twisted, torturous nightmare, I kept thinking about the baby in the drawing, the heartache and desperation of being torn away from your children and family for a loitering charge, and the trauma of being dehumanized and broken by a system that does not want you here, and trying to survive the days by just holding on the memories of a past that already seems too far away.
Torrico’s art forms part of CulturalStrike’s Visions From The Inside, a project that asked 14 artists to create illustrations based on letters and interviews from migrants detained in for-profit detention facilities in the US.
The project includes the work of artists with a strong social justice background including queer and trans people of color.
CultureStrike, a national pro-migrant arts organization, worked in collaboration with End Family Detention, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, and others, to collect letters from migrants detained in centers located in New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, Washington, California and Texas.
The idea for the project came after members of CultureStrike visited an immigration center and saw firsthand how important handwritten letters were for detainees. Letters from families and friends on the outside became conduits of support for migrants living the closed off, often inhumane, lives in detention centers.
Now is its second year, Visions From The Inside is a unique and necessary initiative aimed at exploring the various migrant identities and experiences both inside and outside of the for-profit detention system.
The project taps the power of art to illustrate the breadth of traumas and resilience experienced by detained migrants.
Last year’s inaugural Visions From The Inside focused on letters written by mothers at Karnes Detention Center in Texas. This year the focus has expanded to include the stories of people released from detention to illustrate the ongoing effects of trauma through the immigration enforcement process.
Julio Salgado, artist projects coordinator at CultureStrike, explains the move to expand the focus of different migrant identities and experiences to include their experiences outside of detention:
There's this idea that once you are detained and released, your problems are over. But many folks who are released have to deal with various issues, one of them being ankle bracelets. That's not freedom. It's a reminder that they're being watched and that is the price they have to pay to be out of a detention center.
In addition to Ms. Horton’s story, Visions From The Inside shares the stories of transgender women, men suffering from cancer, young mothers, and loving sons, illustrated in vibrant images.
In this work, human stories come to life, challenging the terrible tendency to reduce the human rights crisis of immigration to statistics and numbers.
Stories of resistance and defiance
While migrant testimonies describe the horror and injustice inflicted by the inhumane, transphobic, and racist immigration system, their letters, as transmitted through a vast network of activists and artists, seek to illustrate and empower detained migrants and their communities.
Ultimately, the project aims to fight against the voiceless immigrant narrative and the violent immigration system bent on dehumanizing migrants in the US.
As demonstrated by last year’s Visions From The Inside, the circulation of defiant migrant testimonies has inspired more migrants to share their stories.
Iris Rodriguez from End Family Detention has said that the project has had “a positive domino-effect as more families began writing their own letters once the art pieces were publicly shared.”
A growing number of other detainees began to get released, then openly share their testimonies in public forums.
And for artists like Torrico, and many other participants and viewers, projects like Visions From The Inside, help bring awareness of the realities inside of detention facilities while continuing to teach us about the resiliency of the migrant spirit.
“This is what’s happening. This is [Ms. Horton’s] reality and the reality of so many other women and mothers in detention. As an undocumented artist, to have had the privilege of working on this piece and sharing this mother’s story is something I truly will not forget,” says Torrico.
It is also Torrico's second year participating in the initiative, and they express great interest to continue supporting CultureStrike's Visions From The Inside.
I also believe it's our responsibility as artists and cultural workers to center these issues, share these stories and amplify the message. We artists have the great honor and opportunity of shaking up the narrative through our work, and I plan on taking part in that as often as possible.
CultureStrike plans to release more illustrations for Visions From The Inside. You can follow the project on their tumblr, here: http://visionsfromtheinside.tumblr.com/