Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new exhibit in El Paso showcases works of art created by children detained in a massive border encampment of migrants in Tornillo, Texas.
Last year, the U.S. government built a massive detention facility to hold migrant children in a remote area around Tornillo, Texas, a town near the U.S.-Mexico border. Over its seven-month lifespan, the tent city at Tornillo housed about 6,000 undocumented teenagers, largely from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. At the the beginning, Tornillo detainees even included children the Trump administration had separated from their parents. As I wrote earlier this year, this temporary encampment served as a kind of physical expression of President Donald Trump’s policies towards migrants—particularly migrant children.
But the public backlash to this tent city led the government to walk back policies that were keeping these 13- to 17-year-old kids in detention longer than usual. And in January, the facility was disassembled and trucked away.
Now, the best physical evidence of it can be found in a museum: An art exhibit at the University of Texas El Paso’s El Paso Centennial Museum features work created by children who lived at Tornillo. “In the midst of that secrecy, and all of us wondering about the kids, this artwork gave us a little glimpse into the lives of the kids,” said Yolanda Leyva, the director of UTEP’s Institute of Oral History, who acquired the art.
Leyva was one of the many protesters who camped outside the camp to “witness” what transpired. In many ways, the Tornillo facility was designed to conceal—it was located in a remote area and operated by a private company whose employees were forbidden to talk about what went on inside. For several months, activists like Leyva stationed themselves in the desert outside the tent city’s fences, to make sure that the children held inside were not forgotten.
In January, as the tent city was being dismantled, Leyva got a call from an old friend: Father Rafael Garcia, a local priest who, unbeknownst to her, had been visiting the children held at Tornillo. Garcia asked if she wanted the artwork the kids had made, which would have otherwise been thrown away.
“I said, of course, I want it [even though] I didn’t even know what kind of art work it would be,” Leyva, a public historian and the co-director of a Muséo Urbano, told me. “They brought me a van full of art—it was incredible.”
The bulk of it, Leyva learned, had been created as a social science project; teachers at Tornillo told the teenagers to depict something that reminded them of home. Leyva obtained 29 pieces, including dioramas, paintings, pencil drawings, and handmade dresses. The models are particularly intricate, and infused with nostalgia: They show soccer fields with tiny figures in motion, sky blue churches surrounded with trees, and town plazas with picnic benches. In the paintings, Leyva noticed lots and lots of birds. The kids may have been escaping poverty and violence, but the art they made at Tornillo was reflected the good memories they had of home, in Leyva’s opinion. “They put a lot of detail into what they remember about being free,” she said.
On April 13, the exhibition opened to the public. The guest of honor was a 17-year-old boy from Honduras, who had spent a little more than two months at Tornillo. He was identified only as Freddy. His real name has been withheld to protect his privacy as he is underage and still in the midst of his asylum process.
At the event, Freddy described the risks he took to get to the U.S. border—“sleeping in the street, enduring storms, enduring darkness, enduring the sun, and enduring hunger,” he told local reporters in Spanish. In detention at Tornillo, Freddy describes an experience that echoes that of many other children released from that facilities: He felt despair and uncertainty, he recalled, but could not talk about it with his parents. “If I told them that I was devastated, that I could not stand it anymore, that I wanted to give up, they were going to feel very sad,” he said. “So I was left with all that load on my conscience.”
Seeing the art he and his friends made at Tornillo stirred bittersweet feelings for Freddy. On one hand, he is thankful that he’s no longer in detention. But some of his friends, and many other kids who have traveled the same path, still are. The art is a reminder of that: “Even though they look nice, behind each piece of art is a desperate child, wanting to get out—go outdoors and breathe,” he said at the opening.
Meanwhile, the detention of record numbers of migrant children continues. In March alone, Customs and Border Protection took 40,000 children into custody at the border. And this April, the government announced that it would be expanding the capacity of a temporary youth shelter in Homestead, Florida, to 3,200. The administration is also reportedly planning to set up more tent cities near the southern border to house families seeking asylum.
To put the psychological effect of that in context: The American Association of Pediatrics finds that detention is “generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families.” For kids, “even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks.”
What Leyva wants people to focus on is not just the trauma these kids may have experienced, but the glimmers of child-like hope they retained. One of her favorite pieces is a model of a church, built on what appears to be a sign reading “Female UAC bathroom.” UAC stands for “unaccompanied alien minor”—government-ese for children who have crossed the border by themselves. (For a while, the Trump administration was also labeling children it had separated from their parents at the border this way.)
“They took, what is to me, a very dehumanizing sign, and on top, they built this beautiful memory of a church,” Leyva said.
Whether the exhibit’s viewers know the story of Tornillo or not, Leyva hopes people see this art as a memorial to the experience of detained migrant children—and a testament to their promise.
“I also think it brings to us in the U.S. some kind of view into what the children can bring to our country—that hope, that beauty,” she said. “They encountered a lot of depression, a lot of trauma, and yet they still had the energy and the hope to create these beautiful things.”