In the Gallery

Virtual Exhibit: UNCAGED ART – Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp

The University of Texas El Paso’s Centennial Museum presents
UNCAGED ART: Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp

Curated by Dr. David Romo and Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva, directors of Museo Urbano, University of Texas at El Paso.
Photographs ©Frontera Studio
Graphic design by Amy Briones, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Uncaged Art presents the work of youth, ages 13-17, who were detained at the Tornillo detention center in West Texas. Comprised of paintings, drawings, and handicrafts made of found materials, the work reflects the resiliency, talent, and creativity of young men and women who trekked 2000 miles from their homes in Central America to reach the United States.

Read the interview with curator Dr. Yolanda Leyva in The Hartford Courant by CLICKING HERE.


Click the video above to enjoy the Virtual Gallery Opening with Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva.

Uncaged Art Tornillo Children’s Detention Center Curatorial Statement
by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva, co-curator The University of Texas at El Paso

Uncaged Art Tornillo Children’s Detention Center is fundamentally about Central American children who came to our nation seeking security and safety and found themselves incarcerated within the walls of a sterile detention center built in the Chihuahuan Desert. The young artists represent some of the almost 70,000 migrant children detained by the United States in 2019. The artists who created the works featured in Uncaged Art remain anonymous, both because of their status as minors but also for their legal protection. We don’t know the names of the children or where they went after Tornillo closed. We don’t have their words to tell us what they felt or remembered as they put brush to canvas or crafted soccer players from pipe cleaners. What we do have is the art to tell us about their feelings, their hopes, their dreams, and their memories of home. What we have are the images of lush landscapes filled with flowers and trees, and the birds flying in the sky. We have the recreation of a soccer field filled with players and spectators and models of churches representing their faith. What we have are our own reflections and emotions as we view the art created in detention because of our nation’s asylum policies.

‘Behind every beautiful piece of art is a child longing to be free.” These are the words of “Freddy” (not his real name), a young Honduran who had been detained at Tornillo and who was viewing the exhibit for the first time. Paintings, drawings, three-D models of churches and parks, as well as mannequins with flowery dresses, make up this exhibit. Birds, especially the quetzal, play an important role in this art collection. A story related by the children to the staff is that the quetzal cannot be caged, or it will die. From this came the title of the exhibit: Uncaged Art. Like the children who longed to be free, we wanted their art to be free as well. Our desire for the children’s art to be seen across the country resulted in this digital exhibit. Each venue has exhibited the images in different ways, according to the vision of each community. The photographs have been hung on library walls and outdoor fences, wire cages, and in frames.

In 2018, the United States Health and Human Services Department opened an emergency “influx shelter” for youth who had been separated from their parents while crossing the border to ask for asylum. Some had crossed the border unaccompanied. Although it was initially expected to house 400 children, by the time it closed in January 2019, it held over 2,500. The camp was opened in a rural area of El Paso County, Texas amid cotton fields, pecan orchards, and the border fence. Tornillo was highly militarized with the youth constantly under surveillance by staff and guards. Often, the young people did not know where they were and none knew when or if they would be released or see their families again. They were denied visitors and gifts. Staff signed non-disclosure agreements and we knew little about what living there was like. Attorneys and psychologists reported depression and anxiety were widespread.

In late 2018, two social studies teachers established an art project where youth would produce art that related to their home countries, their culture, and their memories of home. Over four days, they generated over 400 pieces, both in teams and individually. The staff chose approximately 30 pieces to keep and threw away the rest. In January 2019 as Tornillo began to shut down under growing public pressure, the University of Texas at El Paso’s Museo Urbano was given the art through the mediation of Father Rafael Garcia, SJ, who had given Mass at the detention center. The art was freed to tell the story of youth, who despite isolation, anxiety, and depression, still held hope for the future.

January 20, 2021