Detained Migrant Children Paint Birds as Symbols of Freedom and Home

Confined in a tent city near El Paso, teens portrayed parrots and quetzals in works now on display at the “Uncaged Art” exhibit.

Last December, outside a federal detention center in Tornillo, Texas, Yolanda Chávez Leyva stood witness. A barbed wire fence seperated her and other demonstrators from a militaristic tent city that housed thousands of undocumented immigrant children. Leyva, a history professor with a focus on the U.S.-Mexico border, watched as trucks hauled teenagers and water in and sewage out. Many of the refugees in the “kid prison,” as Leyva calls it, faced gang violence and poverty in their home nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador before trekking some 2,000 miles to the U.S. in search of a better life. 

Inside, two social studies teachers gave the unaccompanied teenagers a rare opportunity to remember through artwork the countries and cultures they left behind. “In those four days of doing the art,” Leyva says, “they were free. They were not just thinking about where they were, what’s in the future, and missing their parents, but they were creating this beauty.” 

By the time the government shuttered Tornillo in January, a few weeks after the art project, workers had discarded nearly all of the 400 creations. But thanks to Father Rafael García, a priest who led mass at the facility, Leyva was soon cramming the 29 remaining art pieces into her office at the nearby University of Texas at El Paso. Now the drawings and sculptures are on display at the university in Uncaged Art, a multisensory exhibit open until October 5.

The young artists, aged 13 to 17, produced pieces ranging from paintings of religious figures to 3D models of soccer fields fashioned from construction paper, pipe cleaners, and yarn. “These kids that have been so denigrated and called terrible things by the administration and by politicians,” Leyva says, “they bring a lot of talent and creativity to our country.” 

Birds are a prominent, recurring theme in the artwork. Of the 29 pieces in the exhibit, at least eight feature tropical avian symbols, including the Scarlet Macaw, the national bird of Honduras. This parrot, with its striking red, yellow, and blue feathers, is often targeted by poachers for the illegal pet trade. The bird most commonly depicted in the exhibit is Guatemala's national bird, the Resplendent Quetzal. With an iridescent green body, red breast, and covert feathers longer than its frame, the quetzal lives in the mountainous tropical forests of Central America. “The kids said that the quetzal cannot be caged; if you cage the quetzal, it will die,” Leyva says. “We took it as symbolic of the kids: That they wanted to be uncaged.”

Leyva thinks birds are prominent in the children’s art because such beautiful, tropical animals are emblematic of their homeland, and were missing inside the Texas tent city. She also interprets the birds as symbols of freedom, especially since she has noticed similar avian themes in art created by detainees at other camps, like bird pins based in part on Audubon identification cards at Japanese concentration camps. 

But it's impossible to know what the birds mean to the kids without speaking to them, says Kelvin Ramirez, an art therapist and professor at Lesley University. And that's unlikely to happen; their signatures on the pieces have been crossed out in black marker, replaced by tent and unit numbers. But Ramirez has found that when birds appear in art, it's often because the artist feels confined. 

Producing art about home allows the refugees to “hold onto something familiar, to feel some sense of comfort and security in a time when they feel a little insecure,” Ramirez says. Studies have shown that post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety are widespread in immigrant children after being detained. Even a short time spent in detention can cause psychological trauma in kids. “We have a responsibility to address the mental health needs of the children and adults being detained,” Ramirez says. “We as a society have created that problem.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had shut down the Tornillo camp after a federal watchdog reported that the Trump administration waived FBI fingerprint checks for more than 2,000 workers and that mental health care in the facility was insufficient. Most of the children were released to sponsors, usually relatives, while the remaining 300 were transferred to other detention facilities. Now, the government is reopening Tornillo as a holding facility for 2,500 migrant adults.

Controversy and tensions along the border remain high. On August 3, a gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 others at an El Paso Walmart. The suspect charged with the murders allegedly wrote a hate-filled manifesto and reportedly targeted Hispanic shoppers. The shooting was a horrifying reminder of how some U.S. citizens view Latin American immigrants as, in Ramirez's words, “this bogeyman, this monster of a person from the other side of the border.” Huge cultural shifts are needed to combat the fear and dehumanizing of refugees, but perceptions can begin to change when citizens see themselves reflected in the migrants’ artwork, Ramirez says. “It’s hard to be ruled by fear when you see your kid, when you see yourself in there.”