Artists Transform Heartbreaking Letters From Detained Migrants Into Gripping Works Of Art

"To turn a blind eye would be a disheartening mistake."
Visions from the Inside

"I’m worried, because my daughter is losing weight, because she doesn’t eat," a single mother, detained at the Karnes Detention Center in Texas, wrote in a heartbreaking letter. "The food has pepper in it, and she doesn’t like it. I’m worried, because she could get sick."

The unnamed mother goes on to explain she was been in the detention center for seven months already, due to nothing other than her immigrant status. Both she and her daughter are desperate. The letter continues: "I need people to help me be able to get out. I don’t have anywhere to go. I cannot return to Guatemala. I am an orphan, and my husband was murdered. I was also threatened, that I would be killed together with my daughter. I am also discriminated against because of my language, I don’t know how to speak Spanish.The water has bleach in it, and I don’t have money to buy water from the store. Please help us."

It's hard for some to fathom that we live in a world in which people face injustices like this every day, that the mother above was only one of 315,943 individuals removed by the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in 2014. It's impossible to find the words to explain how and why a mother and daughter can be denied food or water because they don't possess citizenship. Oftentimes, when words fail, art has the ability to express our deepest pain and unrelenting hope.

Visions from the Inside

Visions from the Inside is a project enlisting 15 artists from across the country to create a piece of art based off letters from women in detention. The initiative, a collaboration between CultureStrike, Mariposas Sin Fronteras and End Family Detention, illuminates the horrific realities of life inside some for-profit detention facilities in the U.S., as well as the resilient spirit that keeps the inmates going.

Artist Micah Bazant transformed the heartbreaking letter featured above into vibrant lines and colors. A mother and child hold each other in a muted cell while blue water gushes in from the window. "The letter I illustrated was short and so heartbreaking," Bazant explains in his artist statement. "There was so much unsaid in it: so much strength, suffering and history ... When I imagined what I wished for this mother and her child, I imagined a mighty waterfall breaking through the prison walls."

"The stories about immigration family detention that dominate the news media are often negative and do not fully portray the humanity of the individual, nor the reasons around why people migrate," Favianna Rodriguez, co-founder of Visions from the Inside project, explained to The Huffington Post. "I felt that it was critical to show the resilience and the dignity of the many [adults] and children in these detention centers."

I would like for people to understand that many of these immigration detention centers are run by for profit prison corporations and that they do not care at all about human beings.

The conditions in some detention centers around the country can be dehumanizing, with detained families dealing with starvation, humiliation, abuse, rape and sexual assault. Many women have reported being raped by guards who enter their cells at night, as well as being assaulted in front of their children. These conditions have grave consequences.

"You don’t have a heart for anybody," 19-year-old Lilian Oliva wrote in a note prior to a suicide attempt in June of 2015. She was discovered with self-inflicted wounds in the bathroom of Karnes Detention Center and deported to Honduras. "You just lie and humiliate all of us who have come to this country. For the second time if I do this is because only God knows what I have suffered in my country. I come here so this country can help me but here you’ve been killing me little by little with punishment and lies in prison when I haven’t committed any crime."

Visions from the Inside

Visions from the Inside intends to spread awareness of the many stories like Lilian's by enlisting artists to create work inspired by the brutal letters of detainees. The participating artists come from all walks of life; some were moved by the struggles of migrant mothers with little previous knowledge of the situation. For others, the motivation was much more personal.

"I knew I couldn’t say no," participating artist Fidencio Martinez said. "It was important for me to be involved because I was in ICE detention when I was 7 years old. I remember how scared, lonely and cold I felt. Even though I had my mother with me, I could see she was in pain. I was too young to understand why people in uniforms could walk around freely while we had to remain in a holding cell ... My current self feels like I am making work that would've helped the 7-year-old me when I was in there, when I thought the world had forgotten us. That is why I was so grateful to be a part of this."

Visions from the Inside is a grassroots effort to spread awareness, anger, conviction and change regarding a topic that has been silenced for too long. Thanks to resources like Tumblr, marginalized voices are able to make themselves heard like never before. "As people of color, putting our stories out there goes against the generations-long media silence around our issues," Iris Rodriguez, webmaster at End Family Detention said.

"As people of color in a technological age, we have a privilege bestowed unto us that is unprecedented and that was not afforded to our ancestors -- the technology to communicate immediately with the world. It has been through everyday folks like me and you sharing these letters and stories that has taken this issue to dinner tables, churches and conversations worldwide."

Visions from the Inside

Rodriguez affirmed the necessity of spreading these women's stories and providing them long overdue support. "We should be providing services to the women and to all the families who are fleeing violence. We should welcome families with open arms and we should extend to them refugee status when they are escaping from a place like Honduras or El Salvador that is considered among the most dangerous places in the world. I would like for people to understand that many of these immigration detention centers are run by for profit prison corporations and that they do not care at all about human beings."

Similarly, for artist Martinez, the heart of the project is about communicating that, beyond classifications and citizenships, we're all just people. "I would like people to know that there’s no difference between them and us. To break your conceived notions of what an undocumented person must look like or come from. These people are mothers, children, families. We have to see the humanity in all of this and acknowledge their dignity, dreams, and sacrifices."

These are people that have so much to say and only want to contribute to this country and build better lives for their children. I remember my mother saying, 'It was better to die trying to get out that to die of starvation,' when asked why we crossed the border. Any loving parent would do the very same thing for the safety and livelihood of their children. The children in there could very well be the next wave of future doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists or even artists of this country. To turn a blind eye would be a disheartening mistake.

See some of the artworks from Visions from the Inside below, accompanied by artist statements and the letters that inspired each image. For more information on how you can help, visit the End Family Detention Website.

Visions from the Inside

"My son’s first birthday was here. I would like to get out of here. I’ve been here for a long time. I would like you to help us get out." -Inspired by this letter

Artist statement: "We cannot be OK with the thought that a mother has to celebrate their child's birthday behind bars. Their crime was to be responsible and courageous because they defied borders in order to offer a better future for their children. How dare a government punish a mother's heroism? Instead, we should be building monuments that celebrate their resistance." -Julio Salgado

Visions from the Inside

"They are thinking of making this place much bigger, and for what? To hold more immigrant families, because they want to keep more people in these precarious conditions." -Inspired by this letter

Artist statement: "Butterflies migrate and their migration is beautiful, they're not restricted by physical borders. When humans restrict the beauty and nature of human migration it brings pain and trauma. It was important for me to incorporate these messages into the image of what migration should be and how detention and deportation are not only unnatural, but also detrimental. Rebecca's letter illuminated the conditions that folks in detention are surviving day to day."- Chucha Marquez

Visions from the Inside

"I am trusting my God who will quickly end this nightmare." -Inspired by this letter

Artist statement: "A visual collaboration with a letter written by a Honduran mother who is being kept at Karnes County Detention Center with her younger son after attempting to cross the border to be reunited with her family. Despite the traumatic and abusive conditions she faces at Karnes, she and her younger son reach across the US-Mexico Border to join hands with her older son who made it to Los Angeles. Their bodies are preserved with the light of a million stars, representing the millions of mothers, fathers, and children throughout history who attempt to cross the border into the US. Migrants risk enormous loss in the optimism of securing family and community in a new country. For as long as she lives, the Honduran mother, and millions of others, reach for each other and form constellations in the night despite the borders, detainments, and abuse of the US. This image is a tribute to their undefeatable optimism and resilience." -Jess X Chen

Visions from the Inside

"There are some workers at this detentions center who think poorly of immigrants. We are also human beings, just as they are, and we have feelings." -Inspired by this letter

Artist statement: "The nation of Guatemala has endured globalization, extreme poverty and violence; which is why I can understand why so many are migrating away from this land. This young woman has a quetzal perched on top of her hand in order to express the need for liberation and family togetherness. The quetzal is a special bird because it cannot survive within captivity, therefore I feel that the migrant youth and mothers carry that [same] need to be liberated from these prisons and from oppressive forces in Central America. I wanted to condense Angie's quote to 'we are human, just like you' to remind North America that these brave souls are seeking opportunity to enhance the quality of life for their children." - Breena Nunez

Visions from the Inside

"We need the help of all of you because we feel depressed and forgotten in this place" -Inspired by this letter

Artist statement: "I chose images of mothers holding children because I remember how it felt to be placed in I.C.E detention. All I wanted was the comfort of my mother and I think that the women are incredibly brave, strong and noble in those situations. [Even in detention] they are still fighting for the safety and well being of their children." -Fidencio Martinez

Visions from the Inside

"When I got here they initially told me that I didn’t have a right to anything because of my deportations." -Inspired by this letter

Artist statement: "What inspires my drawing is the spirit and resiliency of our peoples, women and children in particular, who continue to live, resist and love each other despite the borders and prisons that tear apart our families and communities. I was moved by the strength of the mother in the letter, and mothers everywhere who continue to nurture life through their love. I wanted that to be reflected in the drawing with the mother and child close, embraced by the earth, flowers, butterflies, [and] ancestors. A reflection of what we are fighting for; our communities and families." -Francis Mead

Visions from the Inside

"We are not a threat for this country, all I want is refuge in this country for my children and for me." -Inspired by this letter

Artist Statement: "I wanted to create a simple composition that focuses on the strength, selflessness, hope and love of a mother who is enduring tortuous conditions because of a lack of a piece of paper. I covered the mother's eyes with a phrase from her letter 'Me siento frustrada, desesperada, y preocupada (I feel frustrated, desperate and worried)' exposing what lies within the struggling mother, that and a Broken Heart drawing illustrated by the very mother whose letter I received. Not only does it express how she feels physically and psychologically. but I felt that my illustration for this project wouldn't be legitimate until some sort of (indirect) expressive collaboration with Sonia (the mother) took place." -Mata Ruda

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