It’s Christmas morning, and artists and activists are planning a procession around the perimeter of a child detention center here in the Texas desert. On the Mexican side, beyond the sprawling tent city, the Guadalupe Mountains loom. A Christmas tree constructed from the plastic water jugs that activists leave for thirsty migrants in the desert adds festive color to an activist encampment set up at the stony entrance to the Tornillo Detention Center.
Wise Fools, a circus troupe from Santa Fe, has brought gigantic puppets that pop up over the fence line.
They are just a few of the dozens of artivists—activists who use art as a form of resistance—who have come from Texas and across the country to spend their Christmas on a barren strip of land outside what some call a concentration camp for children.
Particularly on this holiday that celebrates children, the “Christmas in Tornillo” organizers are determined to use creative resistance to make sure the 2,800 migrant children inside are not forgotten. They want to break the silence with creative resistance.
“We’re creating sacred space here, because this country has lost its way,” says Elizabeth Vega, a St. Louis counselor and art therapist who helped organize Christmas in Tornillo. “This space is a fight for the sacred. This is a fight for humanity—not just for the children in there.”
On Christmas Eve night, Vega and Denise Benavides from Dallas placed candles on an altar that organizers built in front of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility. Their goal is a gesture that is a finger in the eye of the officers they are defying by being here.
Meanwhile, others hung about 2,800 colorful Mexican-style paper flowers that have been sent from across the country—each representing one of the kids inside. Nationwide, some 15,000 children are being held in detention centers.
The Christmas in Tornillo activists are determined to send a clear message to the children being kept here: No estás solo. You are not alone. Even if the children cannot hear them, the activists here believe one thing is certain: People across the nation will.
The Department of Homeland Security announced plans last week to close Tornillo in January, after months of escalating pressure to shut down U.S. detention centers holding migrant children, including those separated from their families.
Organizers are skeptical, however. “With 15,000 children in detention centers, this is no time to celebrate,” says Vega.
Vega had been agonizing over the child detention crisis for months. In November, she, Benavides, and several others came down to Tornillo and spent two and a half weeks camped out in front of the facility, planning an intervention.
Juan Ortiz, who created the Christmas tree from water jugs, says, “I wanted to highlight the way water has been weaponized and used as a tool of oppression.” The tree was hung with barbed wire and ornaments made from tear gas canisters. The image of Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old from Guatemala who died of dehydration recently while in U.S. custody, sits as an angel at the top.
On Christmas Day, another Guatemalan child, 8, also died in U.S. custody.
Ortiz recalled his own carefree days as a teen when he and his friends would cross the border to Ciudad Juarez to party—and on their return, simply declare themselves U.S. citizens and walk through.
“This country has developed an obsession with the border, and at the heart of it is fear of what they don’t understand.”
“There have been some huge changes these past 25 years, and we know that American policy has had everything to do with it,” says Ortiz, who is completing a doctorate in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona. “This country has developed an obsession with the border, and at the heart of it is fear of what they don’t understand. And they’re using that to create hysteria. Unfortunately, it’s costing lives.”
Vega and Benavides say their November visit to the detention camp made them more committed than ever to bring attention to and protest the treatment of these children. They called on their artist and activist networks and on local El Paso migrant solidarity groups. What emerged was “Christmas in Tornillo: The Occupation.”
Holding her baby Ariah on her hip, Benavides recalled her first trip to Tornillo in November. She says she was shocked by what she saw. She’d been to other Texas detention camps involved in the family separation crisis, she says, but nothing approaching this scale. “Tornillo is a totally different level of imprisonment of children than I’ve ever seen, ever. Call it what you will, it’s a concentration camp for children,” she declares. “People ask why as citizens we can celebrate Christmas anytime—but they can’t,” she adds, gesturing toward the detention camp in the background.
“Mama Cat” Daniels, of the group Potbangerz, is a St. Louis activist who began cooking to “nourish the revolution” at the time of the first Ferguson uprising. “We came a long way to support our babies that shouldn’t be in there,” she says.
Wearing a T-shirt that reads “It’s not yo mama’s civil rights movement,” she says: “I came to cook and feed people.” Daniels, like many of the activists, is dividing her time between the camp and providing support at the overflowing shelters in nearby El Paso.
Over the next nine days, their encampment will hold the space both for the children inside and those who want to collaborate with the new “brown-led coalition of resistance.” Their aim is to raise awareness and strengthen local and national movements, Vega says.
There have been some issues among the different activist groups here.
In their first trip to Tornillo, the Latina women say they were shocked to see a friendly relationship some White resisters had with Border Patrol. “Why are you thanking these people? They are holding our children hostage!” one of the activists demanded. Continued differences over philosophy finally compelled them to break off into a separate group, led by women of color.
“The way we organize is as important as what we’re organizing for,” Vega says.
Tracy L. Barnett is a Mexico-based freelance writer and the founder of The Esperanza Project, a magazine covering social movements in the Americas.