TORNILLO, TEXAS – Juan Ortiz is putting the last touches on the Christmas tree he is constructing from the plastic water jugs left for thirsty migrants in the desert. The jugs were a donation from No More Deaths, a volunteer organization that faces trial for assisting the migrants – one of whom is facing up to two decades in prison for providing aid to undocumented immigrants.
It’s Christmas Eve and he plans to spend the night keeping watch and plugging away on the installation, a darkly surreal touch of festivity bringing color to the artivist encampment in the stony entrance of Tornillo Detention Center, the so-called concentration camp for children in the desert. He’s one of dozens of activists responding to Christmas in Tornillo: The Occupation, a creative resistance that seeks to reclaim America’s soul.
“I wanted to highlight the way water has been weaponized and used as a tool of oppression,” he said. It wasn’t far from here that 7-year-old Jackelin Caal Maquin died of dehydration recently in U.S. custody after accompanying her father in the perilous crossing from their native Guatemala. The tree is being hung with barbed wire and ornaments made from tear gas canisters, and Jackeline’s image is the angel at the top. As he worked, we would later learn, another Guatemalan child was dying in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.
The Resistance Choir of South Central Texas has finished its last round of Resistance Carols. Elizabeth Vega of St. Louis and Denise Benavides from Dallas are placing candles on the altar, a finger in the eye of the Customs and Border Protection officers that they are defying by being here. Others are hanging the thousands of colorful Mexican-style paper flowers that have been shipped in from all over the country, each one representing one of the estimated 2,800 teens housed in the tent camp inside that fence – just a fraction of the nearly 15,000 children now in U.S. custody in detention facilities around the country.
“We’re creating sacred space here, because this country has lost its way,” Vega said as the four main organizers, brown and black women from Missouri and Texas, took their place in front of the altar. “This space is a fight for the sacred. This is a fight for the humanity – not just for the children in there. Not just for the 14,000 children that are being detained. Not just for the 200 people who were dropped off at the bus station yesterday with no resources – this is a fight for their humanity and it’s a fight for our humanity.”
These artivists – activists who use art as a form of resistance – have come from all over the country and all over Texas to spend their Christmas on this barren strip of land outside that fence, an effort to show their solidarity with those children; but it’s hard to know if the kids are aware of their presence.
But they hadn’t even finished unpacking their van in the cold darkness of the West Texas desert when they got word of another humanitarian crisis unfolding an hour away in downtown El Paso: 200 migrants had been dropped off at the Greyhound bus station, with no notice to already overwhelmed service agencies. We dropped everything to head into town and see how we could help. On the night before Christmas Eve, with temperatures dropping below freezing, families with sick children shivered in the cold. Over the next three days, around 800 asylum seekers would be dumped in the bus station and a nearby park to fend for themselves, and volunteers scrambled to find places for them to stay and attend to their needs.
Vega, a counselor and art therapist whose activist chops have been honed in the 4 1/2 years of the Ferguson Rebellion in St. Louis that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, had been agonizing over the child detention crisis for months. In November she, Benavides and several others came down and spent 2½ weeks camped out in front of the facility, planning an intervention.
Josh Rubin, a 67-year-old Jewish systems analyst from Brooklyn, had been camping out here in his RV since mid-October, a resistance of one, who began reporting on the issue from his Facebook page, Witness: Tornillo. Since that time, the detention camp has doubled in size. And after he began coming over to try and connect with the kids, a black tarp went up covering the chain-link fence.
But the Christmas in Tornillo organizers are determined to breach that barrier with creative resistance. Wise Fools, a circus troupe from Santa Fe, has brought gigantic puppets that pop up over the fenceline; there will be birds and banners on poles, and there are rumors that some stilt walkers are coming. It’s Christmas morning, and artists are gearing up for a Christmas Day procession around the perimeter of the detention camp. They are just getting started, and they are determined to send a message to those children, loud and clear: No estás solo. You are not alone. And one thing is certain: The voices of these activists will be heard across the nation.
The Department of Homeland Security announced plans to close Tornillo last week after months of escalating pressure to shut down the camp and other detention centers holding migrant children. Organizers are skeptical, however. “With 15,000 children in detention centers, this is no time to celebrate,” maintained Vega. Whether or not this particular detention camp is closed is not the point.
What Vega and Benavides saw on their November visit to the detention camp made them more committed than ever. They called on their artist and activist networks and on local El Paso migrant solidarity groups, and what emerged was Christmas in Tornillo: The Occupation.
And so it was that on Christmas Eve the women built an altar in front of the stone entrance of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility. The Virgin of Guadalupe was the backdrop, and the Guadalupe Mountains loomed on the Mexican side on the landscape beyond the massive facility. Juju, another Ferguson activist, smudged the space with sage.
Vega explained to the group the intention of the encampment, which for the next nine days would be holding this space both for the children inside, and for those outside who wanted to learn and collaborate with this new “brown-led coalition of resistance” aimed at raising awareness and strengthening local and national movements.
One of the things that had shocked the Latina women on their first trip to Tornillo was the friendly relationship the White resisters had developed with the 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,” said Vega, who plans to use the occupation as a way to build capacity and connection. The group will be meeting at 2 pm each day over the next nine days, planning the activities of each day, building consensus, creating the occupation as they go.
Benavides held baby Ariah on her hip as she addressed those listening, a diverse gathering that ranged from as far as California and Louisiana and Minnesota and as close as El Paso. She recalled her first trip to Tornillo in November with Vega. She was shocked by what she had seen. She’d been to other Texas detention camps during the family separation crisis, but nothing approached this scale, she said. “Tornillo is a totally different level of imprisonment of children that I’ve ever seen, ever. Call it what you will, it’s a concentration camp for children,” she declared. “People ask why would as citizens we can celebrate Christmas anytime – but they can’t,” she added, gesturing toward the detention camp in the background.
“Mama Cat” Daniels of the Potbangerz, a St. Louis activist who began cooking to “nourish the revolution” at the time of the first Ferguson uprising, was up next. “We came a long way to support our babies that shouldn’t be in there,” she said. “I came to cook and feed people, She wore her “It’s not yo mama’s civil rights movement” T-shirt. Daniels, like many of the activists, is dividing her time between the camp and providing support at the overflowing shelters in nearby El Paso.
Less than an hour after the St. Louis delegation arrived on Dec. 23, Benavides received a text message from Immigrant Families Together, a group she’s been volunteering with in Dallas, alerting her of an unfolding crisis. On the night before Christmas Eve, more than 200 asylum seekers would be dropped off at the Greyhound Bus station without food, water, money, or resources of any kind. Over the course of the next three days, more than 800 would be dropped off in the middle of the city with no notice to the already overwhelmed volunteer organizations that have been responding to the crisis.
Temperatures were near freezing at night and they had no place to stay. Nobody, not the local immigrant support organizations or shelters, not the family members, not even the city government – had been notified that they would be left there, so nobody had prepared. Local groups scrambled to respond to what Jen Apodaca of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee called a “manufactured crisis,” and so the Christmas in Tornillo team decided to divide their time between “resistance and assistance,” as Vega put it.
While shopping for supplies with Mama Cat, the two stopped and talked to locals about the issue and were surprised that very few of them knew anything about the detention camp. She realized that one of the most important functions of the Christmas in Tornillo occupation would be to raise awareness of what’s happening in their town and just down the road in Tornillo.
Back at work on the Resistance Christmas tree, Juan Ortiz was recalling the carefree days as a teen when he and his friends would cross the border to Ciudad Juarez – and on their return, simply declare themselves U.S. citizens and walk through.
“There have been some huge changes these past 25 years, and we know that American policy has had everything to do with it,” said Ortiz, who is completing a PhD 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.”
Lead photo: Christmas in Tornillo organizers “Mama Cat” Daniels and Elizabeth Vega presenting the Liberation Ofrenda at the event’s opening ceremony.