There is a legend in Guatemala that the quetzal, the national bird, will die of sorrow if it’s put in a cage.
When teens detained at Tornillo, a tent shelter for migrant children in Texas that closed following safety concerns, were asked to make artwork to remind them of their home communities, one drew the Guatemalan bird — a symbol of yearning for freedom and a reminder of a time before confinement.
The quetzal cannot be caged, the child told teachers working at Tornillo.
The exhibit showcases artwork by children aged 13-17 from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and other Latin American nations that was made during a multiday art project designed to uplift the children and remind them of their homelands.
“These children created beautiful artwork in undesirable conditions,” museum director Daniel Carey-Whalen told CNN. “There are moments when we see the children’s hopes and dreams, but also see they’re really sad and constricted.”
Workers began discarding the artwork when the US government decided to close the tent encampment in January, according to the museum. But the art was preserved thanks to a local youth pastor who ensured it ended up in the hands of UTEP and El Paso’s Museo Urbano, a museum that preserves borderland history.
“We just want people to know that this happened. This is still happening. We’re incarcerating children,” Carey-Whalen said. “And we can try to sympathize with these children.”
As visitors first walk into the exhibit, the lighting is dim and they’re asked to step through a re-creation of a Tornillo tent. When they reach the artwork, which features bright colors and comforting depictions of parks, towns and animals, the room is illuminated.
Despite the uplifting themes in the artwork, Carey-Whalen said many visitors leave the museum saying they experienced tinges of the sadness and the visceral feeling of confinement. At the exhibit opening, curators asked a 17-year-old migrant who was detained at Tornillo to speak.
“The young man — we couldn’t use his name — but he said, ‘When I see this art, I can see the pain, and I’m reminded of this pain,’ ” the museum director said.
Tornillo housed nearly 3,000 minors at its peak — primarily children who arrived unaccompanied at the border with Mexico, including some who were detained as part of the Trump administration’s family separation practice. Following Health and Human Services reports of “serious safety and health vulnerabilities,” the camp was closed in January and minors were placed with vetted sponsors.
In conjunction with the children’s artwork that will be displayed until October, the museum opened an exhibit on US intervention in Latin America, curated by history students at UTEP.
“We just need more awareness and more conversation about what’s happening here at the border,” Carey-Whalen said.