Drawing a Life Without Papers

Undocumented Kids in Philly Ink their Stories through Comics
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Attorney General Jeff Sessions paid a visit to Philadelphia late last month, with a special message from the president: the City of Brotherly Love should think twice before proclaiming itself a City of Sanctuary. Sessions and President Trump have been hammering cities across the country to give up their policies of not cooperating with federal immigration authorities, threatening to cut off federal law enforcement funding for any city that, for instance, bars cops from inquiring about immigration status to turn undocumented arrestees over to ICE.  To many, the criminalization of something as innocent as a humanitarian act of sanctuary is both offensive and absurd. And to children who are caught in the crossfire of America's angry immigration debate, there are no words to express their frusration. 

That's why some are expressing themselves through the visual language of art. At the Mighty Writers youth art workshop in Philadelphia, children affected by the mass detention and deportation crisis have depicted their undocumented lives on paper. The comic format allows them to combine drawing, collage and dialogue in a way that expresses their fears, hopes and confusion at a world that, from a child's point of view, can seem inexplicably mean.

As one 12 year-old artist, Allan, told Newsworks, he worries constantly that his two parents, both undocumented, wil be torn away from him:

"I'm scared that if I'm at school, when I come back home, back from school, I wouldn't find my parents or my uncle in my house. And my house would empty. I'm afraid my dog wouldn't be there."

Ten year-old Amy described the emotional release of putting dark inner thoughts on colorful paper: "If they take away me and my brother, they might separate all of us, and we might never see us again. My little brother will be so scared. I would be worried for my little brother and my sister. They might give my brother to another family and me too."

To Nora H. Litz, director of Art and Culture with Puentes de Salud, which hosts the Mighty Writers project, the workshops are a growth process for both teachers and youth:

While doing the workshops, I realized that as important as creating each individual comic and the telling of the impact the current state of affairs has on each child, being together was very soothing for the kids. I cannot assure the children that "everything is going to be OK," under this administration but we can certainly do something about it. So, we'll continue creating works that deal with immigration stories.

With their eclectic bricolage, the layers of cut paper and objects and handwriting, the comics are tactile in a way that only a child's senses can truly grasp. But the comics are vibrant testimony to the problems that force them to grow up too soon. 

Often the children's reflections deportation center on the horror of having a loved one suddenly vanish from their lives in an instant. The constant threat of separation evokes images of coming home to an empty apartment, with a half-cooked dinner in the kitchen and an unlocked door showing ICE's trail. The horror of that sudden absence, the loneliness and the shock of what the government terms "removal", is mirrored in the the word bubbles and textures that the children assemble.

For us viewers who can only glimpse at one slice of their lives through their art, the fact that the comics need to be touched, to be truly experienced, embodies what it means to live in a family divided by borders. The physical barrier between the deported and those they leave behind inflicts many psychic wounds. But what's most tragic is the numbness; being deprived of a loved one's touch. Sometimes you can only feel something when truly in its presence, and what we can't hold today, we can never really grasp again.

--July 26, 2017


A Message from Favianna Rodriguez

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