Reading through a mother's account of her time inside a Texas immigration detention center, Zeke Peña was immediately struck by the woman's concern for her 10-year-old son and the sense of entrapment she felt having made it to the U.S. but living behind bars.
"She came to the U.S. to give her son a better life," Peña told BuzzFeed News. "Yet they're in the U.S. but they're caught in the middle, in this limbo."
Peña, an El Paso-based artist, used the 27-year-old mother's concern to create a 12-by-12 inch acrylic piece and highlight her experiences. He used the U.S. flag because while it is a symbol of freedom for many people, the mother still wasn't free.
The painting is part of a project dubbed "Visions From The Inside" where 15 artists from across the country create a piece of art based off of letters from women in detention. CultureStrike, an organization that uses art to take up social causes, is posting new images nearly every day for three weeks on their Instagram account.
The woman in the letter Peña received was frustrated because her son had the opportunity to post bail, but she didn't have a release date.
"I do not think it is fair to see my son incarcerated here when he could be free," she wrote on a sheet of plain yellow paper dated Feb. 24, 2015. "Please, I ask for help so I can get out of here soon, have justice, and see that my son can be happy and free."
Julio Salgado, artist projects coordinator at CultureStrike, hopes the pieces combined with the paintings will give people a three dimensional narrative about detainee's experiences.
"We want people to imagine what it's like to be there," Salgado told BuzzFeed News. "The hope and the idea behind this is to put an end to detention centers."
Some of these mother's celebrated their child's first birthday inside a detention center, Salgado said, a personal sadness compounded by their difficult journeys to the country in the first place.
"We also want to honor the heroism of these women," Salgado said. "It takes a lot of courage and responsibility for a mother to leave a country where they might not know a lot of people and start all over."
CultureStrike worked with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, a group that seeks to end violence and abuse of LGBTQ people in prison and immigration detention, and the organization End Family Detention.
Iris Rodriguez, an activist and creator of EndFamilyDetention.com, started to receive letters from detainees at an immigration detention center in Karnes, Texas through a pro-bono lawyer. The letters continued to come through various channels.
Rodriguez started to curate the letters on EndFamilyDetention.com, mostly out of desperation, she said. Several families she knew were getting deported before they could even see a judge.
She believes the images will make the letters more accessible and reach more people, especially since many of them were written in Spanish.
Though a federal judge last week ordered that mothers and children held in U.S. immigration centers be released from detention, Rodriguez said there's still a lot of work to be done, like trying to ensure the order isn't appealed.
Ultimately, the project is about shining a light in the darkest of places, she said.
"By humanizing the experiences of these letters visually through art pieces, we believe hearts can be moved and freedom can be obtained."
Adolfo Flores is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He focuses on immigration.
Contact Adolfo Flores at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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