At the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, the incarceration continues of women from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, often perceived and then grouped as "las Latinas" or Spanish speakers. The relentless, lethal gang wars that are tearing apart their neighborhoods and cities, in addition to domestic violence and sexual exploitation, impels some courageous women to suffer the hell passage on the train that goes from the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala into various points in Mexico. This train is known as la bestia. When they finally cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. they then spend days or as much as two weeks in the cold buildings under the control of the Border Patrol. There they are subjected not only to extreme cold, absence of adequate clothing and bedding but a daily diet that many have told me consisted of nothing but two bologna sandwiches and water. One woman asked me, “Is that not what is called torture?”
Then, frequently shackled and packed into vans, they are delivered to detention. While it is hard to fathom the official excuses given by the Border Patrol, the cruel practice in these ice boxes, las hieleras, must be perceived as torture techniques, punishment designed to break the spirit of these immigrants. Some have suggested it is to suffer a deprivation and discomfort so extreme as to make the incarceration in the detention center seem a welcome relief. When they arrive to Hutto, they are one of the 512 women detained there there is food, a bed and blankets. There are showers.
While scattered among various pods or dormitories, Guatemalans find each other, as do Salvadorans and Hondurans. Friendships are forged between women whose poverty prohibited them from visiting or really knowing their Central American neighbors. In visitation we have seen women smile, meeting a woman from her home country, who she didn’t yet know, and hearing the name of a village that is recognized. Perhaps a small pueblo where a cousin or an aunt lives. Or a Honduran who has an uncle living in El Salvador and is happy to meet a woman who lives close to the uncle.
However, the last months have brought to Hutto a different group of women seeking asylum. These women are coming from many areas of Africa. We have met women from Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda. Now the first women from the Central African Republic are beginning to come across the border from Mexico.
These African women are now being thrown into the immoral, for profit, private detention gulags. It is there that they meet, for the first time, women who are neither Black nor White; they meet las Latinas. Perhaps one of the unforeseen positives that has emerged from this incarceration known as detention, is that women from Central America and Africa are coming to know each other. They are hearing each other’s languages and, in some cases learning them. One of my Eritrean friends has learned a lot of Spanish. I told her it could serve her well in the community to which she has just relocated. It is a Northern city with a large latino population who, like her, are immigrants.
On one visit we met a Honduran woman who is Garifuna.1 At a later time, talking with one of our friends from Nigeria, she told me about the first time she had seen the woman from Honduras. The Nigerian woman had run up to her, embraced her and started speaking in Yoruba – so sure was she that this descendent of escaped African slaves from the Atlantic coast of Honduras – was one of her own.
And now, just in the past days, I have had the opportunity to visit with some of my African friends, finally liberated from detention, either given asylum or at least released with an immigration court hearing on the horizon. I can meet with them outside of the big cage that is detention. I can meet them at Casa Marianella or Posada Esperanza.
In many cases they are released because Casa Marianella exists as an alternative to detention. Casa Marianella works in coordination with the wonderful attorneys at American Gateways, so that women who have no family in the U.S. who come to live at Casa Marianella or la Posada Esperanza. It is the safe, transition housing that they need so that they may begin to rebuild their lives which were shredded in their long journeys and lengthy detentions.
I listen to my young friends, many in graduate school, studying anthropology, social work, sociology, history and Latin American studies; from them I try to learn not only the constantly changing technologies, I study their vocabulary and the words they use to form their critique. The word “intersection” comes up a lot. I like it. I’m not sure if my use of it here would be academically vetted. Nevertheless, sin embargo, I think that the intersections between so many cultures and stories that occur, daily, at Casa Marianella are small miracles that are testimonies to the power of humans to survive.
I also have selfish reasons to appreciate Casa Marianella and Posada Esperanza. It is there, sitting at the picnic tables, under the colorful murals, that I am able to visit with women I had only known as prisoners.
For many years I have been fascinated with the concept of being in a limnal2 passage. In the few years that I have been visiting the women held in immigrant detention at Hutto I have come to understand the concept in an entirely new way. The stories we have heard of these women’s journeys to the U.S. and their months in detention are examples of the "inbetween" — between their lives in their native countries — and the lengthy process through detention, asylum and finally freedom.
Casa Marianella may be perceived as the final threshold before entrance into a new life. It is here that healing can begin. The friendship, healthy food, medical care, counseling and legal services provided there help to ease the passage to a different way of living.
In preparation for the annual Dancing Away Detention benefit — I had an idea for a silent Auction item. I asked my friend, Ann Harkness, if she would consider taking some portraits of women who had been detained at Hutto and then gone to live in Casa Marianella or Posada Esperanza. As it turned out, photographs of 6 women who had been kept in detention and also passed through Casa were taken one Sunday afternoon. We decided to include 2 women who were not in Hutto, but detained in Jena, Lousiana. Detention centers can be found throughout the U.S. They are all terrible — simply for existing.
First we thought to put a group of their photos as a silent auction item. Ann, however, had the wonderful idea that instead of profiting in any way from the images of these women, that we would use their photos only to show examples of Ann’s portraiture. The silent auction item instead is one portrait session.
I was with Ann for part of the time she was taking photos of these brave women. It was a wonderful process, as they came in, dressed in both traditional African and western style clothing. You can see the results on display tonight at Dancing Away Detention. These photos are another small example of the kind of connection that exists between the Hutto Visitation Program and Casa Marianella. It was a community building process that integrated lots of questions, comments and participation from staff, guests and residents.
These photos are documents that prove that the human spirit can survive unspeakable travail. Yet with the support of programs like the Hutto Visitation Program and Casa Marianella they can move forward.
1. Afro-Caribbean Garifunas originated with the arrival of West African slaves who washed ashore on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent around 1635 while likely on their way to New World mines and plantations. Depending on the source, the West Africans were either ship-wrecked or escaped from the Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada. The West African transplants intermarried with local populations of Arawaks and Carib Indians (Caribs), immigrants from South America, to become known as Garifunas or Black Caribs. [http://www.globalsherpa.org/garifunas-garifuna].
2. 2 lim·i·nal·i·ty: noun Anthropology. the transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms of conduct, dress, etc. [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/liminality]