Children Detained - "I Would Rather Be In My House"

Genesis, “El Centro de Detención,” marker and crayon. Credit: Refugee Artwork Project co-founders, Gregory L. Cuéllar, Ph.D. and Mrs. Nohemí Cuéllar

“Prefiero estar en mi casa,” marker and crayon. Credit: Refugee Artwork Project co-founders, Gregory L. Cuéllar, Ph.D. and Mrs. Nohemí Cuéllar

Written by - Gregory L. Cuéllar

This artist is Génesis, a nine year old girl from El Salvador. She and her family had already gone through the relief center and had been returned to the bus station in time to catch their bus. They had about an hour before their bus arrived. While at the bus station, I sat down next to Génesis and laid out a lap board, a box of colors, and sheet of white paper. Not knowing what to draw, I suggested that she draw her “viaje a los Estados Unidos” (trip) to the United States. Her mother who was sitting next to her looked at her and prompted her to start with the detention center. Using markers and crayons, she immediately went to work—outlining first the detention cell where she, her mother, and her 6 year old brother Rodrigo were held for several days. She then filled the detention space with big and little bodies—explaining that they were babies, little children, and parents. As she explained, they slept together on the cold floor. In the picture, they are located on the top right corner inside the detention cell. Still in their wet clothes, they were each given a thin plastic blanket, a juice-box, and a small sandwich. Génesis stated that the room was cold and had the lights on constantly. In this space, she also remembered a barred window and two partially exposed toilets (bottom right).

After completing the detention cell, she proceeded to draw her border crossing journey. As she described, the river was brown and looked intently for a brown crayon in the box. Her family crossed in a small makeshift raft, which is reflected by the two grey circles located immediately above the brown river. On the banks of the river, they surrendered to U.S. border patrol agents or what she called “la policia”. They are the two large dark human figures who are each standing next to a portable prison truck. She mentioned that she was afraid but knew God was with her. So she drew an image of God with a smile and a beard next to the yellow sun.

With relative ease, Génesis filled the paper with a sequence of images that together narrativize her journey experience.

During her wait in the bus station, Génesis also completed a second drawing which she called “Prefiero estar en mi casa”. This was in response to my suggestion that she draw her house. She started her picture outlining her house with a pink marker. She then proceeded to add interior details like the bed- rooms, windows, TV, and doors. In the center of the house, she drew herself standing together with her mother, father, and 6 year old brother Rodrigo. As she explained, her favorite place to play was in the little house near the swings. While she was drawing it, she named all the things she had to leave behind—her bike, shoes, towels, and toys. Throughout the picture, she drew her and her 6 year old brother Rodrigo playing together. She filled up the remaining blank spaces on the paper with a lush landscape and a bright sky. After she completed her drawing, she said that she prefers to be home and that she misses everything.

Unseen in her drawing is the gang violence that had caused her and her family to flee their home. Even more unsettling was the fact that it had been several years since her father lived at home in El Salvador. He had migrated to the United States for economic reasons. As her mother described, they fled their home because the local gang had demanded an extortion payment of $10,000. She also stated that the town gang located her husband on Facebook threatening to harm his family if he did not meet their demands. There only way of escape these threat was to sell their truck and flee to the United States.

For Génesis, central to her memory of homeland was having her family united.