It’s been less than a year since artist Michelle Angela Ortiz installed her compelling mural, featuring the eyes of four mothers detained in Berks County Residential Center, on the state Capitol steps and in Allison Hill.
Through her art, Ortiz brought attention to the stories of these mothers and their families who were held at the immigrant detention facility for almost two years. This Sunday, Harrisburg residents will get the chance to hear from the mothers themselves.
As part of her “Las Familias Separadas” public art project, Ortiz will present her 30-minute documentary “Las Madres de Berks.” The film, which translates to “The Mothers of Berks,” features interviews with four mothers speaking about their families and about being detained in Berks.
“It’s important to me, especially as an artist, to create a platform for these mothers to share their own experiences,” Ortiz said. “In most cases, families that are detained, they always have someone speaking on their behalf, whether it’s a lawyer or an organizer. I thought it was really important to hear their voices and to see them.”
The documentary is a product of 2½ years of work. Ortiz began interviewing the mothers five months before their release in August 2017. The film shares just some of the conditions they had to endure while at Berks. Many of the mothers were denied proper hygiene products, were told to wear “loose clothing” because of institutional rape, and earned less than $1 day, if they could work at all.
However, what hurt the mothers and Ortiz most was how the center affected their children. The ages of the kids held at Berks ranged from 16 years down to 2 weeks old. According to Ortiz, some children fell ill while living in the facility. When the mothers complained too much or did not abide by the staff’s rules, they were threatened with separation from their children.
“It’s as if they didn’t have kids,” one mother said in the “Las Madres de Berks” trailer. “As if we are nothing to them.”
Since being released, two of the mothers were sent to different cities in the United States, another was deported back to El Salvador, and another, unfortunately, died.
“We are still incarcerating children. We are incarcerating mothers and fathers with their children,” Ortiz said. “What does that mean when we live in a state that is incarcerating families and children and stripping them of their humanity?”
After the screening, Ortiz, along with Anna Drallios and Maria Hernandez of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, will conduct a talk back and share how members of the audience can help immigrant families and shut down Berks.
“We want people to feel for these mothers,” Ortiz said. “We want people to feel anger and all these emotions, but, most importantly, we want people to take action. So, now that we’re presenting this information, what can you do?”
See the screening of “Las Madres de Berks” this Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Susquehanna Art Museum, 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information on Michelle Angela Ortiz and the Familias Separadas public art project, visit www.michelleangela.com. For more information on Shut Down Berks, visit www.facebook.com/ShutDownBerksCoalition.