Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Message of Hope: Allison Hill mural offers permanent record of “Familias Separadas” art project.

Michelle Angela Ortiz’s new mural at 13th and Derry Streets in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill neighborhood. Images courtesy of Michelle Angela Ortiz.

The massive mural that appeared on the steps of the state Capitol building in October may be coming down this weekend, but another work by the same artist is in Harrisburg to stay.

Philadelphia-based muralist Michelle Angela Ortiz last week unveiled a 35-foot mural at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC), at 13th and Derry streets in Allison Hill.

It is the only permanent installment in Ortiz’s “Familias Separadas” project, which shares the stories of migrant women and children detained at the Berks Family Detention Center in Berks County, Pa.

“Familias Separadas” comprises eight pieces of art throughout Harrisburg, the most high-profile of which is an 88-foot appliqué mural on the steps of the state Capitol Complex.

Ortiz installed the appliqué mural at the Capitol in late October under temporary permit from the state Department of General Services. She will begin removing it tomorrow.

The other installations appeared on bus shelters near the Capitol and on rented billboards outside of Harrisburg. All feature words and images Ortiz collected while interviewing women at the Berks Family Detention Center, where migrant families are detained indefinitely as federal authorities weigh their claims of asylum.

Just an hour’s drive from Harrisburg, the Berks facility has long been the subject of protest from immigration advocates, who say that detaining children and asylum-seekers in prison-like conditions is inhumane.

Ortiz designed “Familias Separadas” as a temporary installation, meant to compel action on immigration policy ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections. But as she planned its components and spoke with local immigrant advocates, she realized she wanted to leave something enduring in Harrisburg.

She decided that a permanent mural in Allison Hill would complement the temporary installation at the Capitol, showing how political decisions reverberate in the lives of ordinary people.

“It’s important to have this image on the Capitol steps, but it’s equally as important to have it in Allison Hill,” Ortiz said. “Both communities need to hear this story. Allison Hill is an immigrant community that’s thriving despite the attacks of immigration raids and presence of ICE these past few years.”

The eyes on the warmly colored mural belong to a woman named Delmy, who was detained at Berks Family Detention Center for almost two years with her son, Ortiz said. It also features a quote from Delmy in Spanish: “My son is the only one that gives me strength.”

“Compared to messages on other installations, this one is a message of hope,” Ortiz said. “It reminds us of our strength and resilience as we fight against an anti-immigrant climate.”

Ortiz painted the mural on a wall owned by Brethren Community Ministries. All the works in “Familias Separadas” were funded by a national fellowship for artist-activists.

With help from local immigrant advocate groups, Ortiz invited members of the neighborhood to watch and help with the mural installation. The support the project received was overwhelming, she said.

“While we were painting out in the cold, the encouragement we received from the community was just amazing,” Ortiz said. “People said, ‘Why here?’ and my response was, ‘Why not?’ What I saw in Allison Hill while working with local organizations and having conversations with community members is that they want more of this.”

Ortiz said that LHACC, Migrant Immigrant Leaders of Pennsylvania (MILPA), Brethren Community Ministries and Sprocket Mural Works were instrumental to bringing “Familias Separadas” to Allison Hill.

She hopes her work will remain an inspiration to the Latino community there as it faces new challenges, including the arrival of asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America and continued displacement of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.

“The need to leave your home country to look for a better, safer place is still present, and it’s very much present among community members in Allison Hill,” Ortiz said.

Learn more about the “Familias Separadas” project by visiting Ortiz’s website, or by reading this feature from the November issue of TheBurg Monthly. To learn more about the Berks Family Detention Center, click here.

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