United we stand, divided we fall. It’s a strong sentiment to consider, especially given America’s current state of political unrest.
Starting today, artist Michelle Angela Ortiz is bringing one of the most divisive issues right to Harrisburg—immigration—particularly the treatment of certain immigrant families who came to Pennsylvania seeking refuge.
The issue of immigration may not seem prominent in central Pennsylvania, far away from the U.S. southern border. But, through her art, Ortiz shows that the issues surrounding the treatment of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States is much closer than we think.
She’s putting faces, stories and families to something that is often left anonymous and not discussed—the word immigrant. Her project, titled “Familias Separadas,” shines a spotlight on immigrant families that have been held in the Berks Family Detention Center in Berks County.
Familias Separadas will offer an intimate look at the stories of four mothers and their desires to give their children safe and bright futures. Installations will be placed throughout Harrisburg to help engage residents and visitors to the city.
Through Ortiz’s art, mediums will include billboards, bus shelters and even the Capitol steps, all acting as a voice for mothers who have felt silenced.
In addition to the installations, videos of interviews will be released, as will a small publication of writings and drawings inspired by Ortiz’s conversations with these families. The project, designed to heighten public awareness, will be centered around the connection and love each of the women has for her children.
“The love of children is missing when we look at the larger narrative of immigration and when it’s specific to family detention,” said Ortiz. “The media’s quick to label the families’ mothers and fathers as criminals breaking the law. But, really, the risk of leaving their home country is based on seeking a better life for their child and love for their child and for the future of their child.”
The first phase of this project began in Philadelphia in 2015, when installations were placed around the city to depict the stories of families torn apart by deportation. This award-winning project featured the phrase, “We Are Human Beings, Risking Our Lives, For Our Families and Our Future,” stenciled outside the ICE building, proving that Ortiz is no stranger to making her art known to the people she believes need to hear it most.
“Living in Philadelphia, we have the Liberty Bell. We have the Declaration of Independence. We have all of these symbols of the foundation of what we call our democracy and freedom,” Ortiz said. “And what does that mean when, an hour and a half away from Philadelphia, we have a prison that incarcerates children? And their parents, who are just seeking protection.”
That’s why Harrisburg became Ortiz’s choice for phase two of “Familias Separadas.”
The Berks County-run center, about an hour’s drive from Harrisburg, receives $1.3 million in federal funds to imprison families, including children, toddlers and infants, according to Shut Down Berks Coalition’s campaign coordinator Jasmine Rivera
“It’s not legal on the federal level or the state level,” said Rivera. “I want to be abundantly clear that there is no legal way to put families in prison. Not in Pennsylvania, not anywhere in our country. Every single day families are incarcerated, the law is being broken.”
Rivera has worked with Ortiz on projects in the past and recognizes the importance of her work in spreading the word and empowering people to take action.
“[Ortiz] has been able to really utilize art as another way to not only work with the mothers and provide that healing, but as another way to educate people through a different means,” she said.
Politics and removal orders aside, this art is a connection between Ortiz and mothers with lives, children and aspirations of their own.
When Ortiz began phase two of “Familias Separadas,” she connected with 14 mothers and families that were being held in the detention center. Ten of these women were deported soon after, creating a feeling of uncertainty for the remaining mothers.
“[The mothers] were tired of talking about their stories for their court cases,” Ortiz said. “They were fed up with writing campaign letters. If anything, they saw this as a loss, the 10 mothers being deported. So, I came at a moment where I wasn’t really asking them to do a campaign letter or do something to advocate.”
Instead, she asked to have a conversation. Ortiz wanted to listen to the women talk about their lives before imprisonment and learn what was happening to them within the center. She ultimately discovered a deep connection in that all of their lives were centered around their children.
During the making of this project, the four mothers that Ortiz worked with were released from the center and sent to live in different cities throughout the country. While this created a new logistical challenge for Ortiz, the releases worked in her favor by allowing the mothers to speak more freely about their experiences in the center.
The identities of the women in Ortiz’s art will be protected while their stories are shared through murals, quotes and videos online.
While this art is focused on human connection and empathy, Ortiz knows her art comes at an important time of year.
“We have the power to demand from our representatives to make the changes that are necessary,” said Ortiz, citing this month’s election. “We can end family detention here in Pennsylvania. So, this art is about informing people and giving them the tools to take action.”
For more information on Michelle Angela Ortiz and the “Familias Separadas” installations, visit her website at www.michelleangela.com/familias-separadas. A press conference is slated for Nov. 3 on the steps of the state Capitol.