This weekend, Gregory Cuéllar will go to the border again to see the faces of the children.
Cuéllar, an assistant professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has been working with the children of asylum-seekers — meeting at the bus station in McAllen, Texas, with children just released from detention and helping them use art to tell their stories of exile, journey and home.
Cuéllar will go back to McAllen with Austin seminary students from Dec. 14-16 as part of a “Wall of Welcome – Interfaith Caravan of Hope” witness at the border, organized by Mission Presbytery in Texas.
The witness is expected to include preaching from J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); an update from Sr. Norma Pimentel of the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, where asylum-seekers are cared for each day as they are released from detention; and the insights of Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 2018 General Assembly, making her second trip to south Texas in two months.
Cuéllar is going to help immigrant children tell their own stories, through what has become the Arte de Lágrimas (Art of Tears): Refugee Artwork Project.
He began the project with his wife, Nohemi, in 2014, when he heard the news accounts of unaccompanied minors being detained at the border — traveling alone, without their parents. “I teach a lot on exile, I teach on immigration in my courses,” Cuéllar said. “For me to see this enormous surge of immigrants that were coming from Central America seeking asylum — we needed to get involved in some way.”
The Cuéllars, who have children of their own, came up with the idea of letting children draw about their experiences. With help from seminary students and local pastors, they gathered art supplies. Working in partnership with Pimentel and the Humanitarian Respite Center, they began to meet with children at the McAllen bus station as the children came from the relief center and waited to board the buses they would ride to stay with family or friends as their asylum cases proceeded.
At the bus station, “we’d sit with the children and give them lap boards and pieces of paper and a box of colors, and they’d just start drawing,” Cuéllar said. “A lot of the children asked us what to draw. I had informed the volunteers that, based on my own research on exile and my readings of the biblical texts, two safe art tasks would be ‘Draw your journey’ or ‘Draw your house.’ So that’s what we would tell them. Draw your journey.”
The Cuéllars and their team made a series of trips to McAllen from 2014 to 2016. And, using drawings from the children plus several pieces of art they were given on the themes of journey and homeland, they created a traveling exhibit they could take to churches, seminaries and other public settings to describe the experience of the asylum-seekers. The artwork was mounted on portable frames that look like cages — symbolic of the wire enclosures in which detainees often are held.
“A lot of the children, they’re believers,” Cuéllar said. “We saw strong religious symbolism in the art. When they would go (to board the bus), we would say, ‘We will pray for you, and we will show this to people of faith.’ ”
What did the children draw?
Cuéllar said he has been struck by “their strong sense of faith” — a sense “that God is very much present in their lives, and especially in their migratory experience.”
Often, the families are leaving their Central American homes for economic reasons, to escape violence and out of fear of the gangs.
“They also have this religious conviction that God doesn’t want them there,” in those conditions, Cuéllar said. “To submit to the demands of the gangs is contrary to their religious beliefs. It is a part of their faith responsibility to reject that system, to refuse to be recruited by the gangs. And that leads ultimately to the tipping point for them to migrate. That faith narrative is very much represented in the art. … The majority of the art registers some element of Christian faith.”
The children’s drawings of their homes are generally peaceful, showing their families together, and typical of prophetic imagery from the Old Testament, Cuéllar said — of, for example, Isaiah’s portrayal of a restored Zion. Isaiah portrays Zion after restoration as a place of unity and peace.
“In looking at their art, I couldn’t help but connect what they were portraying in their art with what I was reading in the biblical text. They are not seeing their homeland as a place that is corrupt, that is dark, but where their family is together, their pets are playing, the sun is smiling.”
That’s not the reality, Cuéllar knows. But “in a sense, they are projecting hope” in those drawings — “a prophetic hope in not portraying their house as a place that’s dark. It’s honoring that hope, honoring the future, the desire to be settled, the desire to be home and have their family together.”
What they long for is “for home to be a refuge. It’s what we all long for.”
In 2017, based on his work with migrant children, Cuéllar was invited to the University of Oxford as a visiting scholar with the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. The Centre is involved with an artwork project made by migrants from other parts of the world. Those migrants also draw religious symbols: a mosque, a homeland with a crescent moon, sayings from the Koran in Arabic.
“Their homeland was also very idyllic looking, although they were coming out of Afghanistan, or parts of the world where violence was very prevalent,” Cuéllar said. “They too were portraying a homeland that was peaceful, idyllic, everything was in place, calm.”
Sometimes the children in McAllen drew images of their journeys. “When they draw the detention center or they draw the immigration officials, they often are giants compared to themselves,” Cuéllar said. “You could see how the river, crossing the (Rio Grande) river was a very critical point of the fear and the anxiety, the culminating point where all the violence was getting at its worst.”
At the bus station, some of the mothers asked if they could draw too. In 2016, the Cuéllars took the project to the bus station in San Antonio, working with families being released from the detention centers in Karnes and Dilley, Texas.
Where images of struggle and hardship are shown, “that’s where the religious element also shows up … especially when they’ve dealt with rape, being kidnapped, escaping death,” Cuéllar said. “Yeah, it’s there.
The women wanted to draw their experiences in detention and of traveling to the border, because they wanted people to know what had happened to them, he said. They told him, “We want people to know our story. It just started to organically evolve into a public awareness project and also an archive project. We are trying to raise some funds to get a website set up,” and to digitize the artwork so more people can see it.
Cuéllar has also taken small groups of Austin seminary students to the border so they can see firsthand what is happening. And he recently spoke at Ithaca University about his forthcoming book, “Borderlands Hermeneutics: Transgressive and Embodied Readings of Scripture,” from Fortress Press.
Cuéllar sees connections between the Old Testament narratives and the journeys of the asylum-seekers he’ll meet this weekend in McAllen and Brownsville.
“As you look at Genesis and the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, clearly you find migration stories in those narratives,” he said. “And a lot of those stories mirror the stories that we’re seeing today. People are leaving because of scarcity of resources and they’re also leaving because God is telling them to leave. … That story has not gone away. The Bible and lived reality may be separated by historical distance but in terms of the essence of those two stories, the story of the asylum-seeker today and the patriarchs, they speak to each other.”
This weekend’s witness will include worship — and Cuéllar also has been thinking about communion in the context of immigration.
“In going to the table to take the bread and wine, I’m having to cross over something,” he said. “Border is sin in the sense that it separates us, it separates us from people and it separates us from relationship. In order arrive at the table, I have to cross over my sin, my border that keeps me from going to the table and embrace what is being offered freely, and that’s the love of Christ. I would ask that as Presbyterians are taking communion, they would think of themselves as border-crossers.”
In going back to McAllen now, Cuéllar intends to begin working with asylum-seeking families again – to ask more immigrants to draw from their experiences.
“We have been there on many occasions where we have broken down wailing,” he said. “You can only suppress it so long, when you see the stoic faces, the petrified looks after having been violated multiple times. It’s a stare that I still have tattooed on my mind’s eye, seeing the mothers when they were entering the bus station. It takes a toll on you. But the level of trauma that I’m having to absorb, it doesn’t compare to the lifetime of internal trauma that the asylum-seekers are going to have to live with. We could hide from it. That only delays the process and makes it worse. Or we can turn to it now, turn to their trauma and start absorbing it now. Because it’s not going to go away.”