Guadalupe Maravilla on ‘Detention Center Performance’ Video

In May 2017, Guadalupe Maravilla visited a shelter just north of New York to help run an art workshop for undocumented teenagers. Most of the children the government had placed there pending court appearances that would determine whether they could stay in the country were from Central America. This gave the artist an important connection with them: Born in El Salvador, Maravilla came alone to this country in 1984, when he was 8 years old, joining other members of his family who had fled the civil war. But he had never been held inside, or even visited, an institution like this. “I feel like an elder in this community because I was part of the first wave of undocumented children to come to this country,” he says. “A lot of the boys in this establishment come from gang violence – that’s a whole other thing that I don’t know about. Some were already there and were arrested or arrested and then taken into custody after finding out they weren’t had no papers. Some were caught at the border.

How can art help people heal? This question has seemed urgent since the start of the pandemic, but Maravilla has been asking it for longer. The Brooklyn-based artist was diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago; since recovering, he has built a practice centered around the idea of ​​art as a kind of medicine, using sculpture, painting and performance. “I link my trauma to my illness. It seems like everyone I know who is undocumented and has been in this country for more than ten years is suffering from something,” says Maravilla, who is now a US citizen. His work includes sound baths, therapeutic sessions in which he and other trained sound healers play gongs for members of the public – usually undocumented immigrants or cancer survivors. These sessions are often performed using its complex disease caster sculptures, five of which are exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. The sculptures look like props in a sci-fi movie about an ancient civilization; they function both as altars and beds, headdresses and instruments. They merge gongs, objects like loofahs and anatomical models, and objects that the artist collected in Central America during trips retracing his own trip to the United States.

When he visited the teenagers in 2017, he worked with them to make their own masks. Then, while another performer was shooting a video on a phone, they would put them on and do a movement exercise mimicking what they do at different times of the day. As the teenagers respond good-naturedly to Maravilla’s prompts – “What were you doing at 1 p.m.?” — the limited and repetitive nature of their lives becomes clear. Here, Maravilla shares the process of making the video, which he is showing for the first time as part of his solo exhibition “Tierra Blanca Joven” at the Brooklyn Museum. —Jillian Steinhauer

They don’t really call the place where the children lived a detention center, but it is. They try to spruce it up by calling it Children’s Village. They try to make it look different. In the end, it’s the same thing: you are separated from your family. You are there against your will, and someone is taking advantage of you. It is a closed and fenced area with small houses. They are only allowed to go out for one hour a day for this or that activity, and when they go out, there are five or six people watching them. That’s all they get. They have a schedule, almost like prisoners: they have a schedule for eating, brushing their teeth, showering. That’s what they do every day. You are a teenager who loses two, three years in this.

I went there to do a workshop with the artist Shellyne Rodriguez. It was organized by MoMA’s education department, but I think they had issues connecting with these teenagers because none of the teaching artists were from Central America. Once the kids found out where I was from and I told them I was undocumented, they immediately opened up. I’ve done mask-making workshops all over the world, and I did two there: one for boys and one for girls. I start talking about the link between the ritual and the making of masks, and I show examples. I have a bunch of jpegs, and I’m playing this game with them: “What country do you think this mask is from?” They begin to guess, and they cannot understand. After that, I’m like, “OK, let’s do something. Think of your ancestors, from what I showed you, and make your own mask. We take out pieces of cardboard and construction paper – everything for decorating. They all made their own masks which they wore.

The boys were pretty tough – they were under 16 and all of them already had tattoos. Some were in gangs. But they were still children. They were very nice. Some had been there for 14 months and others for three months. They didn’t know what was going to happen. It was different for the girls and we had to be more sensitive. We made masks and went out to play, and it was beautiful – but they were more vulnerable, and I didn’t feel comfortable recording them. They continued to communicate with me, but it took longer. In the end, they didn’t want me to leave; they were hugging me and crying. It was heartbreaking. They were more afraid than the boys. I mean, I’m sure the boys were scared too, but that was different. The boys were there to play.

The video shows a performance drill I learned from Malik Gaines, who was my teacher at Hunter College. He taught us this to warm up the body, but I thought this exercise is really relevant here, so we can understand what they are doing in a 24 hour cycle. It kind of illustrates what they’re going through. The video, honestly, was very laid back. I’m surprised it came out so nicely. I hadn’t expected this. Shellyne filmed it with a phone. The rule was that there was no photography, no video, but when we went out to do the performance, I was like, “Can I film them? They will wear masks. And they said okay. The children were really excited – they wanted to be photographed.

Guadalupe Maravilla, Performance of the detention center, 2022. Videographer: Shellyne Rodriguez. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW Gallery, New York.

The experience of being in a position to give back and help is really important to me. The hard part is seeing how it continues – I can’t imagine going through this treacherous journey and then being put in a house or a cage. When I arrived in the United States, my father and my mother had already fled El Salvador before me; they left me with my grandmother in the capital, San Salvador. Eventually the war got so bad that they flew my grandmother away and left us with our nanny. My sister’s papers were sorted, so they brought her in. There were bombs falling in my neighborhood; machine guns were firing through the house where I lived. My parents said, “If he stays there, he won’t live.” So they hired someone to bring me over.

I went overland from El Salvador to Honduras, Guatemala and all the way to Mexico. It was a two and a half month trip. The coyotes took me from house to house to house. Sometimes by car, sometimes by train, sometimes on foot. I would be passed on to another person and another person. There was already some kind of structure to take the children from place to place. I remember when I crossed the border to Tijuana: The coyote brought us at three in the morning. I was in the back seat and terrified, because if the border patrol asked me questions, I was supposed to pretend to be the son of the coyote and speak English. But I couldn’t learn English. When we got to the border, the coyote’s big white dog climbed on top of me and the coyote said, “Don’t move. I can not see you. Border Patrol just glanced at the dog and let us through.

My motivation was that I didn’t want to go back. Going forward was not scary; getting caught and fired was scary. Listening to the bombs falling in your neighborhood is the most terrifying thing. That’s what I remember: Your house is shaking. Helicopters and machine guns permanently. I can’t imagine how my mother must have felt when I finally arrived at JFK – she hadn’t seen me in almost two years.

With all these communities that I work with, you have to build trust. First, let’s talk; we will play this game. Then we make masks. Then we do a performance. If they see me again, they’ll really start to trust me. Then I can talk to them about sound healing. I can teach them meditation after that, and everything will start to connect. After making this video with the teenagers, I wanted to go there every week. I had a big vision to do sound baths with them, but the main thing I wanted them to know was that I could be their mentor. I wanted them to know that they are not alone. I wanted to give them advice on how they can pass. We were planning dates – but Trump had just been elected. The people who worked there were terrified. All of a sudden, they cut us off. The lady who let us in was gone. Even with the Brooklyn Museum, we’re trying to come back, and they’re very fragile.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibit looks at three generations of displacement: I was displaced by the Civil War, teenagers were displaced by corrupt governments and gang violence, and the ancient Mayans who built the Items from the museum’s collection — I’ve chosen 22 to include in the show — were moved due to a massive volcanic eruption that occurred in the fifth century. There was white ash falling everywhere. The name of the show, “Tierra Blanca Joven”, translates to “young white ash”. In addition, the objects in the collection are moved, because they do not belong to this country.

I’ve been through so many hurdles, and I’m doing it with my art now. I feel blessed. I hope that the children I have met will have the same result as me. But many will likely be sent back to El Salvador, Honduras or wherever they fled. This video sat for years. I hadn’t seen it for a while, then six months ago I watched it and realized it was really special. We edited it and put subtitles on it, and it was like, Wow, I can really show that. Because I show the work of my ancestors — why wouldn’t I also show the descendants?

About Selena J. Killeen

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