Using Art and Theater to Give Immigrant Children Voice

Immigration Reform United States

New Orleans  –  Recent headlines indicate that there is still, two years after Trump’s departure, 1000 children victimized by the family separation program who have not been reunited with their parents.  It’s also fair to wonder and worry about the impact on children in families that have not been separated, but live in constant fear of personal or family deportation and their immigrant status.  Professor Silvia Rodriguez Vega at the University of California at Santa Barbara did exactly that in two studies, one in Maricopa County, Arizona, and the other in Los Angeles County, California.  She found encouraging and discouraging impacts on children which we discussed recently on Wade’s World, and that she summarized in her new book, Drawing Deportation:  Art and Resistance among Immigrant Children.

Professor Vega immersed herself in the research, working in both sets of communities, not by exclusively talking to the children, but by giving them art assignments or parts in their own theater plays to allow them to demonstrate their own perspective.  The age range of the children was from early adolescence around 8-years-old to mid-teens at around 14 and 15.  Many had endured scarring experiences.  Parents deported, here today and gone tomorrow, only seen on the phone or computer screens.  Relatives lost in the desert.  In some cases, their own solitary journeys across the border to find their families at great expense and risk when they were as young as 10-years-old.  Inarguably, such experiences define trauma.  Added onto to these family histories were the constant threats in their youth in Arizona from the infamous and tyrannical anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio and in Los Angeles from the anti-immigrant policies of President Trump.

Talking to Vega and looking at the drawings, two things emerge quickly.  One is how amazingly political these children’s drawings were.  They knew Arpaio and Trump well and placed them prominently in their art and theater in counterpoint to their own families and their situation.  They knew what was happening in the country at large, and it was obvious this was part of the daily family conversations, instructions, and warnings.  It’s almost impossible for most of us to put ourselves in the shoes of a 10-year-old and the fears they must have every day returning from school and wondering if their parents would still be with them.  The other critical theme that emerges is how resilient these children were.  They knew the enemy but wanted peace.  In the theater presentations, their fear was often manifested in humor and satire, rather than anger.  

Vega makes the case that art and theater make a difference in helping immigrant children thrive despite their precarious existence in the United States, but also notes how often these are among the first programs cut in public schools facing financial shortfalls.  More broadly she urges wholesale educational reform that allows all children to find their voice and secure some stability in school.  These are tough assignments, and so far, as encouraging at her studies were, it is impossible not to realize that we are getting a failing grade with these children.