Speaking broken Spanish and painting broken hearts: My experience on the border

PHOTO: Casa Alitas

Art teacher Kayla Dunn, left, helps a Guatemalan child tape her drawing to the art room wall at the Benedictine Monastery.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently announced that 475,000 migrant families have been arrested at the southern border this past year. This is a steep 342% increase since the 2018 fiscal year.

It can be easy for the countless news stories rolling off the pages of papers around the country about the “border crisis” to overstimulate you, especially when reading from the comfort of one’s home thousands of miles away. This summer, however, the debate hit home for me after I travelled 1,015 miles from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Tucson, Arizona and volunteered at Casa Alitas, a catholic monastery turned migrant shelter. 

For nearly two months, I translated Spanish and taught art classes at the monastery. Prior to volunteering, I had read the stories of migrants fleeing to the U.S. border and seen the pictures of brown faces against silver chain-link fences in detention camps. But meeting these people face-to-face, breaking bread with them, painting with their 5 year olds and listening to their stories was nothing like reading the news.

Casa Alitas houses migrant families that sought asylum in the U.S. and were subsequently dropped off on the streets of Arizona by ICE. To seek asylum, a person must be facing extreme persecution in their home country; they must be fearful that staying would result in their deaths.

After passing credible fear interviews and proving they have family in the U.S. (among other things), the families are left to traverse the U.S. to their destination (a court hearing that sends the majority of migrant families back to their home countries).

After deciding to volunteer at Casa Alitas, I found myself in the art therapy room as an art teacher.

Each morning, I’d arrive at Casa Alitas wearing bumblebee antennas, hoping to seem approachable to the stray 3-year-old wandering the halls, and teach art. Together, we would trace their favorite cartoon characters on calca (tracing paper), construct trains out of cardboard boxes and color scenes of their homelands.

We spoke broken Spanish and painted our broken hearts.

One morning, I spent the entirety of the therapy art class rolling around on the floor with two sisters, aged 3 and 6, from Honduras. We laughed, talked about princesses and chased each other around the room; they were just children.

Later in the afternoon, after the girls had left for lunch, their mother shared the heart-wrenching story of how they came to be in Arizona. I wept as she spoke. Those sweet girls may just be children, but they had experienced more pain than I will undoubtedly ever face.

Volunteering, speaking Spanish, painting murals and eating dinner with these families gave “the migrant crisis” tangible weight; I know these people. 

Offering three meals a day, English classes and help with purchasing plane or bus tickets to their destination, Casa Alitas runs on volunteers. We never knew when a group would arrive, bringing anywhere up to 75 more mouths to feed, so we were always ready.

I helped where I could and served where needed. One day in particular, the program coordinator, Valarie, invited me south of the border to Casa Alitas' sister shelter, La Roca. 

“Shelter” proved to be a generous word for a slab of concrete partially covered by a tin roof and lacking walls in most places. For a few hours, I worked with the congregation of kids, covered in sweat and smiles, to distract from the months they had been waiting on this slab of concrete to enter the Land of the Free.

It is easy to become numb to appalling news when you are not directly facing the repercussions. 

But I implore you to not continue to exist in oblivion.

I implore you to look the issue directly in its face. Because the people currently locked in cages in the Land of the Free are human beings. They are sisters and mothers, sons and fathers. People who have often faced tremendous pain and persecution.

As citizens in one of the most powerful countries in the world, we cannot feign helplessness and live in apathy. We must value justice strive toward efficacy.