In May 2017, Guadalupe Maravilla visited a shelter just north of New York City to help run an art workshop for undocumented teenagers. Most of the kids, whom the government had placed there while they waited for court appearances that would determine whether they could stay in the country, were originally from Central America. This gave the artist an important point of connection with them: Born in El Salvador, Maravilla came to this country alone 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 facility come from gang violence and extreme poverty, with no support from the government — it’s a whole other thing that I’m not familiar with. Some were already here and got arrested or pulled over, then got put in detention once they found out they didn’t have papers. Some got caught at the border.”
How can art help people heal? That question has felt 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 on the idea of art as a kind of medicine, using sculptures, paintings, and performance. “I connect my trauma to my illness. It seems like everyone I know who’s undocumented and has been in this country for more than ten years is suffering from something,” says Maravilla, who is now a U.S. 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 his intricate Disease Thrower sculptures, five of which are on view at the Museum of Modern Art. The sculptures look like they could be props in a sci-fi movie about an ancient civilization; they function simultaneously as altars and beds, headdresses and instruments. They fuse gongs, items like loofahs and anatomical models, and objects that the artist collected in Central America on trips retracing his own journey to the United States.
When he visited the teenagers in 2017, he worked with them to make their own masks. Then, as another artist shot a video on a phone, they put them on and did a movement exercise pantomiming what they did at different times of day. As the teens respond good-naturedly to Maravilla’s prompts — “What were you doing at 1 p.m.?” — the limited, repetitive nature of their lives becomes clear. Here, Maravilla shares the process of making the video, which he’s 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 where the kids were living a detention center, but it is. They try to sugarcoat it by calling it Children’s Village. They try to make it seem different. At the end it’s the same thing: you’re being separated from your family. You’re there against your will, and someone is profiting off you. It’s a gated, fenced-in area with little houses. They’re only allowed to come out an hour a day for this or an hour a day for that activity, and when they come out, there’s five or six people watching them. That’s all they get. They’re on a schedule, almost like prisoners: They have a schedule to eat, to brush their teeth, to shower. This is what they do every day. You’re a teenager losing two, three years in there.
I went there to do a workshop with the artist Shellyne Rodriguez. It was organized by the MoMA education department, but I think they were having problems connecting to these teenagers because none of the teaching artists were from Central America. Once the kids found out where I came from and I told them that I was undocumented, they immediately opened up. I’ve done mask-making workshops all over the world, and I did two there: one for the boys and one for the girls. I start talking about how ritual and mask-making have a bond, and I show examples. I have a bunch of jpegs, and I play this game with them: “What country do you think this mask is from?” They start guessing, and they can’t figure it out. After that I’m like, “Okay, let’s make something. Think of your ancestors, based on what I showed you, and make your own mask.” We bring out pieces of cardboard and construction paper — everything to decorate. They all made their own masks that they were wearing.
The boys were pretty hard — they were under 16 and all had tattoos already. Some were in gangs. But they were still children. They were very sweet. Some had been in there 14 months, and some had been there 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 outside to perform, and it was beautiful — but they were more vulnerable, and I didn’t feel comfortable recording them. They still connected with me, but it took longer. At the end, they didn’t want me to leave; they were hugging me and crying. It was heartbreaking. They were more scared than the boys. I mean I’m sure the boys were scared too, but it was different. The boys were down to just play.
The video shows a performance exercise I learned from Malik Gaines, who was my professor at Hunter College. He taught us this to warm up the body, but I figured this exercise is really relevant here, so we can understand what they do in a 24-hour cycle. It kind of illustrates what they’re going through. The video, honestly, was very casual. I’m surprised it came out so beautifully. I was not planning on it. Shellyne shot it on a phone. The rule there was no photography, no video, but when we went outside to do the performance, I was like, “Can I videotape them? They’re gonna be wearing masks.” And they said okay. The kids were really excited — they wanted to be photographed.
Guadalupe Maravilla (born El Salvador, 1976). Shellyne Rodriguez, videographer. Detention Center Performance, 2022. Single-channel video (color, sound): 5 mins., 13 sec.
Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.
The experience of being in the position to give back and help is really important for me. The tough part is seeing how this continues — I can’t imagine going through that treacherous journey and then being put in a house or a cage. When I came to the U.S., my father and mother had already escaped 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 out and left us with our nanny. My sister’s paperwork cleared, so they flew her over. There were bombs falling in my neighborhood; machine guns were shooting through the house where I was staying. My parents were like, “If he stays there, he’s not gonna live.” So they hired someone to bring me over.
I went by land from El Salvador to Honduras, Guatemala, and all the way through Mexico. It was a two-and-a-half-month journey. The coyotes took me from house to house to house. Sometimes in a car, sometimes on a train, sometimes walking. I would get passed on to another person and another person. There was already kind of a structure for kids to be taken from one place to the other. I remember when I crossed the border at Tijuana: The coyote brought us over 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 I was the coyote’s son and speak English. But I couldn’t learn English. When we got to the border, the coyote’s big white dog got on top of me, and the coyote said, “Don’t move. I can’t see you.” The Border Patrol just glanced at the dog and let us through.
My motivation was I didn’t want to go back. Going forward was not scary; getting caught and being sent back, that was scary. Listening to bombs fall in your neighborhood is the most terrifying thing. That’s what I remember: Your house shakes. Constant helicopters and machine guns going off. I can’t imagine how my mother must have felt when I finally got to JFK — she hadn’t seen me in almost two years.
With all these communities I work with, you have to build trust. First, let’s talk; we’ll play this game. Next thing, we’re making masks. Next, we do a performance. If they see me again, they’re gonna really start trusting me. Then I can talk to them about sound healing. I can teach them meditation after that, and it will all start connecting. After I made this video with the teenagers, I wanted to go every week. I had a grand vision of doing 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 they’re not alone. I wanted to give them advice on how they can get through. We were scheduling some dates — but Trump had just been elected. The people that worked there were terrified. All of a sudden, they cut us off. The lady that had let us in was no longer there. Even with the Brooklyn Museum, we’re trying to get back in, and they’re very flaky.
The Brooklyn Museum show is about three generations of displacement: I was displaced because of civil war, the teenagers were displaced because of corrupt governments and gang violence, and the ancient Maya who built the objects in the museum collection — I chose 22 of them to include in the show — were displaced because of a massive volcanic eruption that happened in the fifth century. There was white ash falling everywhere. The name of the show, “Tierra Blanca Joven,” translates to “young white ash.” Also, the objects in the collection are displaced, because they don’t belong in this country.
I went through so many obstacles, and I’m doing this with my art now. I feel blessed. I hope the kids I met are gonna have the same outcome that I had. But a lot will probably get deported back to El Salvador, Honduras, or wherever they were escaping. This video sat for years. I hadn’t seen it in a while, and then six months ago I was looking at it and realized this is really special. We edited it and put subtitles in, and it was like, Wow, I can actually show this. Because I’m showing the work of my ancestors — why don’t I show the descendants, too?