MCALLEN, RGV – South Texas College is hosting a series of panel discussions as part of the three-day FEIPOL Festival at Cooper Center for the Arts.
The FEIPOL Festival, or the International Latin American Poetry Festival, features more than 35 poets across the U.S. and Latin American countries such as Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru.
The first panel discussion today featured Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Rachel Gittinger, director of citizenship and civic engagement for the Central American Resource Center as well as Oliver Contreras, assistant photo editor for The Washington Post.
On the stage was a plethora of colorful butterfly paper maches. Monica Raygada, executive director of FEIPOL, said visual artist Gaby Rico interviewed refugees at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen. Rico encouraged the refugees to write letters to friends from their native country, document their journey and asked the children to draw.
“We wanted to … artistically help them take flight–so we decided to transform those messages into a symbol that was powerful enough and that is a butterfly,” Raygada said. “Butterflies are the symbols of immigrants in the Mexican culture.”
Raygada said it takes three generations of monarch butterflies to metamorphosize into a super butterfly–serving as a metaphor for the many generations of Mexican parents that have to sacrifice for their children to thrive in America.
“We bear witness to that experience [and] here for us is a homage and a tribute to all those that sacrificed for their children and also a symbol of freedom,” Raygada said.
Pimentel said Sacred Heart began taking in immigrant families the summer of 2014. She had the opportunity to visit the processing center on the border and found over 1,000 kids in a facility that had a maximum capacity of about 300.
“As I walked into one of their cells, they were all crying … and it was so hard to … see their faces full of tears and desperation and hearing, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Pimentel said. “It was so sad to see that here in the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, could not have something better to [offer]. And I blame us, the United States, [because] we weren’t ready for that and we didn’t have a better response for these kids.”
Pimentel understands the risk of allowing people with bad intentions to come into the country, but she said the border patrol already figured out that these families are not a risk to the United States.
“They’re here asking for protection and help,” Pimentel said. “It is our responsibility to … hear their stories and understand why they’re here and not quickly rush to deport them. When we do that, we’re sending them back to their death sentence. They will die if we don’t give them a chance to be protected here in the United States.”
Sacred Heart continues to welcome at most 200 people everyday. Pimentel said McAllen has been a great asset to aiding the immigrants by providing tents, portable showers or portable restrooms.
“In one way or another, it was a humanitarian response to a human reality.” Pimentel said. “[The community] has been a part of this wonderful humanitarian response to welcome the stranger, feed them, clothe them and help restore the dignity that they have lost along the way.
The panel discussion shared a video of a group of kids referred to as the “unaccompanied” because they crossed the border without an adult. Gittinger said the theme of the presentation is that there’s no reason the kids should remain unaccompanied. In communities that house a large number of immigrants, the people need to help them transition into the United States.
“A lot times in 2014 and throughout the coverage of what they call ‘Crisis on the Border’, the story has stayed at the border,” Gittinger said. “When everyone thinks of immigration, they think of the wall. There’s not just one wall that exists, [but] thousands of tiny walls and obstacles that these youth have to overcome everyday long after they cross the border.”
Contreras created a portfolio entitled Unaccompanied: Youth Seeking Refuge of the children in the video to bring awareness of the struggles some of the Latino community face. He said there isn’t much coverage in Washington D.C. despite the large numbers of people with Latino backgrounds.
“This project is about storytelling,” Contreras said. “This is a project about the brave young people who decided to tell their own stories in order to bring inspiration to people in the Latino community. The project [is also about bringing] inspiration to millions of young people who are going through the same situation. As an artist–as a painter, as a poet [or] as a visual artist–we have a huge responsibility to keep [our] culture alive and to make it grow.”