Blanca Santander Testimonios
Written by Susan Platt
Testimonios A Digital Installation
Testimonios, Blanca Santander’s poignant digital installation about migrant children forcibly separated from their parents and put into cages by the US government, speaks directly to our hearts. The artist created seven soft sculptures representing children, each inscribed with words of the children who were placed into insufferable conditions in what is known as the Ursula Processing Center. Santander then arranged them in a digital exhibition, they seem to come and speak to us. Friends and students of the artist spoke the words written on the sculpture.
Blanca Describes the Work:
“In 2018, President Donald Trump enacted a “Zero-Tolerance” border policy that superseded all prior border policies, allowing immediate persecution of all persons who crossed the border. This abrupt and aggressive executive order led to an infamous and much-undeserved crisis, where children were forcibly separated from their parents. Lost and afraid without their guardians, these children lived in awful and inhumane conditions–cramped in detention facilities with more than maximum occupancy, stuffed in rooms filled with complete strangers, little to no privacy for restroom usage, no clothes to change into, little to nothing to wash themselves with, no beds, no blankets, no one to console them. Around 5,500 children were separated after the policy was signed by President Trump, and more were separated even after the policy was rescinded. These children, who were left crying for their parents, for decent treatment, for freedom, are still today traumatized and scared, being put through an oppressive and confusing border-law system, with complex litigation and paperwork, as well as hiding from past and current terrors on either side of the southern borders.”
As many as 2000 children were crowded together in cages. According to one report there were a dozen cages each with 140 children. The facility near McAllen Texas was within the hundred mile border zone, so Border Patrol has broad authority to ignore Constitutionally protected rights. So mindlessly obsessed driven were the White House administrators to create a strong stand against immigration, that even infants were separated from their parents, left completely alone ( over the objections of the attorney generals from the border states). In a few cases older siblings looked out for them, or at least tried to, given the horrendous situation.
These children have now been placed in foster homes, still separated from their families, or in shelters run by the Office of Refuge and Resettlement. A few have been reunited with a parent in the US that they never knew. The trauma they suffered can never be erased either from their own psyches, or from our own. Many of the parents have been deported to Mexico. As of February 2020 r there are still 500 children whose parents cannot be found in spite of efforts to find them in Mexico and elsewhere.
The artwork bears the testimonies of the children who were kept in detention near the border, where they plead for places to sleep, to eat, bathe, and see their families once again. The work is inspired by the information released to the public, dedicated to spreading awareness and drawing compassion for these children within our own borders, children who need our help and even more so with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which makes them subject to more stress and legal and humane trouble.”
This collage is a study for the final work.
The Ursula Processing Center is being “remodeled,” a rather ominous idea, perhaps indicating that in the future, children will once again go there. According to the New York Times, “the renovated facility is designed for 1100 children.” The facility opened under Obama as a short term solution (even then illegal and unacceptable), but under the political machinations of the last four years, the children were left there for months and the chaos of trying to find the parents has gone on for years because virtually no record keeping happened. There are still many children who have not been reunited with family. Yesterday we heard that the Biden Administration is opening a new facility for children. It looks to be less inhumane, but the fact that it exists at all is terrible.
As one advocate for the children stated “It’s unnecessary, it’s costly, and it goes absolutely against everything [President] Biden promised he was going to do,” said Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors. “It’s a step backward, is what it is. It’s a huge step backward.”
Testimonios bears witness to Santander’s own deep feelings for migrants. She herself came from Peru . She knows first hand why these migrants are coming. As she told me “ The Shining Path terrorism in Peru lasted 18-20 years. Because of my work, I was constantly in the heart of terrorism that was in the mountain regions of Peru. I was working with NGOs like UNICEF to help create educational materials for children in impoverished areas. Alongside these educational materials were things such as sustainable agricultural techniques and being aware of and protecting endangered wildlife. To have cultural relevance in my illustrations I had to travel across my country and see how impoverished and/or indigenous people lived. Every community is different than other ones. There were difficult times in my country and the communities needed authentic support.”
Esperanza Abandonada (Abandoned Hope) 2017 poignantly and succinctly refers to the tragedy of immigration for children. It foretells Testimonios. It depicts a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence.
As the artist said “It depicts a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence. Its poignant image of a child who has lost her beloved doll, crossing the line into another land, speaks directly to the hardships of fleeing home to enter an unfamiliar place. Even when working hard within the borders of their new land, they have to flee from those who would take their new life away, often leaving behind what is most precious to them in the process.”
But these works are only one aspect of Santander’s work. She has addressed many topics, followed many directions, including public art in Seattle. She often approaches her work with celebration and joy.
She declared “It is difficult to express my emotions and thoughts in words, so illustrating and painting are extremely important to me. They get my message out to the world, where I am not bound by a language barrier. I feel free when I paint, because I can pour out the feeling tethered to my existence.: that I am a mother, a woman, a warrior, lover of peace, my culture and mother nature. I rarely express sorrow or lack of color, as I find more happiness and freedom in painting liveliness of nature and the female body. But sometimes the sorrow I feel for the world and its woes must exit through my hand onto paper or canvas. I want viewers to feel happiness for the world and what it has to offer – trees and flowers that give us beauty and protection; the strength and momentousness of women and the Mother Earth.”
An example of this more joyful work is Daughters of Immigration, “Immigration to this land means you have emigrated from another. You have left behind family, tradition, culture, and language. All here is new and strange. The feeling of home becomes divided, and you don’t feel like you belong to one culture or the other. Then your children are born here and they are North American. They grow up only knowing this land and only memories and shadows of the other.
They are sons and daughters of immigration. We live out of suitcases full of our heritage and culture. Does being different make us stronger? Are life’s struggles really just a shared experience calling us to unite our energies for a better world? I have learned to identify with immigrants from all over the world. I feel sisterhood with all immigrant women. In my paintings women are celebrated as the nucleus of the family. Being a mother gives us incredible strength to draw from an inner power to fight for a better life for our families. We also have an insight and connection as creators of life when it comes to our feelings for our planet.”
Blanca Santander is a Peruvian-American artist who has lived in Seattle since immigrating in 1996. Her artwork focuses on environmental and social justice, as well as her identity and her heritage. Either by teaching art to children, or by providing artwork that is colorful, informative, or uplifting to those who may come across it, Blanca uses the passions that inform her art to help uplift others in her community.