Detention Nation Looks at Immigration Today and in Colorado History

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With election season in full swing, words like “immigration” and “detention” are repeatedly thrown around by candidates and the media; meanwhile, the people at the center of the immigration crisis are hardly ever given a voice. Detention Nation, a new exhibit opening at 6 p.m. Thursday, February 11, at the Museo de las Americas, explores the physical, mental and emotional experiences of the thousands of immigrants currently locked up in private detention centers across America. More than a mere installation, the enveloping experience created by the Sin Huellas collective transforms the Museo into barren cells, showing visitors what it’s like to be constantly monitored and kept behind chain-link fences and barbed wire. The Sin Huellas collective is a group of artist-activists from Texas — where the installation was first shown — who are connected to Museo artist Delilah Montoya. In advance of the opening, Westword spoke with museum curator Maruca Salazar about the exhibition — and Colorado's own history with migration.

Westword: How did Detention Nation come to Museo de las Americas?

Maruca Salazar: There is a commonality of artists that we have in the pool, and one of those artists is Delilah Montoya. She's a native of Colorado, and she grew up on Inca Street, right behind Santa Fe Drive — where Museo is located. Delilah was here with me in 2015 for an exhibit called Chicano. She was the only female represented in that exhibit that we did in conjunction with History Colorado. At that time, Delilah was working with a cooperative, because she's also a professor of art in Texas; some of her students were part of the collective, and they mounted this exhibition, Detention Nation, in Texas.

We were talking about Museo's 25th anniversary in 2016; I wanted to do something that was connected to the issues that affect our community today. Delilah told me that she was working with a collectivo — a collective — of artists who are also very involved in the immigration issue. Museo de la Americas is a community museum, which means that it is a museum that serves and focuses on providing accessibility to the Latino and Chicano community in Denver, so we brainstormed about the idea, seeing if it would fit into my matrix of what I wanted to do for the anniversary.

This exhibit is coming from Texas, and the artists are all very young people from Texas — they are artists and also activists. This is really interesting in terms of Latino contemporary artists; most of the Latino art right now is the hottest thing in different biennials around the world. But this group of artists took the focus that we had in the 1970s and '80s — art that is created with a social and political response. It was up my alley, absolutely; that's the generation that I come from. That's what we did when I was their age. We didn't create for art's sake; we created art with a purpose. The purpose was to inform the communities through muralism and to inform the social-political issues through the artwork that we were producing, creating a serious criticism of the times.

I'm glad to see that that trend hasn't been lost completely. People are still socially and politically conscious, and the majority of Latino artists under the age of forty are very much in tune with the idea of using art as a way to make sociopolitical comments — whether it's the environment, whether it's family, whether it's identity or immigration, border issues, etc.

This exhibit comes from Texas, where the issue of immigration is often a focus — but it is also something that states like Colorado are always working on as well. How is this current situation of immigration explored or connected to Denver's — and Colorado's — own history?

Imagine that you think Denver is way, way removed from this issue, compared to say, Arizona or New Mexico or Texas, right? But really, historically speaking, we're not. If you look at the migration pattern of the past, Denver was part of the migration pattern. Before the arrival of the white man in Colorado, before anything else, there were native migration patterns that allowed for people from Mexico to travel all the way to Colorado to do trade. It is embedded in our DNA, this idea of accepting and embracing migrant people from different parts of the country because Denver was a place to gather. That is part of our history.

Now when it comes to migration, the issue of who we are as a group of people — a group of ethnic people — is defined by the different influences we have received due to the migration patterns that have existed. Prior to the Bracero movement, prior to immigration laws that were written later on to control the mass quantities of people, prior to all of that, Denver, being in the southwest of the United States, has always been a safe haven. It's a place that you can come, in the Valley of San Luis, and work hard and be among people who speak your language and be accepted.

That attitude of the state of Colorado and being a welcoming state has caused a lot of problems for a lot of politicians, whether they are left or right. Regardless, it is embedded in the history of who we are — as natives, as people from Colorado. I am not a native of Colorado, by any means, but my husband and his entire family are; they are seven generations in Colorado. My mother-in-law was born in the area around Brighton; she was a picker. She had nine brothers and sisters. Her dad came from Mexico, but her mother was from Texas; they came to Colorado.

People like this, who have been here forever and ever, they grew up bilingual. So imagine that you go to bed one day being Mexican and you wake up one day and you are an American citizen. That's what happened in 1848, when Mexico lost the war with the United States and we lost the land. That's when we lost our rights and our land, too — so you know, there is this whole historical perspective of migration and immigration that was tolerated because of the way it was. It's hasn't been a long time since that happened; we're talking 1848. That's less than 200 years. Memory has a fire; migration is something that has to be remembered, and it has to be dialogued, because it is part of who we are as the citizens of Colorado.

This is such a big piece of the story that is missing from current political conversations — it's like immigration is presented as a "yes or no" issue.

I agree. And you know, I'm not just talking about immigration of Latinos; I'm talking about immigration of Irish people to Colorado; I'm talking about African-Americans who arrived. There is an amazing, rich history of immigration here. We really need to allow for that to happen. Detention Nation is an exhibit that responds to the anxieties — what's going on? What really happens? How can I become more aware of it? Well, let's take a little bit of your liberty and freedom and let's lock you up in a detention space, and let's see how you feel about that. Let's read the letters and the hunger-strike journals. Let's see how you react to it.

We have to help people and allow them to process those experiences so we can actually understand what happens to all of those people who are desperately seeking refuge all over the world. How do we treat those people? I mean, Christ, it is so bad. It is really compelling to just experience for a minute the experience of those people. It is localized, but with an attempt to become universal. That's the purpose of this exhibit: It's a local issue with international ramifications. We are going through this process all over the world right now.

That's what, to me, makes this exhibit particularly effective — it's not just, "Here's a bunch of pictures of people in this awful situation." The fact that it is immersive allows us to feel what a prison-like situation is for people who are supposedly "free."

Exactly. It is not to shock you or straighten you up; this is something to provide you a taste, to allow you to read the comments from people who are still incarcerated. As a matter of fact, one of the people who was incarcerated will be here at Museo talking about his experience. People think the situation is glorified to prove a point — I hear, "Oh, come on, Maruca, you're exaggerating." No. I'm not. You really need to experience it. I think that the older that we get, the more we are focused on actually going through the process of experiencing. That allows you to make more rational and humane conditions.
We talk about the privatization of prisons and the whole unevenness of the prison system experienced by people of color — but this is about people who aren't even given the illusion of due process and are still being imprisoned, essentially.

There is a piece in this exhibit by Delilah Montoya called "Rapture"; you are taking from a space in place and time; you are placed in a vacuum. It has no trajectory, no historical view, no daily life. You are totally disrupted and you are in the middle of nowhere. You know, that experience is being very well represented in this large piece. It's a series of cyanotypes that have the shadow of women and children.... [With this exhibit], you do not pass judgment. You have to allow people to make their own decisions. Whether you agree or disagree, how about dialogue? It's not imposing anything upon anyone; it is simply presenting the facts.

How were the stories or experiences explored in Detention Nation collected by this group of artists?

When I spoke to some of the artists in the collective, I asked them that. Basically, they were part of the movimiento in Texas against the deportation of people. Even though they are artists, and even though they are going to school to become professional artists, the fact that they participated in the protests and supported the people who were taken to detention and bothered to document the history of those people — that's how this came to be. They are activists that became artists. You know, art is the natural conduit to provide people with the understanding about what is impacting our society today and what our main concerns are, whether they are aesthetically pleasing or shocking or demonstrating a different aesthetic of Latino art.

Detention Nation is a classical example of what Chicano art of the 21st century is all about. It is very raw; it is very in-your-face. But I think that somehow, the artistic movement — specifically when it comes to the mix of performing art in a museum setting — is an example of what is coming down the pipes. To me, it connects with the rest of the programming that we have at Museo. I decided a long time ago that the exhibit for our 25th anniversary was going to be something that addressed the concerns of our community. Of course, accessibility and equity are main concerns of our community today. Immigration is something that has been with us for many, many years now. What better a place to celebrate and create an exhibition series that connects with those topics.

When someone asks me, well, why Denver? Why immigration? I say because, before the arrival of the white man, before Denver was Denver, the native people of different tribes got together in Confluence Park — that's why that park is called Confluence, because that is where they gathered — and they did ceremonies, they did powwows, they did trade. Long before these drunken criminal men named it Denver, Denver was called the "Changing Woman." The native name of Denver was the Changing Woman because our seasons are so poignant — summer, spring, fall and winter.

Detention Nation opens with a free reception from 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow, February 11, at the Museo de las Americas; meet the artists at 6 p.m. on February 12. There will be special First Friday activities and other interactive companion events scheduled throughout the exhibit's run, which goes through May 27. For more information and a schedule of events, visit Museo's website or call 303-571-4401. 

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