A Boyle Heights Artist Is Mailing Thousands Of Messages Of Hope To Immigrant Detainees
High up in an office space in the Financial District, about 15 adults and a baby crowd two small, bright office spaces. It's a hot October night, and the AC can barely keep up. They are all — except the baby — eating tacos as they furiously type away on laptops. Their task: Translating nearly 3,000 messages submitted by strangers through an online portal meant to show people they've never met — immigrants held in federal detention centers — that they are not alone.
Throughout the next couple of weeks, the messages will be printed in English and Spanish on one of five colorful postcard designs meant to represent a bouquet of flowers, created by artists from New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
"As an undocumented artist, I wanted them to know that there is a community of undocumented people who have their back and are there to support them," says Julio Salgado, before his phone chimes. It's a new text message and a new volunteer is downstairs waiting to be let up and put to work.
The Boyle Heights resident made a name for himself as an activist and artist fighting for the DREAM Act, legislation that would have granted permanent legal status to young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Salgado now manages The Center For Cultural Power, a collective of activist artists, out of a small office in downtown Los Angeles and is leading the postcard project, called Flowers on the Inside. He's cheerful when handing out assignments, blocks of 10 messages that need to be translated from Spanish into English and vice-versa, since they'll be in both languages once delivered.
The idea, Salgado says, is simply to give them hope and support. Because incoming mail for detainees is inspected, the messages will be cleaned up by volunteers for any language, such as threats or profanity, that could potentially raise red flags with detention officers or cause postcards to be withheld.
"I'm a very hopeful person," he explains. Salgado is cheerful when he talks about his own immigration status, in spite of living in limbo himself.
He's protected for now by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, a program that lets some immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and don't have legal status live here legally, on a temporary basis. But that could change any moment — the Supreme Court will consider DACA's fate next month.
The other artists illustrating the cards also grew up without legal status, like Salgado. There's Maria HW, an Asian Pacific Islander from Mexico based in Oakland. Brian Herrera is a graphic artist from Chicago who was also born in Mexico. Artist Karla Daniela Rosas lives in New Orleans. Rounding out the bunch is New Yorker Emulsify, who identifies as "a queer femme, healer, artist, organizer, and full spectrum doula."
The cards will go to detainees, which include asylum seekers and people who are appealing their deportation, held in immigrant detention centers scattered around the U.S.
"I think if I was in that situation, I would want to hear from people on the outside sending me messages of solidarity of hope," Salgado says through an unwavering smile.
Flowers on the Inside was born from this idea. Salgado tries to explain that he wishes they could send detainees actual bouquets of flowers, instead of metaphorical ones, before he's whisked away to answer a question: One of the translators wants to know if Salvatrucha is okay to use. The word refers to someone from El Salvador, but in the U.S. it's become associated with the gang MS-13.
But in this context, "it's fine," Salgado tells the volunteer. "It's just about expressing pride for his home country."
The author of the message, who is Salvadoran, is guessing that the detainee who will get his card is also from El Salvador, among the growing number of migrants from Central America.
All the messages are in fact meant for strangers.
"I probably don't know your name, but I miss you," reads a message submitted by a Berkeley resident. "We need you here with us on the outside of detention. I'm thinking of you often and hoping for your release very soon."
All the messages were submitted using a website that was open to the public for a whole month starting Sept. 16. Once the translations are done, the postcard will be sent to a list of detainees collected by Casa Arcoiris, a Tijuana shelter that provides services to LGBTQ migrants and is one of the postcard project's partners.
Because many asylum seekers come through Casa Arcoiris on their way to the United States, "they are in contact with migrants before they go into the detention centers," explains Johanna Calderón-Dakin, one of the volunteers. "Since they are in contact with them before going inside, they then are able to provide the (detention center) with their A-numbers."
"A-number" refers to Alien Registration Number, a case number assigned to foreign nationals when they enter the immigration system. Dakin said they must present detainees' A-numbers in order to communicate with them inside a federal detention center.
The federal government says there are more than 6,500 detainees held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in California alone.
By the end of their first night translating messages, the group of 15 volunteers translated enough for 700 postcards. They still had a couple thousand left to go before they could send it off to the printers and eventually to various detention centers.
- "Estamos contigo! (I'm with you)."
- "Love transcends walls and borders."
- "Even though I don't know you, I believe in your dreams ... [and] walk in your worn out shoes and the loving steps that made you take this fateful journey there, where you are today."
The little baby cried out a little during one of these translations, read out loud by Calderón-Dakin. His mom took him to another room, where she served herself a plate of tacos after a long session of typing.
"I'm proud of my plating," she says before taking a break to eat.
In the other room, Salgado is still running around asking volunteers if they can stay longer.
"Flowers represent growth," he says.