Smithsonian requests migrant children’s drawings

Smithsonian's National Museum of American History expressed interest in obtaining migrant children's drawings depicting their time in U.S. custody.

WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has inquired about obtaining disturbing drawings by migrant children that depict figures with sad faces behind bars.

“The museum has a long commitment to telling the complex and complicated history of the United States and to documenting that history as it unfolds,” according to a statement from the museum to CNN.

The drawings by three children who had just been released from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody drew international attention last week. The children, ages 10 and 11, were staying at a respite center run by the Catholic church in McAllen, Texas, when they made the drawings.

Renee Romano, a professor of history at Oberlin College, applauded the Smithsonian for making an effort to preserve artifacts documenting the crisis at the border as part of U.S. history. She said the U.S. government’s current policy of detaining immigrants and separating children from parents is part of a long national record of “seeing people as less than human.”

She noted, for example, that Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II. The government separated Native American children from their parents, and African slave children were also separated from their parents. “I think it’s an amazing stance, honestly, by the Smithsonian, and a brave stance, to say that this is historically significant,” Romano said. “Something like a children’s drawing is not typically something that a museum is going to say, ‘This is something we would collect and protect,’ ” she added. “[But] these kinds of artworks are really about what are they thinking and feeling at this particular moment. How do we see this experience from their perspective? That’s really, really powerful.”

Last week, after reading CNN’s story about the drawings, a curator for the Smithsonian reached out to CNN and the American Academy of Pediatrics as part of an “exploratory process,” according to the Smithsonian statement. A delegation of pediatricians received photos of the children’s drawings after touring the McAllen respite center and then shared the images with the media. At any one time, the respite center houses about 500 to 800 migrants who have recently been released from Customs and Border Protection custody.

Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said families arrive at the respite center in emotional pain from their journeys to the United States and their time in CBP facilities. “They find themselves in these facilities that are overcrowded and families are separated from children and they don’t know what’s going on — they’re traumatized,” she said. “The children don’t know what’s happened to them, and they’re afraid and crying. It’s so disturbing to know we can’t do something better for them.”

Brenda Riojas, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, said she hopes the museum will also accept and preserve happier drawings made by children at the respite center. “Children use bright colors and draw things like sunshine and children playing. It shows their resilience. It shows there’s hope for their healing,” she said.

Riojas shared with CNN an image made recently by a girl at the center that uses bright colors to depict a heart and a smiling face. With childlike misspellings, the girl wrote “Dios es marvilloso” (“God is marvelous”). Romano said she also hopes the Smithsonian takes in these happier drawings. “No one is defined completely by an experience of oppression,” she said.

She said she hopes that in decades to come, historians and visitors to the museum can see the array of drawings and get some feeling for what the children were going through.

“I think it’s really, really important to give people the tools to understand this moment in history from the perspective of those people, those children, who were experiencing it,” she said.

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