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Young immigrants use their art to tell stories of faith and fear on their journey north

Texas couple shares the moving ‘Art of Tears’ ministry with borderlands conference attendees

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Nohemi Cuéllar and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, began Arte de Lágrimas six years ago. (Photo courtesy of Arte de Lágrimas)

LOUISVILLE — Six years ago, Nohemi Cuéllar and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, used a tried-and-true method to launch a ministry that helps young immigrants entering the U.S. through South Texas to express their stories, their fears and even the faith that’s sustained them.

With the permission of their parents, who are waiting with their children to board a bus that will take them, for example, to the city where their sponsor or support group awaits them, the Cuéllars or a team of volunteers hand crayons or markers and paper to young immigrants and gently ask them to draw their journey north, or the home they’ve left behind — or whatever other way they choose to express themselves.

The result has been Arte de Lágrimas, or Art of Tears, a series of first in-person and now online exhibitions in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries and churches that have been acclaimed for the truth the art tells and the way children can express themselves, often bringing adult viewers to tears.

The Cuéllers were featured Saturday during “Gospel Hospitality and the Kingdom of God,” this year’s conference put on by Presbyterian Border Region Outreach, a binational organization with five ministry sites along the U.S.-Mexico border stretching from Arizona to Texas.

Nohemi Cuéllar recalled the ministry started when the Cuéllars’ oldest daughters were away at church summer camp. She and her husband, who teaches Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, began to experience “a bit of separation anxiety, which compelled us to be prayerful about engaging, and God sent us the right people,” including Caly Fernández, a conference participant and ruling elder in Mission Presbytery “who has networks and is  good person to have on your side if you’re looking to engage the community.”

Volunteers for the fledgling organization helped with meals and childcare at a McAllen, Texas respite center, soon finding their way to the bus station.

“It was hard at first for parents to trust us,” she said. “But we would sit with them through the waiting process.”

Children had just completed a difficult journey of up to a month long, “and being a child had not been part of that journey,” she said. When volunteers handed them art supplies, “they could get on the floor, draw and color and be a child again.”

As the children drew, often their parents would talk to volunteers, who would take notes of what was being shared — especially by the artists themselves, if the child decided to give the drawing to the volunteer for use later in an exhibit.

“Their smiles would encourage our faith after their long, treacherous journey,” she said. “To have a strong faith and a happiness, a joy about them, was invigorating as a mother, a human being and as a believer. They were craving a moment to be human and to have peace, and oftentimes we would just sit with them. That presence meant a lot to them.”

“We would receive art pieces from the artist. They were gestures of appreciation,” Gregory Cuéllar said. “We had to think about how we wanted to steward this art, knowing they wanted to share it with us. They had in mind we would remember them in our prayers and share their experiences with people who could pray for them.”

“The art,” he said, “was a way into their story.”

In the years to come, McCormick Theological Seminary, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Seminary and Union Theological Seminary would all host Art of Tears exhibits.

“It’s a small snippet from (the artist’s) perspective, but it’s so crucial when the dominant media narrative criminalizes border crossers. It’s counter narrative,” he said.

After seeing the memorable exhibit of shoes at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Cuéllars began exhibiting the shoes that young artists would discard after receiving new shoes from the respite center.

“They’ve been a powerful additional feature.” Gregory Cuéllar said. “People get a visceral sense of the worn tread of the shoes, some held together by wire. It speaks to vulnerability, scarcity and ingenuity.”

The Cuéllars shared examples of some of the meaningful artwork:

  • Génesis, “a fitting name,” Gregory Cuéllar said. In her drawing, Génesis included a detention center, the raft her family used to cross the river and the coyote who guided them. “Anything else?” she was asked. “She said, ‘Dios,’ and drew God in the corner,” he said. “We didn’t coach her, but a lot of artists expressed their faith in God in these drawings.”
  • A girl named Paula didn’t know how to swim, but she got in a blowup raft even though the river had swelled following days of rain. “They couldn’t wait any longer. They had to cross,” Nohemi Cuéllar said. The family presented themselves to Border Patrol agents and ended up in a detention center. Paula depicts the storm clouds in pretty shades of blue, but the detention center is dark and fenced in. She named her drawing, “Only God Could Have Helped Us.”
  • Jefferson, a seven-year-old boy from El Salvador, “grabbed some pens and spent quite a long time making a piece,” Nohemi Cuéllar said. His sun has glasses and wears a big smile, as do the moon and stars. A tree is full of coconuts. Jefferson included a blue figure, his “best friend,” the dog he had to leave behind. “That’s what I will miss the most,” he said. His artwork was given this name: “The Kingdom of God Belongs to Such as These.”
  • Another seven-year-old, a girl from Guatemala named Dayana, drew rocks in the Rio Grande and then an outline of the river. One part of the drawing is a bunch of back-and-forth swirls indicating how far her family had walked. “It was a trip of 2,000 miles, a lot done on foot,” Gregory Cuéllar said. She said her aunt had said goodbye before the family crossed the river. Asked about anyone else, she drew the outline of a cross, “signifying Christ was with them on the journey,” he said. “There was something sacred about this event, sacralizing the crossing, which is quite different from the mainstream media, where the crossing is an illegal act because people are [depicted as] transgressing a nation state’s sovereignty. For her, God didn’t see a border.”
  • Four-year-old Maybeline from El Salvador drew “The Cobra in the Desert,” which featured a large cobra with eyes and fangs. “It was a big creature to her,” Nohemi Cuéllar said. “It was disheartening to see what they had to go through to survive.”

Gregory Cuéllar said the youthful artwork “has a way of traveling beyond politics right to the heart.”

“Our hope,” Nohemi Cuéllar said, “is that message from their hearts on paper will bring awareness to our communities of faith.” Exhibiting the art virtually for the past several months “has opened new doors to us. We are grateful it has allowed us to further expand our exposure and the awareness to these stories.”

View the online gallery here. Hear the “Teaching Borderlands” podcasts here. Learn more about Arte de Lágrimas here.

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