Paper flowers bring messages of freedom from Berks Detention Center

A man in flannel and a woman holding a pink bouquet of paper flowers

David Bennion of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, and artist Michelle Ortiz pictured at the Barnes Foundation where Ortiz held public workshops to make 1600 paper flowers to accompany her public Monument Lab installation, Seguimos Camnando, We Keep Walking. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

This week, a temporary mural will be displayed outside Philadelphia City Hall to commemorate immigrant families held at the Berks Detention Center for almost two years.

Two evenings a week – every Wednesday and Saturday for the past month – a huge animated video has been projected on the north wall of City Hall, by artist Michelle Ortiz, as part of the city-wide Monument Lab project, a public art experiment by Mural Arts.

This week she will add another element: the word “Libertad” spelled out with 10-foot letters comprised of pink paper flowers.

Ortiz had been regularly visiting the mothers held at the Berks Detention Center for six months to collaborate on a mural that would tell their story of the hardship they felt in Central America, and the journey they took to get to the United States.

But the detention center where they were held with their children for over 600 days did not allow visitors to bring in art supplies. So she came up with an alternate plan: have the women write down their stories on paper, and fold the paper into flowers.

“It was easy for them to do. It’s something I learned from my grandmother that they also have learned from their home countries,” said Ortiz. “It was a way to grab their messages, and although they couldn’t leave the center the flowers could leave the center.”

Ortiz’s art doubles as activism. She is using City Hall as a canvas on which to display “Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking),” a video mural about the families held at Berks. It is on display Wednesday and Friday evenings.

She works with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of activists and civil rights lawyers lobbying Governor Tom Wolf to forbid mothers with children from being detained indefinitely.

“A vast majority of families at Berks are fleeing from horrific violence, gender-based violence to them and their children,” said David Bennion of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, who says children in particular can be severely traumatized by being detained for long periods.

This week, Ortiz will add 1600 paper flowers made by the detained women and members of the public who came to paper flower workshops at the Barnes Foundation. The pink flowers, each inscribed with a message of freedom, will spell out a 40-foot long word, “Libertad,” on the ground in front of City Hall.

Ortiz spent six months preparing this installation, but at the 11th hour the story changed. In August, families held at Berks Detention Center were release – some deported, some allowed to remain the country under probation.

Once on the outside, Ortiz was able to record them telling their own story. Their voices will be broadcast outside City Hall as part of the installation.

“I wanted them not to be re-traumatized by re-telling their story,” she said. “I asked them to explain, ‘When did you feel the most free? What gives you strength? Honoring the mothers is not to display them as victims, but uplift them and show the strength that they have.”

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