In a special one-day showing, Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art, in partnership with the city, showcased on Sunday artwork from the migrant youth who had been housed at a temporary shelter set up in the Long Beach Convention Center this year.
The exhibition was a result of art workshops offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as migrant youth were being held at the Long Beach Convention Center from April 22 to July 23. Youth were sent to Long Beach amid an overflow of migrants in facilities in other states near the U.S.-Mexico border as migration increased this past year.
The convention center mostly housed girls ages 5 and older while they waited to be connected with family members or sponsors, according to officials.
On Sunday, MOLAA showcased posters from an election held after forming an official council for the shelter, which was led by a 6-year-old council president, drawings related to the children’s time in Long Beach, a shelter logo that the children created and voted on and was included in all staff badges, a single art piece created by the shelter staff, letters sent to the children from the community and makeshift, body-sized dresses.
Youth care worker Jasmine Peña, 25, worked at the convention center for three months and said she helped the girls design dresses made out of recycled materials and other material such as plastic bags, bottles, tissue paper and aluminum foil. One dress even had a hula-hoop at the base of the gown to keep the makeshift dress circular, she said, crediting the girls’ ingenuity.
More than 20 girls individually designed the dresses for a two-hour fashion show, Peña said. Amazed by their creativity, she recalled seeing the girls dressed in their creations, wearing makeup as they walked down a makeshift runway inside the convention center. Unfortunately, Peña said, no one was allowed to film the fashion show.
On Sunday afternoon, Peña entered the doors of an exhibition room at MOLAA with her loved ones to see the dresses on display one last time.
“It was their idea,” she said. “We just helped them come to life.”
Daniel Trujillo, 47, traveled from Koreatown in Los Angeles with his wife just to see the artwork. It was a mix of emotions for him.
“[I was] coming to see this expecting to be very hurt, really sad,” Trujillo said. “But seeing the costumes, they’re so joyful. I can just see they’re having so much fun.”
The children, who’ve lived through a likely traumatic family separation, were able to turn an “ugly” situation into “a place of happiness,” he said.
It wasn’t a place of happiness for every child who was kept at the shelter. Though the city in a release said that most kids stayed at the center an average of no longer than 19 days, immigrants rights activists raised many concerns about how long kids have stayed at these temporary shelters and how they are being treated. Long Beach was deemed one of the better-run centers, but it was far from a vacation for the children. In a court declaration one girl, a 17-year-old, said it was difficult getting clean clothes, staying warm and sleeping because the lights were always on. She had spent about 30 days there.
“I am really sad being here,” the unnamed girl said.
Solimar Salas, MOLAA’s vice president of the museum’s content and programming, said the museum was only able to showcase the artwork for one day because they have a full calendar in September and October and could only accommodate this Sunday. The museum chose MOLAA’s usual free-day-Sunday so that anyone could access it at no cost.
Salas said that the dresses resembled those designed for quinceañeras and weddings, and the display, for her, was a chance to “humanize the kids.”
“These children, they have dreams, they have hopes, they have a future,” Salas said.