Documentary about immigrant mothers detained at Berks premieres in Philadelphia
On May 9, artist Michelle Angela Ortiz hosted a screening of “Las Madres de Berks,” an intimate look at the trauma of family detention.
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Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz and the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) hosted a free, public screening on May 9 of the documentary, “Las Madres de Berks,” featuring the stories of four immigrant mothers who with their children had been detained for two years at the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC).
In Nov. 2018, Ortiz brought the mothers’ stories to the forefront in her “Familias Separadas” project, which included an 88-foot installation on the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, along with accompanying murals, billboards, and bus stop signs in Harrisburg, PA.
The artist, a 2018 Pew Fellow and Rauschenberg Foundation Artist as Activist Fellow, noted at the screening that the documentary came out of a desire to continue sharing the stories of the four mothers “without re-traumatizing them.”
“It was really a way of having the mothers speak for themselves, for their lives, before, during, and after detention,” Ortiz said.
All but one of the mothers have had their names changed in order to protect their identities.
They were both interviewed by Ortiz off-camera, while they were in detention, and on-camera in their homes or other designated safe spaces after they were released.
One mother, Karen, was deported back to her home country of El Salvador along with her son, while the other three mothers and children were allowed to live with relatives and sponsors in the United States while their asylum cases proceeded in the court system (tragically, one of the mothers who was able to remain in the U.S. lost her life to violence, and the documentary is dedicated to her memory).
Located in Leesport, PA, just outside of Reading, BCRC has been operating as a detention center for immigrant families since 2014, and is one of only three detention centers permanently designated by ICE to hold immigrant families.
The facility, meant to hold up to 96 people, has often been full throughout most of that time, with usually 30 families held there — though it has reportedly held far fewer people there in the past few months.
Sundrop Carter, executive director of PICC, said during the talkback portion of the screening — attended by close to 75 people — that the work of her organization and others that are part of the Shut Down Berks Coalition continues to be focused on pressuring Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to issue an Emergency Removal Order to close the center.
If the center is shut down, the families currently detained there will most likely be released to relatives and sponsors. A survey from last year by Indivisible Berks, a non-partisan citizen activist group dedicated to ensuring that the county’s elected officials represent all their constituents, found that most Berks County residents would rather see the center be converted to a drug treatment facility to address the ongoing opioid crisis, which has had a severe impact in their area.
“There’s actually something positive that we could be doing with that center that could maintain public jobs, maintain funding for the county, but actually be doing something that would help residents of Berks County instead of traumatizing immigrant families,” Carter said.
For those interested in watching the fully bilingual (Spanish and English) documentary, there are two upcoming free screening dates scheduled in Philadelphia for “Las Madres de Berks”:
- Saturday, June 1st, from 2:15 - 3:15 p.m.
Philadelphia Latino Film Festival, Terra Hall, University of the Arts, 211 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107
- Monday, June 3rd, from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
South Philly Barbacoa, 1140 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
This screening will be followed by an opening reception at 5:30 pm of the exhibit entitled, "Rostros y Historias", featuring portraits of the immigrant community by Michelle Angela Ortiz.
Ortiz said that at the end of screening, she takes a photo of the audience and sends it to the mothers to ensure that, though not physically present, they can establish a connection with the people who have learned about their stories.
“I want them to understand and see everyone who is supporting them,” Ortiz told the audience.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Oritz has led public art projects locally, nationally, and internationally throughout her career. In 2016, she received the Americans for the Arts' Public Art Year in Review Award, which honors outstanding public art projects in the United States.
She will be one of the speakers featured at TEDx Philadelphia on May 15, sharing more about her story and her work.