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Through the Eyes of Children: Arte de Lágrimas and Borderlands Hermeneutics

What does it mean to read the Bible in the “Borderlands?” What happens when you cross the Border, or when the Border crosses you? These are the questions that inspire the work of Rev. Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, who visited McCormick Theological Seminary in late September. Dr. Cuéllar led two discussions on Borderlands art, faith, and ministry and preached at a special Community Worship Service as part of the Center for Latin@ Theology and Ministry’s fall program: Borderlands Hermeneutics.

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Nohemi Cuéllar, Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, and Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes in front of the Arte de Lágrimas installation

Dr. Cuéllar teaches at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and has always been academically interested in the experience of the immigrant and border-crossers as hermeneutics. In his lectures at McCormick, he talked about the history of Mexicans on the U.S./Mexico Border as Texas emerged as a state, claiming land and people that had no cultural or political affiliation to the United States; they were “border-crossed.” Dr. Cuéllar discussed specific art forms that emerged from the experience, especially the border “corrido,” a ballad that describes the lived experience of oppression and daily life from those at the margins. Corridos have been passed down for centuries, and are still a popular song style today. Dr. Cuéllar challenges us to interpret the exile texts in the Bible as “corridos,” asking how our understanding of the Israelites—and God—changes.

The experience of being a border crosser, or border-crossed, connects the ancient texts to the lived experience of refugees and migrants today. The U.S./Mexico Border has long been a place of concern, with its power to transform lives (for good or ill) having international influence. In 2013, Dr. Cuéllar, along with his wife Nohemi, received a grant to go down to the border station in McAllen, TX and work with migrant children. The team provided a ministry of presence to children who had just crossed the border and were being held at the border, either to be deported or to journey onward into the United States. The team hoped to learn more about how children were interpreting their border-crossing experience, as well as their own definitions of “homeland.”

For many children crossing the Rio Grande, the journey from their homeland to the United States is a traumatic one. They travel over the course of weeks by bus, train, van, and by foot through the desert. Parents and guardians of these children are often subject to abuse and violence, as are many of the children themselves. Once they were finally over the border, these children were picked up by Border Patrol and sent to the McCallen Detention Center where they continued to be exposed to harsh conditions—extreme temperatures, overcrowded rooms and cells, and poor nourishment—as they awaited for the U.S. government to decide whether or not to deport them back to their native countries or if they could continue their journey as authorized migrants and begin their lives in the United States.

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Drawing of a cobra that a migrant child encountered in the desert

The Cuéllars and their teams met migrant children and their families at a relief center and the McCallen Bus Station, where they offered food, showers, clean clothes, and rest. Volunteers asked the children to draw pictures of how they crossed the border and their native homes. As they drew, the volunteers talked with them about their experiences, the homes they left, and what their hopes for the future were. These conversations not only gave the volunteers a better understanding of the challenges migrant children face and the resiliencies that strengthen them, but also a way for the children to process the often traumatic experience of migration. Many children recounted being witnesses to violence, of suffering from hunger, thirst and exposure, and being overcome with fear. This is reflected in much of their artwork, as is the fond memories of their families and homeland that they left behind.

The Cuéllars have collected artwork done by the migrant children and created an exhibition called “Arte de Lágrimas,” or “Art of Tears,” reflecting the traumatic experiences that define migration over the U.S./Mexico Border. Dr. Cuéllar hopes that the artwork will help American Christians to answer their Biblical call to welcome the immigrant with open arms. In his sermon at Community Worship, Dr. Cuéllar described the prevalence of mothers sending their children “in baskets lined with pitch” across the Rio Grande, and lamented the lack of “Pharaoh’s Daughters” awaiting to receive the children in the United States. The art exhibit will be displayed at McCormick until October 30.

For more information about “Arte de Lágrimas” and its ministry with migrant children, you can email Dr. Gregory Cuéllar or the organization. The project is looking for donations of food, money, clothing, and art supplies.  You can see photos of the Borderlands Hermeneutics events on the McCormick Flickr page.