The bustling of sewing machines, murmurs of Spanish, throwing of colorful clothing and kneading of pillow fluff made for more than an ordinary Thursday afternoon at the Forsyth County Public Library.
For several days, Cuban artists Cara Lewis and Alejandro Diaz worked alongside local organizations to raise awareness for immigrant detention centers across the United States. How? By hand-crafting pillows throughout a series of workshops, made from clothing donated by undocumented immigrants and their allies.
The pillows will be sold for a donation of $159, the amount of money the government spends each night to detain an immigrant.
“The money we make from the purchase of the pillows will be directly donated to El Buen Pastor, an organization that provides services to immigrants and Latino families in Winston-Salem,” said Dr. Linda Howe, a professor of Spanish at Wake Forest.
She also noted that her students will build pop-up installations around campus as will Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) at their location downtown using the pillows they make. Howe was instrumental in facilitating university involvement in the project by utilizing her many contacts in Cuba to recruit volunteers.
This summer, sophomores Annie Cohen, Lydia Millhon and Rachel Norotsky studied abroad in Cuba with Howe. They now take a class with her that focuses on community service and outreach. For this event, they set up clothing donation boxes on campus and volunteered at the sewing workshops.
“Our hard work is going to people who don’t get to live to their fullest potential while we take things for granted,” Millhon said.
“Most people don’t know the United States government mandates that 34,000 ‘beds’ must be inhabited by immigrant detainees at all times,” Diaz said.
Immigration is a theme throughout Diaz’s art because he is an immigrant himself. He and Cara Lewis researched detention centers, commonly referred to as “family residential centers,” and found that around 70 percent are run by private organizations that profit from immigrant detention.
“When we found out about this, we had to do something about it,” Diaz said.
“Our hope is that it will bring awareness to how legislation affects people in the local community,” Lewis said.
Residents of Forsyth County play a role in detaining immigrants whether they realize it or not. The detention center at Forsyth County Jail detains 200 immigrants and is funded by taxpayer money.
“Everyone has a role in the larger system,” Lewis said.
Nury Anton, who works for the local YMCA, said that she feels personally connected to the project through her Cuban ancestry and her passion for art.
“America was built on immigrants, and that’s why it’s so great,” she said.
Volunteers made their messages to proponents of immigrant detainment clear.
“The government is detaining the wrong people for the wrong reasons because they are not a threat to society. They need to get over their biases,” said Norotsky.
Cohen added, “They are people just like us, and the deserve for their side of the story to be heard.”