Before Orlando Lara came to UCI to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology, he had dedicated years to grassroots community organizing, been a faculty member at a community college, served as the inaugural associate director of the first ethnic studies department in Texas, and helped establish a traveling multimedia art installation (now in its sixth year). Lara began his journey at Stanford University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o studies; he then got a master’s in anthropology at New York University and an M.F.A. in fiction at Cornell University.
His academic career has shaped his identity as a teacher, activist and artist. And now, as a doctoral student at UCI, he is refining his role as a scholar.
Lara uses his skills in art, creative writing, ethnography and community organizing to advocate for immigrant rights. He has been focused on the experiences of undocumented people since he was an undergraduate exploring the intersection of ethnic studies and anthropology. When he was at Stanford, he had read Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society, by Leo Chavez, UCI anthropology professor and Lara’s current adviser. It was one of the first in-depth analyses of the undocumented population in the U.S., and it resonated on a personal level.
Lara belongs to a mixed-status family. Although he grew up in Texas, his parents were undocumented for much of the 1980s, until the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – the last amnesty law to provide a path to citizenship for a large swath of immigrants. However, other branches of his family who arrived in the U.S. later weren’t so lucky. The disparities in privilege were shocking to him, even as a toddler.
“My interest in immigration started from my first memory, honestly,” Lara says. “I realized that legal status was an issue, that it created bizarre distinctions between family members that were not – in my mind – rational. I thought, ‘Why do I have all these rights that my cousins don’t have when I don’t deserve them any more than they do?’”
Studying immigrant detention
His direct experiences with the undocumented community inspired him to engage in anthropological research and anti-deportation activism. Although Chavez wrote a pioneering book on the subject, the plight of people seeking refuge in the U.S. and being relegated to detention centers stretches back to the late 19th century, Lara says.
Detention facilities, which are thought to have been established in the ’80s and have only come under intense scrutiny in the past decade, can be traced to the private steamships that brought European and Chinese immigrants to American coasts in the 1890s. As a strong wave of nativism swept over the U.S., the government formed contracts with companies to keep these individuals on the docks until officials could decide whether to let them in.
The companies eventually built detention centers to save time and money – and make a profit. Just as with private detention facilities today, the operators invested only the bare minimum to care for the people being held. Eventually, Chinese immigrants lobbied the federal government to take over those facilities, and that’s how Ellis Island and Angel Island were born. But conditions didn’t improve.
“Undocumented people are definitely not considered citizens, but they’re also not even considered fully human, so there’s a huge incentive to spend as little money as possible on their human needs,” Lara says. “And that has continued until today, to where we are now.”
Scholarship as activism and art
“Detention centers are functionally dehumanizing,” he says. “They seek to produce unbearable lives so that immigrants will self-deport.” This revelation is at the center of the art exhibit “Detention Nation,” which Lara has helped produce through collaboration with the Sin Huellas Collective since 2015. (The artist-activist group is named after the practice among some undocumented immigrants of erasing their fingerprints with fire or acid in order to avoid detection by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.)
Originally showcased in Houston, the project has been installed in Denver; Lubbock, Texas; and Topeka, Kansas. It’s updated every year with new issues and developments in the immigration rights movement.
When the pandemic hit, “Detention Nation” went virtual – although a physical installation was recently shown at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum (in conjunction with “Hostile Terrain 94,” an exhibit by UCLA anthropologist Jason De León about border deaths).
The virtual project consists of video, audio, photos and detainee letters. In addition, DetentionNation.com includes animated images or performance GIFs created by an ensemble of actors inspired by the physical installation.
The website is divided into four digital environments: the hielera holding facility, the male immigrant prison, the female immigrant prison and the “youth” camp. Each section contains a short essay, written by Lara, that provides critical context for the visual elements. His writing draws from a variety of texts, reflecting how scholarship can enhance art.
Detention as punishment
“The hieleras are the modern-day Ellis Islands,” Lara says. “Now there seems to be this added element of punishment, of trying to make it as uncomfortable as possible and, I would argue, of trying to discipline migrants for coming here at all – even though they have every right to come and ask for political asylum.”
Hieleras (ice boxes) are structures made of cinder blocks in which detained migrants sleep on metal benches or the floor and are given Mylar blankets to keep warm. The freezing temperatures are in stark contrast to the blistering Texas heat outside. Moving images of bodies wrapped in thin aluminum-foil-like sheets, sleeping close to the ground, loop on DetentionNation.com.
“This is one place where the desire to punish supersedes the desire to save money,” Lara says. After spending a couple days in the frigid facilities, border crossers are transferred to “processing centers,” where they’re separated by age and gender into what migrants sometimes refer to as perreras (dog pounds).
The other website sections – which focus on men, women and children in their designated areas – tell stories of hunger, cramped spaces, near-death experiences, exorbitant fees, lack of privacy and an overriding sense of humiliation. DetentionNation.com’s message is simple: The centers have become a source of profit, affecting 50,000 detainees on any given day.
“More and more, the discipline of anthropology is starting to recognize that we should train and encourage folks who have more direct experiences with the social issues they study,” Lara says. “This doesn’t mean you can only ‘study yourself’ but that it’s okay to take on research questions that carry a certain social and emotional value for you. It takes people from different communities to improve not just anthropology but all of our academic fields.”
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