First Person: UNC Junior Volunteers at a Detention Center in San Antonio

Increase font size
Decrease font size


Global Studies major Cecilia Polanco reports on her visit to the detention center where young immigrants fleeing their war-torn villages in Central America are being held in San Antonio.

This summer I’ve been blessed to have done some travelling and independent research around the U.S. Last week I was in San Antonio, Texas, and since I’d been following news and articles about the children coming from Central America and being held in detention centers, I decided I was going to find a way to help.

Through some connections, I contacted someone who organized volunteers. I wanted to come in and help in some way. In my mind, I was prepared to do whatever kind of work was needed. I pictured cleaning, washing, or even cooking as possibilities. But what I imagined in my mind, much of which was and is influenced by what I read and see in the media, differed from the actual situation, which is the case many times.

I arrived at the detention center Friday morning, on my last day in San Antonio. The night before, my mind kept me awake with thoughts and images of over crowded warehouses, dirty and crying children, and me: not fully knowing what was going on and totally in over my head. But what I came to find was different.

I had to leave my phone in the car, so I have no pictures of myself, or the children I interacted with. Safety is the number one priority of the staff at this center, and I respected any request made. I signed in, put on my volunteer badge, and was escorted to an area with a small soccer field, and picnic tables under a shelter, like you’d see at a lake-side retreat.

I sat down at one of the tables and laid out all my supplies. My first client was a little girl with four front teeth missing and the cutest smile. So I asked her, “Que quieres que te pinte?” / “What do you want me to paint for you?”

Face painting is not one of my best skills. Actually, I’d say I’m pretty bad at it. But I was prepared to paint my best flowers and butterflies for these girls. They were very special to me. I spoke in Spanish the entire time. It was funny: before I arrived, one of the staff said, “These girls speak Spanish, but they speak a different Spanish. They use weird words that we don’t usually use. Ones from Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador.” I thought about the way I speak Spanish, being that I’m from El Salvador, and of some of my experiences volunteering in Nicaragua in the past. I wasn’t worried.

The little girls came to my chair, and for a few minutes, my attention was all theirs. I used my brushes and colors, and my favorite black eye liner to make them beautiful. I wasn’t impressed with anything I painted, but when I showed them the result in my compact mirror they would beam at themselves. The giggles and missing teeth affirmed that I’d done a good job.

I didn’t say much that day. I was focused, yet distracted when I looked up from the faces and remembered where I was. I made sure to ask every little girl her name, her age, and where she was from. The youngest was 5. I heard El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala; places that are not strange to me. The oldest girls I met were in their teens. One girl was 11, and I thought of my niece, Lesly. I know that she’s safe, at home with my sister, probably watching Netflix or taking selfies. I love her, and I can’t imagine having to tell her to leave, that she has to go because it’s not safe here, and that she has to do it by herself.

There was a lot to take in that day, but I came closest to tears when listening to the staff talk about a recent arrival, one of the smallest girls there, that hadn’t been sleeping well. She’d only gotten about two hours of sleep the night before, between suddenly waking up and calling out for her grandmother, and nodding off on the couch whimpering. They hadn’t been able to put her in contact with her mother or grandmother, both of whom I’m sure would have soothed her worries if they could just talk to each other. The struggle to protect the bond between people and the love between families is what ends up in separated families and deaths on the border. Sacrifices are made to keep people safe and alive.

Some of the older girls asked for “tattoos” on their forearms. So I drew my best eyeliner hearts and filled them in with red lipstick. They asked for names of their loved ones inside the hearts and along the stems of roses. My heart beat harder in my chest as I thought about the names the girls requested. Mothers, Fathers, sisters and brothers, sometimes even a young love left behind. I know that love and the memories of their loved ones are what keep them going.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on at the border. I don’t fully understand the politics behind it. But I do know that if someone shows up at my door, especially a child, they will be welcomed, fed, bathed, clothed, and taken care of. The conditions of the center where I was were great, but I know that’s the case in towns closer to the border.

Volunteering is the least I could do. I spread the word on social media, and advocate for a more understanding world and a more just political system. There’s plenty more to be done.

Cecilia Polanco

July, 2014