Celebrating Childhood and Serving Immigrant Children

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By Felipe Peña III

The role of a children’s museum is to provide a safe and fun place for families to play, learn, and enjoy time together. As executive director of the Children’s Museum of Brownsville, I am reminded of this every day. But what happens when new people arrive in your town? How does your local community respond to these different people? What is the role a museum plays in how it responds?

Immigration has always been an issue in America. As a child in Texas, I remember hearing about raids and the act of rounding up people, and seeing this on Spanish television. I remember hearing stories in my own community of people using scare tactics against those of their own culture. Someone would shout “LA MIGRA” (immigration) among a group of Hispanic immigrants without papers and everyone would scatter. As the experience of immigration in the U.S. continues to change, my perspective continues to change, and with the new administration even more so.

This spring, through ACM’s 90 Days of Action campaign, I had the opportunity to share my museum’s experience serving immigrant children from Central and South America with my colleagues in the children’s museum field. My community is located in the southernmost tip of Texas, a flat land covered in palm trees. Our metro has more than 3 million people, but it’s separated into two countries by the Rio Grande river—and a border fence divided so irrationally it leaves areas of “no man’s land” between the U.S. and Mexico.

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Because of my museum’s location, we often host unaccompanied children living in immigrant detention centers. Over the past two years, we’ve seen an increase in these visits, which aren’t planned by the museum. We follow the rules set by the detention centers, including the use of security guards.

By the time these children reach our community, they have been through an unimaginable journey. Some have been trafficked and others, transported through stressful and crowded circumstances on LA BESTIA (“the beast”), a train that travels from Central America through the interior of Mexico. They have been cared for by strangers or taken advantage of by those with ill intentions. Most, if not all, are running from persecution by gangs and the lack of stability where they live.

When they are picked up at the border they are taken to detention centers in the Rio Grande Valley. They are kept in simple yet prison-like living conditions. They are clothed and fed but this is not a home: it is a holding facility. These processing centers are focused on either finding relatives of the unaccompanied minors in the U.S. or returning them to their homes in their respective countries. Those with neither option are placed in the foster care system.

To many, their experiences aren’t just sad, but unimaginable. My staff and I have many discussions about how, in responding to these situations over and over, we become numb. While we don’t feel shock any more, we never hesitate to talk to these children when they visit our museum, and show them the best time they could possibly have. We remind them, even if for only an hour, that they are children. It’s important to remember that children’s museums are here to make this very simple thing possible—honoring childhood. This can be the experience of a lifetime for children whether they visit us once or as a routine part of every week.

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Sometimes these tragic events and migration stories have tough beginnings that lead to fruitful lives. Rossy Evelin Lima, a speaker at TEDx McAllen in 2015, inspired me by sharing her journey as immigrant determined to succeed. Rossy’s family immigrated to the U.S. looking for opportunity when she was 13. Later she graduated from the University of Texas – Pan American. Today, she’s an international award winning poet and linguist. She was a featured poet in the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum in 2015. This is just one story, one instance of success. There are countless more.

So, even though we might feel pain at hearing the stories immigrant children and families experience we must remember to always be hopeful. By celebrating childhood every day at children’s museums, we provide a reassurance that better days are ahead.

Felipe Peña III is executive director of the Children’s Museum of Brownsville. Follow the museum on Instagram and Facebook.