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art by Favianna Rodriguez

Art by Favianna Rodriguez

“ Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ” – Paulo Freire, Educator

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JULY 09, 2013 / BY JESUS IÑIGUEZ The Metropolitan Detention Center

When organizer Nancy Meza first told me about being able to see people peering from inside the Metropolitan Detention Center (located in Downtown Los Angeles, on the corner of Alameda and Aliso right off the 101 freeway) through barred windows, all the way from her seat on the Gold Line, I didn’t believe her.

I’d been by this building hundreds of times, but never really bothered to stop and examine the aesthetics of that monstrosity of a cage. I had a personal vendetta with this detention center; my father had been unexpectedly ripped from me when I was 14 years old and incarcerated in this detention center before being deported. This place represents everything that I detest about this nation’s policy to persecute and incarcerate undocumented immigrants and I wanted nothing to do with it. But Nancy’s story seemed a bit too surreal and alarming to be true. I decided that I had to go and confront it for myself.

The Metropolitan Detention Center is a giant looming cement building, seemingly sterile and modern in design, sleek and tall, fortified and solid, silent and eerie. The wall on the outside of the building all along the sidewalk on Alameda is made out of marble. It’s one of those buildings that inconspicuously sticks out like a speedbump that’s two inches too tall; you see it as you approach it, but it’s not until you experience it that you understand how something so seemingly innocent can rip you up and leave you stranded and battered.

The majority of the windows are on the east side of the building, and it rises in height in two sections so that all windows and all three tiers are facing East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, from which many of the inmates presumably come from. If you didn’t know what this building was, you wouldn’t think it was a jail of sorts.

Nancy urged me to ride the train with her so that she could show me what she saw and recommended that I film it. I agreed. So one Saturday, I met up with her to shoot footage of our train ride and this detention center sight. I remember sitting on the train, with a bit of dread gnawing away at my stomach. She told me that the Gold Line passes right across the street from the building, and that from your seat on the western side of the train, you could clearly see five grated windows on the lowest tier of the building, often with people inside.

It wasn’t until I trained my camera upon those windows from the train and focused my lens sharply that I saw them for myself. And it shocked me. I saw their silhouettes, their arms, the colors of their shirts, their hands gripping the windows, the complexions of their arms. I kept riding the train over and over through this stretch of rail, my camera aimed at bottom tier of the northern five windows, searching for a face. I wasn’t able to capture their faces with my camera, but I knew that they were there. And I knew that each pair of hands that I saw had a story to tell, a family that was fighting for their release and waiting for them to arrive at home.

I went back to this intersection once more a couple of weeks later to shoot additional footage of the trains that went by this building every 10-15 minutes, and additional shots of the building from across the street on Alameda. The most impacting moment of the three hours that I spent filming outside of that building that day was when I heard the people in those windows yelling out at me. I couldn’t discern what they were yelling, and even when I aimed my microphone in their direction and listened with all my might with my headphones strapped over my ears, I couldn’t make out what they were yelling. The realization that I could also hear their voices made that entire experience all the more bizarre.

I remember wondering to myself what it would be like to peer from out of those windows. What that inside world looked like. What their daily routines were. What their thoughts were, peering out of those windows, watching the thousands of cars that go down Alameda and the 101 freeway and the hundreds of people who travel this stretch of rail every single day. It was painfully obvious to me that if I could see them from where I was standing, they could obviously see me. But unlike me, an undocumented person walking along the outside of this building, filming with shaky hands and anxious breaths (no tripod), the people in those windows were not free to go home. They were waiting for their turn to be removed and exported to a different part of the world.

Undocumented immigrants have become this nation's most profitable export.

The realization that sunk in deepest for me was the fact that it wouldn't take much for me to possibly end up gazing out of those same windows. The tentacles of this formidable deportation machine reach far and wide in cooperation with many local law enforcement officials to indiscriminately fill every single bed every night. An empty bed at one of these detention centers doesn't mean that the the immigration situation is being resolved; it means that there isn't enough persecution and heavy-handed punitive enforcement and racial profiling. The net for potential victims has to be cast wider and more forcefully.

The fact that places like this giant cage exist, that buses full of people leave buildings like this one every single day like clockwork, that this detention center can stand prominently right right in the heart of one of the largest immigrant communities in the United States, and that this current immigration reform bill aims to continue to supply these places with inmates is a testament of how much organizing and work we have to do.

We need a moratorium on deportations. We need to dismantle these places, to break them apart from the outside in, to make their use and presence in our communities purposeless and powerless. We need to amplify the voices of those who yell out of those barred windows until their words are so loud and deafening that they may just crumble those concrete walls into the ground and into the same dark chapter of American history as those Executive Order #9066 detention camps.

We need to let others know that these places exist and that they don't keep us safe. But that in that same vein, they infuriate us, and it drives our purpose for organizing, self-determination, knowledge, and fearlessness. And the immigration reform bill that we need and deserve should be reflective of the developing awareness of our community members.

We have not stepped out of the shadows to become silhouettes in barred windows. We are here, we are not going anywhere, and we are demanding justice!

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