“Seeing You”: Film Sheds Light on the Struggle Against Chicago’s Migrant Child Detention Centers

“Seeing You”: Film Sheds Light on the Struggle Against Chicago’s Migrant Child Detention Centers

“Remember when you don’t see hope, hope is seeing you”. This line caps the last verse of José Orozco’s “Hope is Seeing You”, a song telling the story of his time spent as a youth mistreated and imprisoned in a Chicago child immigrant detention center run by Heartland Alliance in contract to the US government. In this line José poses in the abstract a truth borne of his experience grounded in harsh reality. For a year he couldn’t see hope because by design his prison wouldn’t let him see much at all. All he had was a 10 minute phone call a week to his family, an hour of outside time in the back yard, and the view from the window. But when stuck in this hopeless situation, José chose to see hope, and found it looking back at him in the eyes of those giving witness to the injustices he faced; the people that would come to stand outside the detention center, protesting Heartland, ICE, and the US Government, provided a sanity check that denying the right and freedoms of immigrants should never be acceptable.

“Seeing You” Film

José’s song closes out a beautiful and chilling 12 minute film “Seeing You” by the Little Village Solidarity Network (LVSN) & friends, presented as part of the Chicago Park District’s 2020 “Your Night Out at Home” series. This experimental documentary features excerpts of José’s testimony on his experiences in Heartland’s Roger’s Park detention center. The testimony unfolds in conversations with Rozalinda Borcilă, an LVSN member and organizer who has spent many years working to inform the public about these Chicago detention center black sites, hidden and tucked away in average neighborhoods across Chicago, often unbeknownst to those in the surrounding communities, and operated by Heartland Alliance and the Catholic Archdiocese. José’s testimony accompanies footage of the areas surrounding the Roger’s Park and Bronzeville detention centers, showing the acts of resistance and protest that continue to bring awareness to the public, apply pressure on Heartland, and reach out in solidarity to the children inside.

Denied information as to his whereabouts, José kept careful track of his surroundings, and in the film’s testimony he notes what he observed from within his confinement: the brown apartment complex next door, the yellow house across the street housing a young girl whose boyfriend brought her flowers, a Zumba class, the park nearby. One of the things he saw were the people that would come to hold space outside of the building in solidarity with him and the other youth. He sought out these same people after his release to form a relationship and share his experience. The film “Seeing You” is the result of this relationship. And so while the film is an eye-opening introduction to the covert and gross and injustices of the immigrant detention system in the U.S, it also is a story of how these injustices can be overcome through struggle and collaboration. Thus in such a short amount of time, the film provides José’s key testimony while simultaneously showing the ongoing actions and protests, same as those by which this testimony came to be: the art and protest, the joy and pain, that led to the film and continue beyond its frames. The film does not obscure the relationships and process that forged it, but celebrates and centers it.

Still from “Seeing You”: march to the Roger’s Park Heartland Alliance Detention Center.

A documentary is usually imagined to engage in objectivity, presenting its subject as separate from itself. “Seeing You” rejects this mode of objectivity, presenting a collaged expression of the continued living relationship between its participants, united in their experiences combating immigrant child detention and the other documentary modes which attempt to dehumanize and falsify their narrative. Instead of José being merely a subject of the documentary, the film is a collaboration between José and the friends of LVSN. José’s art and expression takes equal footing with his testimony in the film. Through the testimony he gives us the raw facts of his imprisonment, the physical descriptions of what he could see, what he could say, what he could not say, and how he fought back from inside the bars. Through the song he expresses the way he processed these experiences, the way it formed and radicalized him, and what he can now say from outside the bars. All the elements of the film evoke this collaboration and conversation between its makers: the audio excerpts of José’s testimony are in conversation with the interviewer; the descriptions of José’s testimony are in conversation with the images of the areas around the detention center he is describing; the minimalist musical composition of the first half of the film are in conversation with José’s rap from the second half of the film; the steady and composed surety of the ritual and procession starting in the park are in conversation with the euphoric chaos of the protest marches.

“Still from “Seeing You”: Protesters outside the Bronzeville Heartland Alliance Detention Center.

The theme of this issue revolves around the unintended consequences of our creative works. Art like resistance is often predicated on faith, on the hope that our orations will transmit some small bit of experience and understanding to others, notwithstanding the noise interference, the chaos of interpretation, and the unknown effects of our actions that make it impossible to know what fruit our intentions will bear. The film “Seeing You” embodies this faith; the faith inherent in LVSN and collaborators dedicated protests, and José’s leap of faith taking initiative to connect with those protesters to bravely take on the role of whistleblower. The amazing and unexpected result is this project, where LVSN and José secured funding from the city of Chicago, the very city run by those that tacitly support Heartland Alliance and maintain the systems that imprison kids like José. It is this kind of intersection of art and activism that truly embodies the creative spirit that leads to change.

The following  Q&A with the film explores the film further.

“Seeing You” Q&A

To get some more background on the making of the documentary, we prepared questions for some of the folks that worked on the film. Here are answers from Rozalinda Borcilă, Lyn Rye, Harley Foos, and José Orozco.

Q: The film was made by people intimately involved with protesting Heartland. Everyone involved with the film was there because they personally wanted to see this film made and they care about the material. Can you talk about the process and results of working on a film from this sort of grassroots collective organization, as opposed to a more typical filming crew composed of various hired factions making a documentary focused project.

We actually didn’t set out to make a film. What we originally proposed to the Parks Department was a series of in-person events in the public parks that are closest to Chicago’s child detention facilities. Our goals were education, relationship building, and mobilization around the struggle to end child detention and reunite children with their families. When covid hit, the Parks Department asked us to make a digital project instead of a public event: a video featuring at least one Chicago public park and some original art. For us, this project was a continuation of our existing organizing work, a part of an ongoing struggle, and the medium just happened to be a film this time. We came at this from an organizing perspective, in that we envisioned the concept and made decisions collectively and then all did what we could to bring that vision to life and to be accountable to the larger struggle. We each had our certain technical skills to fall back on, but what made this project possible was the trust we had been building over the years organizing together and the strength of our relationships.  In contrast with typical filmmaking processes, this was not about serving the creative vision of an individual or collaborative team. It was very important to us that there not be a single director. In the credits where you’d usually see one person’s name we put “Little Village Solidarity Network and Friends”. Because this film wasn’t just the product of the people who directly touched it or the people collectively writing these responses for this article. It was also the result of work by dozens of community members over the course of years.

Q: Much is unspoken in the film: how José’s testimony contradicts the official narrative of Heartland Alliance, and how it corroborates with other testimonials obtained by whistleblower. Can you talk about José’s narrative in the context of this fight to combat Heartland’s narrative?

Jose was detained in 4 different facilities, in three different states, and only one of these was a Heartland facility in Chicago. But the Heartland facility in Rogers Park was the only place where he heard community members gathering outside, singing and chanting and making themselves known. That is where he first made contact with the resistance outside, and wanted us to know about the resistance inside — about the struggles of children to not just survive this ordeal, but to fight through hunger strikes, refusing to cooperate, trying to escape, supporting each other, breaking little rules, making friends, taking “contraband” like food and toys, and standing up for each other.

After his release, he looked for us online and on social media and initiated an amazing exchange, wanting to meet and to become part of the struggle to unmask and ultimately dismantle the system that locked him up. From the beginning José wanted his experience to be made public — he wanted to have a voice on behalf of all the other youth who were still incarcerated or who could not speak out, because as you may know all children who are eventually released to their families remain under deportation proceedings. José has offered detailed, deeply revealing accounts of his experience, and his struggle to resist while detained. His accounts do indeed corroborate those of other whistleblowers and systematically deny most of Heartland’s rhetoric: these are not shelters but rather spaces of detention; the information gathered from the children is used against families, and cooperation both from children and loved ones outside is coerced. We urge readers to see a summary of this on our website in a simplified FAQ form: https://www.lvsolidaridad.com/faq.html

Most of the testimony that comes from young people is extracted coercively. In the first instance, this extraction happens by forcing them to speak with therapists and social workers, subjecting them to dozens of interviews while detained. In other instances it takes place in the context of lawsuits against the jailers, when once more young children are coerced into giving testimony to adults who are strangers, with whom they have no existing relationship and who, as they well know, do not care for them.  It is extremely rare for a survivor to reach out in the way José did, and because his testimonial is offered freely, and continues to be offered freely now, when he is nineteen years old, it is extremely threatening to Heartland Alliance. This requires enormous emotional labor, trust, and vulnerability. It also puts the young person even more at risk.

Of course it is important to refute Heartland’s claims and demonstrate, line by line, how their PR campaign is a lie. There’s a time and place for that. But we wanted the film to be about centering Jose’s voice and art, an opportunity to collaborate with him, and we think this has enormous value. We also hope it is part of a long and difficult process of healing, a step towards a different, less coercive and less exploitative way of creating relationships. Centering Jose’s voice, doing a creative collaboration with him isn’t just about refuting Heartland. It’s also about having the type of relationship that Heartland (and the other entities that justify detention as shelter) wouldn’t like. It is about refusing the world Heartland tries to normalize for us.

Q: The city of Chicago has a long history of civic art, however artists who receive money from the city may be subject to censorship. This summer, the Department of Cultural Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) canceled Chicago musician Sen Morimoto’s performance in the Millennium Park at Home Music Series, because Sen preferred dropping out rather than be subject to censorship. On twitter Sen Morimoto “My performance has been pulled from the lineup because of a statement I made in the video concerning Mayor Lightfoot’s response to the protests currently happening in Chicago. I was asked to remove the statement, otherwise the video would be pulled and I was not comfortable censoring my criticism of the mayor at the request of the City of Chicago.” What pressure did you feel while making this film that was funded by DCASE? Did you have to pull punches to avoid jeopardizing the films inclusion in the Night Out in the Parks series?

It is remarkable that our proposal was accepted by the city, because we were very clear that we wanted to explore the connection between public parks and these detention facilities.

However, once the project became a video instead of a community conversation and event, we had to make some tactical decisions. This was the first time the struggle would enter such an influential space — within official City channels, where Heartland Alliance holds so much power and where their discourse has been until now unchallenged. We felt it was critical we think tactically about how to use this moment. In editing the video, we discussed the city’s history of censorship and spoke specifically about the situation faced by Sen Morimoto because our first draft contained many images of aggressive police in the final part of the video. Sen’s position is right-on and we respect it immensely. In our case, we made the decision to omit these images, even though police aggression has been a persistent aspect of our experience protesting and chanting at these facilities. Keeping the focus on José’s voice seemed urgently important, and we did not want to give the city any opportunity to withdraw or censor the video.

We debated how to omit the imagery of police, knowing that to disavow the pervasiveness of police violence in the context of struggle can be a form of complicity. Hopefully, in the same way that we refuse to center Heartland’s rhetoric and operate from the position of always reacting or responding, we are also refusing to center the cops, and produce instead an interpretation in this edit that has folks coming together with no cops as a kind of speculative utopia, a desire to come together in the streets uninterrupted and unmolested. We tried to think about the sense of possibility, of what solidarity could produce. This is what it should feel like to share space with folks – and we wanted to contrast that sense of desire and possibility against the reality of young people waving from the lockups, holding up signs and fighting for connection.

In reality, there’s a tremendous amount of both CPD and Heartland’s private security surrounding these facilities, and truly unbelievable amounts of police deployed for even small gatherings or singalongs — even by CPD standards. The security was there during the vigil, when we were filming. They took videos and photos of us, followed us, told us to leave. Doing any work being in physical close proximity to the facilities there’s an intense, coercive pressure on the part of security officers.

In general, our experience with censorship is intense and ongoing, because of the ways Heartland is in bed with the powerful political establishment, especially including the Institutional Left. It is well known as the most bellowed social service agency, an enormous enterprise with huge financial and political capital that is always uplifted as an example of service in this city and this region. We’ve been censored, excluded, kicked out, ridiculed or asked not to speak in so-called civil ways in a lot of venues and contexts. Community members have had their mics cut off, have been physically removed from spaces, have been evicted from zoom meetings, or have been subjected to silencing attempts disguised as  “debates” against wealthy lawyers working on behalf of Heartland. We’ve had Heartland executives and their powerful PR machine discredit everything we say with expensive videos and ad campaigns. From the beginning we understood that if we were to open up a conversation about the detention of migrant children, we would have to be disruptive. 

Q: Can you describe the ritual in the park and the altars made on the carts? What was its significance and why include it in the film?

“Still from “Seeing You”: Protesters outside the Bronzeville Heartland Alliance Detention Center.

There are community members who frequently do these kinds of ceremonies just outside the facilities, so in many ways this project is a continuation of that. The event and our presence filming it were linked and we discussed how to navigate the presence of the cameras in such a way as to not turn the ceremony into spectacle. The Parks Department constrained us to make simply a video, with no public, instead of a community event. However, there is much happening off camera, including the presence and participation of a larger community in the altar offering itself, as well as José’s remote participation via phone and loudspeaker, rapping and chanting for the youth. The event was not staged for the camera, it was for the youth. So while the film is about bringing a political issue into visibility, it also requires navigating boundaries around what remains beyond the camera’s access, what not  to reveal.

While similar ceremonies have always taken place at the facilities, the larger marches in the neighborhood usually start in Touhy Park. We spoke to the femmes who facilitated the ceremony about beginning it in Touhy Park as a way to continue efforts of denormalizing these public spaces and revealing them as spaces of deep contestation.  Recently, José and his family traveled to Chicago from Texas and together with them we held a community screening of the film in Touhy Park followed by a procession to the two detention facilities nearby. It was amazing to accompany José as he returned to the site of his former incarceration for the first time.

Still from “Seeing You”: Flowers in ceremony performed in Touhy Park.

In this ongoing work, we are indebted to Black and Indigenous struggles that have insisted on public spaces as sites of struggle and contestation. What counts as “public” space? What forms of exclusions and oppressions are normalized though certain ideas of publicness, land use and regulation? We are learning to engage with public parks as contested land.

Q: The first two thirds of the film feature a beautiful and haunting string piece. How was the music made? Was it composed in response to the recorded testimony? What were you trying to evoke with the music?

We knew from the beginning that we wanted to end the piece with a song from José. This project was an exciting opportunity to collaborate with each other in new ways — we had all been collaborating politically, and this was a chance for us to collaborate artistically.

José had made the first draft version of this rap and beat, which was the center of the audio throughout the whole film. Lyn Rye composed the audio piece and fleshed out the rap beat, but it was all inspired by the work José had made originally. Rozalinda edited the testimony down from about an hour to the 9 or so minutes you hear in the final film. Lyn selected certain loops from the finished rap and used them as inspiration for what came before. After figuring out which loops to focus on, they freely improvised multiple layers on a number of different instruments while listening to the testimony. As a musician and someone close to the organizing work, they simply played from the heart. They selected pieces from the improvisation and built the emotional narrative of the piece, contextualizing a soundscape in which José’s rap at the end makes sense emotionally.

The audio was also made with the final video in mind. We knew that we wanted to have some breaks in the testimony to insert expository title cards. So we planned to have both a visual and sonic theme that would recur in those places. We ended up settling on the sky motif to correspond with those breaks.

The music bears the mark of Covid. If this piece had been made at a different time there would have been more musicians involved. The sound is reflective of the fact that it’s just Lyn alone in their room, responding to José.

Q: How did Jose face retribution for taking on the role of whistleblower?

José was under deportation proceedings all along — while in detention and after release. One of the reasons family and youth don’t come forward is because they’re facing deportation.

José doesn’t feel good talking about this incident further – he doesn’t want this aspect of his life to appear in the article but he does want to say this: “I am glad I was able to return to the place I was incarcerated. There was a lot of police presence and a high level Heartland management staff who I recognized was on the sidewalk in front of the facility, he was recording me. That made me afraid, but I can tell they were afraid of us. I am glad I came back, I am just doing what I said I would, I promised them I would return and close this place down, to fight so all these kids can be free and be with their families. I am glad they are afraid, but also want to raise the consciousness inside them. Because if I am free they should all be free.”

Q: What is the state of José’s deportation case and what can folks reading this article do to help?

José already had his first court hearing last year in December. Due to the COVID outbreak, his next and possibly final hearing was postponed until January 2021. Still needs to find a lawyer, it is really hard to fight the case.  

José says: “If people really want to help I would like them to just stand up — to plant seeds, then start watering them so they can grow. Take a moment, take time out of your day, to listen and please pay close attention and think for yourselves. It is not the fault of the children, they don’t have to be in there, they have families and loved ones they should be with. The best way to help me is for people to come together to rise up and challenge injustice, borders and detention in all its forms.

When you buy something nice for yourself they feel so good, you feel happy in your heart. Put that feeling into helping someone else, that same exact warmth, and that sensations will grow and expand all over your body. It will show you how it feels to have support, because that’s what these kids want, to know they have people behind them, making them feel maybe they have a chance to fight for their freedom as well.”

Q: José showed he is a very talented beat maker and rapper. Does José have other music or does he plan to continue music? Can folks listen to or support his art?

Jose says “I have more raps and would love to be able to share my music with people, currently most of the music I record is just for myself and loved ones,  but I will try to share some more tracks soon on instagram @jose_orozco52”