Just after 2 p.m. on Friday, Beatriz Cortez, Douglas Carranza and Freya Rojo walked across MacArthur Park, seeking a patch of sky not obstructed by trees. They stopped in a shaded spot on a hillside overlooking the park’s lake with the downtown Los Angeles skyline spread out behind it. They waited, heads tilted toward up.
Earlier that day, Cortez, an L.A.-based artist and a professor in the Department of Central American Studies (CAS) at CSU Northridge, had led an art event on the other side of the park, between Levitt Pavilion and event venue The MacArthur. Inspired by the syncretic Catholic and indigenous Mayan tradition of the alfombra, a group of artists and a coalition of Central American community organizations had written in chalk across the ground, “DEFUND ICE.” Now, she and her colleagues waited for the next part of the event: another set of messages — this time written in the sky instead of pavement.
She heard a rumble. “Is that it?” she asked the others. “It doesn’t sound like a helicopter.” A false alarm, followed by others: a bus, a commercial airplane. The group raised their phones, ready to take photos and lowered them again.
MacArthur Park is an important site for Central Americans in L.A., explained Carranza, the department chair of CAS. Although the city has not officially designated a historic Central American neighborhood, the Westlake and Pico-Union neighborhoods surrounding the park have one of the largest concentrations of Central American immigrants and their descendants. In the park, a statue and plaza commemorate Saint Óscar Romero, a Salvadoran archbishop known for his human rights advocacy.
Suddenly, Rojo, a lecturer in the CAS department, who had wandered toward the lake, shouted up at Cortez and Carranza and pointed behind them. They turned around and saw the words in white against the blue sky: “NO CAGES NO JAULAS,” the message Cortez had contributed, one of 80 written across the country throughout the three-day weekend. The words wrapped around the sky, as if exposing the curve of the earth. From the ground, the planes looked as small as gnats, five of them flying parallel, letting out individual puffs of steam that formed capital letters. Other messages contributed by other artists formed soon after. “STOP CRIMMIGRATION,” contributed by Latina trans activist Bamby Salcedo, read the next message, then “CHINGA TU MIGRA” from poet Yosimar Reyes. The last message closed a loop encircling the sky: “CARE NOT CAGES #XMAP.”
Cortez’s action alongside the Central American groups is part of “In Plain Sight,” an artist-led effort to make visible the vast and invisible network of detention centers that are keeping immigrants locked up and families apart at the cost of taxpayer dollars. As the rest of the country celebrated independence, 80 artists — including the likes of Emory Douglas (former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party) and Mary Kelly (a pioneer figure in feminist art), Patrice Cullors (co-founder of Black Lives Matter) — took over the skies around the country, typing up messages such as ”FREE THEM ALL,” “ICE WILL MELT,” “NOSOTRAS TE VEMOS” (“WE SEE YOU”) and “956-701-0149” (a phone number you can use to hear English translations of letters written by those incarcerated at U.S. detention centers and letters written to people in response), all tagged with #XMAP. These messages written in the sky remind us that while most of us enjoy freedom, some are locked up for the sheer audacity of trying to find a better life in a new country.
Click right and left to see more of the messages across the country.
This ambitious national artistic effort is led by Cassils and rafa esparza, performance artists based in Los Angeles. “When I found out the number of camps there were… I was already disgusted, but my outrage…,” said Cassils about the beginnings of the project. According to a 2020 American Civil Liberties Union research report, there is a network of more than 200 detention centers across the country holding upwards of 56,000 people per day, about 50% more than the all-time high set previous administration.
According to Cassils and esparza, understanding the vastness of this network of facilities and how much they permeate American life pushed them over the precipice into action. “My wife is a nurse, right? She can go and save somebody’s life,” said Cassils. “As an artist, you're working in the space of the unconscious. But as artists, we do have the ability to influence cultural change. That's one thing that Emory Douglas, who's one of our sky typing artists and one of our elders, has always said: that the purpose of art is to inspire a culture of change. And so with our little slice of agency as artists, we felt like — you have to do something; otherwise, you're doing nothing. And nothing is not apolitical. Nothing is a contribution to the problem.”
Cassils connected with esparza through Signal, an open-source, secure messaging app. The two were part of a large artist group on the messaging platform that formed in search of a community around the time when news began to spread about the Trump administration separating migrant children from their families at the border and effectively placing them in cages, known as detention centers. “It started from a place of just sharing our feelings, and there was a sort of collective sense of helplessness,” said esparza, who as a first-generation Mexican American identified strongly with the plight of immigrants, but also was shaped by the sense of agency he saw in his parents. He grew up seeing his parents struggle to get even low-paying difficult jobs to provide food and shelter, but at the same time supporting the community of new immigrants by opening the esparza home to them.“This is a kind of support that was modeled to me,” said esparza, who says it is a model he aspires to even as an artist working in collaboration with others.
The pandemic only heightened the sense of urgency for Cassils and esparza. The poor hygienic conditions of detention facilities puts extra pressure on immigrant lives. The ACLU report details severely inadequate medical conditions. A broken bone could be seen to "within a week," or an emergency room could lack basic equipment such as a crash cart or defibrillator. It also revealed reports of abuse by detention facility officers and the use of tear gas and pepper sprays, as well as solitary confinement for minor infractions.
What began as an urge to act quickly solidified for Cassils a year ago as they returned from a trip to Poland. While in Poland, they had learned the disturbing reason why there were so many concentration camps in Poland: "[The Nazis] didn't want to pay to move people from their locations to death camps, so they opened them there. Essentially the Nazis did not want to pay for shipping. And so this kind of relation to money and genocide, and then coming back to America last year, reading about the plentitude of camps throughout the country, the amount of money that was being made off of caged bodies, this link became apparent to me that we have long lived in these legacies of thinking about people not as humans but as numbers, and how do we expediently deal with these numbers, you know, and so we realized we needed to have a huge reaction to a huge problem and it couldn't be this small thing. " They got back to the U.S. on the Fourth of July, and, as headlines touted the sheer scale of detention facilities in the country, they saw a plane spell out “Happy Fourth” in the sky. These disparate events all clicked together in an aha moment. Cassils thought, “Wow. What would it be like if we could use airplanes to index the geographical locations of these [detention] centers and create public awareness about them?’”
The idea seemed simple, but the execution was complex. Cassils and esparza gathered a group of 80 artists, a number set by the capacity of the sky typing fleet they had contracted to help them write their messages. As they invited artists, Cassils and esparza were also mindful of including diverse voices that needed to be elevated, from Indigenous, to undocumented to gender non-conforming people.
Then, there was also the matter of coordination and logistics. Sky typing is a patented technique limited to one company, whose single-engine World War II planes take off from only three airports, located in California, North Carolina and New York. “In Plain Sight” artists had to cross-reference how far these planes could go with the map of active ICE centers maintained by the Freedom for Immigrants organization, all while building partnerships with organizations on the ground, “making sure that they know what we're doing, that they agree with what we're doing and how can we elevate their message,” said Cassils. "I've never worked with organizers on this level, and I've learned so much about how and why they do things."
Some of the artists included in the 4th of July weekend art work also worked closely with organizations themselves, such as Cortez. She worked with Central American organizations: Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund (SALEF), Clinica Romero, Mayavision, El Rescate, Central American Resource Center, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and the Central American Research & Policy Institute at Cal State University, Northridge. “These organizations have been protesting and organizing for a long time, since at least the 1980s,” said Cortez. In creating her work, she wanted to put the focus on these organizations and amplify the message they had been working so long to communicate. This dynamic of placing cause above ego that permeates the whole weekend.
Click right and left to see the results of Cortez's work with the Central American organizations:
Finally, there was the matter of the message itself. According to Cassils, the choice to use #XMAP was largely a practical one. There was only so much smoke oil that each sky typing plane could expend, so the project’s hashtag had to be short, as well as easy to remember and spell and unpopulated on social media.“We learned a lot about marketing,” remarked Cassils. A search for #XMAP will take users to the “In Plain Sight” Instagram, which showcases artist interviews alongside calls to specific actions and even suggestions for where to donate.
Within the 80-artist network, constant communication over emails and Zoom calls became the norm. Alongside publishing actionable steps for the general public on their Instagram page, "In Plain Sight" also asked each artist to share their motivations for participating in the national effort.
L.A.-based photographer, Paolo Riveros who was born in Peru, found it important to participate because “it speaks to a broader audience that may not know that in their own backyard, there is a detention center, or they live in a community where people are being held because of their immigration status,” said Riveros on Instagram, “Sometimes action starts by just asking the question, ‘What’s happening?’” His message over the La Salle County Regional Detention Center read “ABOLISH ICE.”
For D.J. Funky Caramelo, resident D.J. at Cumbiatón, an intergenerational effort to create a safe space for marginalized communities using music, the impetus was personal. She experienced detention herself and was in ICE custody for three weeks. “As Cumbiatón we do have a duty to inform our community of what’s happening, not just informing and providing safe space, but being able to ignite them to join different actions or social justice movements, [while] at the same time being able to have fun with it," said the D.J. on Instagram. Her message, "IMMIGRATION IS TRAUMA," filled the sky over the ICE Atlanta, Georgia field office.
"This project, in a most profound historical manner, is bringing awareness to incredible human atrocity. Literally detaining humans in cages, young humans, female, male, trans, everything. It's out of control, and it has to stop," said Texas-based painter Cruz Ortiz on Instagram. His message "LA LUCHA LIVES" ("THE FIGHT LIVES") appeared over the Central Texas Detention Facility in San Antonio, Texas.
By the time you read this, the messages in the sky have disappeared in the wind. In MacArthur Park, as a new phrase appeared, the last one was already soft around the edges and the one before it, too blurry to read. But the show lasted several minutes, and people in the park who didn’t expect it were looking up.
Despite the artwork’s short life in the sky, it will live on through the “In Plain Sight” website, xmap.us, which shows all 80 messages alongside information about the artists who created them. It also includes a map, where you can enter your ZIP code to see all the detention centers and related facilities near you.
There are other ways the work lives on. Artist Nancy Baker Cahill is including these messages on her augmented reality app, 4th Wall, for users to explore. Oxy Arts will also be curating an exhibition and programming with Cassils and rafa this fall. Occidental College also plans to integrate “In Plain Sight” and the issues it raises into its curricula across different departments.
“In Plain Sight” is intentionally designed to live beyond its short lifespan in the sky. “Hope is kind of a chance,” said Cassils, “but we've put so much intentionality around the way that we bracket the work — with the hashtag, with the website, with the calls to action — that we'd like to not leave hope up to chance.”
"I want people to experience this as an artwork to be curious and think about the messages, but then I also want people to go a step further," said espaza but also, “I really want people to visit our website. I want people to become educated about this issue. I really want people to find an outlet and a way to get involved. I don't want people to feel helpless about this issue anymore.”
Top Image: "STOP CRIMMIGRATION NOW" written in in the sky, contributed by Bamby Salcedo over the ICE L.A. Field Office | David McNew, In Plain Sight