The United States government is keeping would-be refugee and immigrant children in cages, disappeared from their parents, inside what, by all appearances, look like concentration camps. This, of course, is monstrous on its face, yet somehow all of the government and a critical mass of citizens are untroubled by what can best be described, at absolute minimum, as official state kidnappings by ICE. No one sane should have trouble understanding and empathizing with the trauma these kids and their parents are going through. And yet, I’m concerned that things are even worse than they sound. These are largely children of color coming from Central and South America; they don’t necessarily speak English, they don’t necessarily speak Spanish — some of them only speak their local indigenous languages and have no way to communicate with their jailers. Many are fleeing state and/or gang violence, and have endured harrowing peril during their journey. All that, so they could arrive full of hope at the southern border of the US. And then be treated like animals instead of like people.
I am going to look back several decades to a series of performances by a pair of artists that can help us get a fuller sense of what these children in cages are likely enduring. In 1992 and 1993, to recognize the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña costumed themselves self-consciously ridiculously as natives from a small, fictional Caribbean island that Columbus somehow failed to “discover,” as did everyone else until the 1990s. For Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, these “natives” were displayed in a large cage in public spaces where they acted out silly fake rituals, told nonsense stories in a fake language and interacted with the very real visitors. At each venue, there was a donation box, and visitors could pay a small fee to have the “Amerindians” dance or tell stories (in a fake language) or pose for photos; Fusco explains that at the Whitney Museum, at the end of the tour, “we added sex to our spectacle, offering a peek at authentic [undiscovered native] male genitals for $5.”
They made no attempt to be culturally “authentic” (a meaningless concept for inhabitants of a non-existent island) and never expected to be believed; Fusco wore Converse high tops, Gómez-Peña wore a Mexican wrestling mask, they had a TV and a laptop in the cage. They assumed everyone would understand they were artists — and not unknown artists: Gómez-Peña had already won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” — performing satire, but around half of their audience thought they were real natives. The artists debuted the work in Madrid’s Columbus Plaza (after a limited test at the art gallery of the University of California, Irvine). The performance also toured to London, Minneapolis, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the Australian Museum of Natural History in Sydney, the Field Museum in Chicago and the opening of the 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York (where everyone did know they were artists).
What is so powerful about Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s project is not just their time in the cages, but, more to the point, their superlative ability to observe, understand, analyze and speak about their experience — skills that ICE’s children in cages, as children, are unlikely to possess. Shortly after the end of their tour, the artists gave Anna Johnson a candid joint interview for Bomb magazine, and then Fusco wrote a very sensitive, detailed account of their experiences and the historical context for the academic journal The Drama Review (behind the JSTOR paywall). These are the sources for my information and quotations from the artists.
There are so, so many ways that audiences treated Fusco and Gómez-Peña as sub-human because they were in a cage and “different.” Businessmen in London and Madrid made jungle animal noises and “racist ‘Indian’ hoots” at them. Neo-Nazis tried to shake the cage (although they were stopped by other, less callous spectators). Spanish teenagers tried to burn Gómez-Peña with cigarettes and offered him beer that was actually urine in a beer can. In Irvine, the university’s Environmental Health and Safety Office mistakenly thought Fusco and Gómez-Peña were legitimate anthropologists bringing “real aborigines” to campus and were concerned about the hygiene and disposal of their “excrement.” Fusco puts this is the proper racist context, which is still our current context: “This is particularly significant in light of the school’s location in Orange County, where Mexican immigrants are often characterized by right-wing ‘nativists’ as environmental hazards.” Fusco writes, “Audience reactions of those who believe the fiction occasionally include moral outrage that is often expressed paternalistically.” Indeed, some (technically…) well-meaning visitors also failed to accept the artists’ humanity: Someone called the Washington Humane Society for the artists’ protection and had to be told that people were not under their jurisdiction.
The wrong people are in cages.
Not surprisingly, but in a way that is particularly dire for ICE’s kidnapped children in cages, many spectators seized the opportunity to abuse the caged “natives” sexually. Some men in Madrid put coins in the donation box to try to make Fusco dance because they “wanted to see [her] tits.” In California, one woman asked — the “guards,” not the artists — for rubber gloves so she could touch Gómez-Peña, and then she fondled him sexually. The artists understood this power dynamic clearly: they added the donation to see authentic native genitals for the final performance at the Whitney well after this visitor had unilaterally decided that a caged Gómez-Peña was implicitly sexually available to her. As Fusco explained to Bomb, “There were several instances where people crossed the boundaries of expected sexual behavior. I think that was provoked by us being presented as objects, by their sense of having power over us.” Gómez-Peña added, “Coco performs the noble savage, you know the quiet, subdued innocent. The response people have towards her is either one of compassion or one of sexual aggression.”
How many of the ICE-detained children might be described as “quiet, subdued innocents”? How grave should our concerns be that they, too, face sexual aggression right now?
If the general public — some of them interested enough in the world to go to a museum — feels free in public to treat two self-possessed, sophisticated artists as objects rather than people, it seems farcical that the out-of-control, self-important, malignant racists at ICE (and their contractor handmaidens profiteering off tortured kids) might treat hidden, functionally anonymous, unprotected, isolated and terrified children with human dignity. Fusco and Gómez-Peña have been so smart about their experiences inside a cage that what we can learn about their psychology, and their observation of the psychology of others, should highlight the deepest of our concerns about what we are doing to those children. Crowds of people were unable to wrap their minds around the humanity and dignity of the two artists who actively engaged them, so what hope do these kids have to be treated humanely at the hands of ICE? The wrong people are in cages.