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By Christine S. Escobar

“Voces Fantasmas” by Houston-based Mexican American composer and filmmaker J.E. Hernandez is a multi-disciplinary artistic work that honors immigrants being held in U.S. federal detention. It is based on Hernandez’ own 60 day imprisonment at Houston Immigrant Detention Center. The sounds, words, visual elements, and movements in the piece are derived from memories of his imprisonment. The work is performed by the Apollo Chamber Players, soprano Shannon Murray, and Houston Contemporary Dance Company artist Jesus Acosta, and shot by the filmmaking duo Christian and Orlando Briones of FILMATIC Cinema.

The work is the first segment of Hernandez’ trilogy detailing the immigrant experience in federal detention. It premiered at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston on December 5, 2020, and was featured by The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in their “Arts Across America” series on October 13, 2020. The above excerpt, called “Velorio” (or “Wake” in Spanish) honors the life of a man who killed himself while in solitary confinement during Hernandez’ stay at the Center.

In 2013, at the age of 20, returning from a vacation, Hernandez, a permanent U.S. resident at the time and now a citizen, was detained in a holding area at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. He was unable to speak with his family, save for a metal telephone box on the wall he was allowed to use repeatedly in only 1 minute increments to speak to his mother. Within hours he was imprisoned at the Houston Immigrant Detention Center, a stay that would ultimately last 60 days.

For the next two months, Hernandez’ stay in detention was filled with multiple elements of dehumanization. None of the detained people were given information on what was to be their fate. One of the most distressing elements, he says, was his inability to sleep. Lights would go out at 9:30 p.m., but he would find himself regularly awake again at 3 a.m. The space in which he was housed, with 40 other men, was lined with steel bunk beds too short for his 6 foot tall frame. The room had only one window barely larger than a piece of paper, high up on the wall. He could only discern the blueness of the sky.

“I dreamed a lot, “ he recalls. “You never see the sunset or the sunrise when you’re there.”

ICE agents were supposed to visit the facility twice per week. But during Hernandez’ 2 month imprisonment, they only appeared twice.

Hernandez was one of the only bilingual people at the facility at the time. Thus, he often served as the translator for others. At times he fantasized that a plane would crash into the building. The provided food, served by detainees, was “inedible”. The temperature in the facility was cold all of the time. Hernandez lost 30 pounds in only 2 months.

According to Freedom for Immigrants, an organization devoted to abolishing immigrant detention and the profit-driven detention system, government data from April 2019 shows that Texas (14,481), Louisiana (4,415), Arizona (4,405), California (4,353), and Georgia (3,719), are the top five states with the largest number of people in U.S. immigration detention per day. Over 70 percent of those people are held in privately-run immigrant prisons.

“Voces Fantasmas” is funded in part by the City of Houston via the Houston Arts Alliance and through Concertia, a nonprofit organization for the arts Hernandez co-founded with artist Lux Martinez, and public servant A.J. Mendoza.