Two years after Rocío Alvarado Lockwood died of cancer in 2015 at age 54, her family found her voice. Among her possessions were impassioned journals she had scrawled years earlier, recounting her traumatic experiences as a child immigrant in El Paso, and a haunting set of drawings and prints depicting wounded, silent children, made in 1989 for a university art class.
Yet she had chosen not to share these revelations about her childhood experience during her lifetime. Only now, due to the effort of her husband, Dean Lockwood, have her words and images been given a platform.
The exhibition Una Voz Desatada: The Art, Writings, and Trauma of an Immigrant Child opening Sept. 21 at Bihl Haus Arts presents excerpts from Rocío’s 2006 journals carefully paired with a selection of drawings and prints she made as a student in 1989. The title translates as “A Voice Unbound.”
“Everyone’s got a story, but not everyone decides to share it. I just knew this needed to be shared,” said Lockwood, recounting his decision to bring his late wife’s story to light.
The reasons she chose not to share her story are her own, Lockwood said, but can be traced back to abuse she suffered at an elementary school she entered as a 12-year-old after immigrating from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso in 1973.
In her journals, Rocío describes her teachers kicking her, twisting her arms, and forcing her to sit in a dark closet with her feet tied to a chair. The apparent reason for the abuse was that she was asked to speak and read in English but spoke only Spanish. Her response was to go silent, which only drew more abuse.
These early experiences stayed hidden until she finally wrote them down as a 45-year-old, ironically while studying to become a bilingual education teacher, which triggered her desire to confront her memories.
“It is like reading her own nightmare biography,” Lockwood writes in his catalog introduction to the exhibition.
Still, she survived, and even thrived as she went through life, Lockwood said. “She went through a dark childhood experience” but one that “didn’t define her. … It was a nasty moment in time. It’s not like she was this endlessly traumatized person forever after. … She went on to become a wife, a mother, and ultimately a teacher, but at the end of her life.”
Lockwood had seen some of his wife’s artwork during her lifetime but didn’t make the connection with her childhood trauma until he found the journals after her death. He showed the journals to poet Carmen Tafolla, whom Lockwood had befriended through years of Facebook correspondence, and the two bonded in mutual grief over the loss of his wife in 2015 and her husband, Ernesto M. Bernal, in 2017.
“It was not until [Lockwood] and I had begun to talk about this experience of loss that we began to tease out some of the fascinating things about Rocío and her particular road to expression,” Tafolla said.
Lockwood also found a photograph of Tafolla with Rocío, who had taken the noted poet and teacher’s class while studying at the University of Texas at San Antonio and had attended a Tafolla reading.
Once Rocío’s writings and artwork came to light, Tafolla said, “we could look at the body of work, we could look at the writing and say yeah, this is a complete statement. This is an entire school of thought. This is a description of a life-and-death struggle for a child’s survival. This is the child trying to set their voice free.”
Together, Rocío’s expressions are a record of “surviving that period of selective mutism, to become a mature caring adult, a bilingual teacher with a special soft spot for those kids in the back of the classroom who looked lost and locked out.”
With Tafolla’s urging that Rocío’s writings and art should be a book, Lockwood drew upon his cultural connections to create the exhibition and catalog. He enlisted a group of writers and artists to contribute texts as responses to selected passages from Rocío’s journals, including Tafolla, printmaker Gloria Sánchez Hart, artist Celeste De Luna, writer Cary Clack, poet Gris Muñoz, Anthony “The Poet” Flores, filmmaker Laura Varela, performance artists Anna De Luna and Marisela Barrera, and installation artist David Zamora Casas.
Bon vivant Michael Quintanilla contributed to the gallery installation, helping create what Lockwood, in the catalog acknowledgments, calls “the ‘sacred space’ of the exhibition, an interactive installation where you get to meet – to touch – a little of Rocío’s life and soul.”
Bihl Haus Director Kellen McIntyre described Lockwood and Quintanilla’s work as “a wonderful collaboration.” She described the installation as dual, with a more “joyous” installation side to balance out the darker content of the drawings and journals.
McIntyre selected the exhibition in part because of the backdrop of immigration news flowing from the southern border, where children are daily undergoing trauma similar to Rocío’s – and worse.
“Our hope is this is a place for people to talk about the childhood trauma that migrant children are going through at the border every day,” McIntyre said.
“They’ll never recover,” she said of being locked in cages and separated from their parents, citing the lasting effects evident throughout Rocío’s life, even with her strength and support system.
“How are these children going to express themselves? How are they going to deal with that trauma? Is there going to be anyone there to save them, to help them deal with their trauma?”
Tafolla said the exhibition represents a victim of childhood trauma coming to terms with its long-term effects. Together, the drawings and writings “create a very useful metaphor to explain the power of cultural and linguistic trauma on immigrant children,” she said. “They speak to the lasting scars which trauma can carve on a young child, so I consider [the exhibition] very relevant to educators, to social workers, to politicians making decisions for immigrant children, for citizens in general.”
The exhibition is not about politics, laws, or regulations, McIntyre said, but “it’s about humanity, and the individual story leads us to the universal story, individual truth to universal truth.”
The exhibition begins with a free public reception from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, featuring live music by Los Nahuatlatos, and continues through Oct. 27. Several events will explore the exhibition in depth, including a conversation with author Reyna Grande from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sept. 24, a reading by catalog contributors from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 12 with a special dance performance by author Xelena González, and a closing reception from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 27 with a gallery talk between Lockwood and Tafolla.