David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial

Escaping Across the Border Through Art

Using art to escape from violence and suffering for women emigrating from Mexico

Posted Feb 19, 2015

This post’s guest blogger is Mexican-born artist and art therapist Valentina Castro who has spent much of her recent work—among MANY other things—providing support for immigrant women who have suffered many violent experiences.  

Originally an Industrial Designer, Ms. Castro received her Masters in Textile Deisgn in Barcelona. As one of her passions has always been psychology and its relationship with art, she began studying for a Master of Education and Children's Thinking through the Institute of Neurosciences and Mental Health (INSMB) of Barcelona, after which she began a Master Degree in Clinical Psychology and Pedagogy at the INSMB.  After all this, she then began studying Therapeutic Art Education and Development of Self in the Balearic Institute of Psychiatry and Psychology, Balearic Islands, Spain. I had the pleasure of meeting Valentina Castro at the last American Art Therapy Association Conference during a focus group on forensic art therapy. Since then, we have had several discussions on where our work intersect within the forensic arena—I work with the perpetrators and she works with those that suffer. This post is about how women who are emigrating from Mexico—sometimes smuggled across illegally—suffer at the hands of perpetrators, who take advantage of their vulnerable situations.

This post depicts through words and images the harrowing experiences these women have endured, and how art has provided a means of expression and healing.

The Immigrant Experience Expressed Through Art

by Valentina Castro

Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

Currently more than 100 million women move to a foreign country each year. In 2010, approximately 40 million people immigrated to the United States and Canada (20% of the world’s immigrant population).  Immigrants age 20 to 64—who make up 26% of the world’s immigrant population—live in the U.S. or Canada. This means that immigration is a topic that neither government nor society can afford; it occurs in a vacuum but within a complex context, which impacts most countries.

I am a native of Mexico and I have worked with survivors of domestic violence for the past 12 years both in Mexico and the United States, many of whom have emigrated from Mexico to the US.

Immigration does not affect women and men in the same manner—certain points need to be considered such as the circumstances that may cause women to immigrate and the most frequent challenges women face when they do so.

While men tend to immigrate for economic reasons, women may be escaping from extreme hardship and abuse. While the main reason women move from Mexico to the United States is to reunite with their family reunification—husbands often head north first and women and children may follow—there may be other circumstances such as forced marriages, social rejection, forced prostitution (sexual exploitation), sexual abuse or threat of sexual abuse by partners or family members, income inequality, or the patriarchal system in their families that may exclude them.

As a result, women who live in fear and hopelessness mistakenly believe that everything will be better once they cross the border. They cannot imagine what it involves: grief for leaving their country and family, high sums of money they will have to pay the smugglers, abuse they may experience at the hands of the smugglers or the police who are frequently involved in the smuggling business; this abuse can be physical or psychological (including sexual abuse) and the number of accidents that can happen to them along the way. It is indeed a long list; their path is paved with uncertainty and fear.

My Work

I moved to Houston 5 years ago. For the last two years I have worked with a support group for immigrant women. Some of them have legal status, some don’t; those who lack legal status experience greater fear and stress. I have seen how fear can paralyze them at times but I have also seen that when they overcome their fear, they come out stronger. These women become resilient. Listening to their stories, it is hard to fathom everything they have given up, faced, learned and risked. Some people might think that their motivation to immigrate is the American dream but most of them are running from a situation of violence—unfortunately, they may end up in another; for many of them violence does not end when they immigrate.

I work with a fellow therapist to help women with diverse situations including domestic violence, addiction, co-dependency, depression and/or anxiety, sexual abuse, unresolved grief, low self-esteem, systemic disorders, PTSD, among others, as well as illnesses caused by their life situations (diabetes, colitis, migraines, etc.). Most of these women reside in a low income area of Houston known as “the Northside”.

After several sessions my colleague and I decided to address the grief these women feel for what they have left behind. Some expressed nostalgia, anger, and guilt.

The Session

The session began with a mindfulness exercise; we asked the participants to relive the moment when they made the decision to immigrate and/or the situations they had to endure to cross the border. We then invite them to share their feelings. They were then divided into three groups according to the most prevalent emotion each experienced:

1. Pain, guilt, fear

2. Nostalgia, sadness, loneliness

3. Joy and relief

We asked them to create together a mural according to these emotions they

experienced. Here are some of their stories:


Woman A:

Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

“I drew a black road because it represents the darkness I have experienced in my life. This is me. When crossing through Laredo, Texas by bus I remember seeing these trees along the road; they made me very fearful; they symbolized the uncertainty of a new life on my own at the age of 19. I was running away from a history of sexual abuse that started in my childhood”. 

Woman B:

Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

“These are my friends and I jumping the barbed wire fence; we were told that once in the other side we would be safe. In our desperation to get there we did not realize that we had hurt our hands and other parts of our body. We realized it only once we were bleeding. To me the pain was great and it was more than just physical pain…it was my heart that was bleeding too because I was leaving my family and friends and my country behind”. 


Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

Woman C:

“It has been the worst experience in my life. If they had told me what it was all about, I would not have done it. It was very hard to say good-bye to my family when I left home. I came with one of my brothers and two male friends. I was the only woman.  A truck took us to the railroad tracks; we were very cramped and could barely breathe. We then walked for hours. The smugglers locked us in a train car for several days. They were letting people out gradually, we were the last ones left. They released my brother and friend and I was left by myself. They told me that “I was not going to make it”, that “they were going to rape me and beat me until I was dead. They pointed a gun at me several times. Thank God they did not shoot; when they finally let me go they told me to run as fast as I could to the river (I do not know how to swim much). They said that if I made it to the other side it would sheer luck because they were going to shoot me. And they did shoot!! I saw bullets whizzing by me even as I got into the river. They all missed me. My brother and my friends waited two days for me to cross the river and reunite with them." 

Woman D:

Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

“I left home 10 years ago. I have a son with cerebral palsy and people told me that everything would be better for him in the United States. My husband and our four children came here; my son has more opportunities here than in Mexico; he has more support in school and from his doctors. It was painful to leave my other relatives behind but I hope to return home one day.”  


Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

Woman  E:

“I drew the sun because to me every sunrise is a new beginning. For me coming here to the U.S. was the beginning of change. The sun is the one lighting my path.”  

Woman F:

Valentina Castro
Image Source: Valentina Castro

“For me coming to the U.S. was a relief because we were finally able to reunite with the whole family. My father came first then he was joined by my brothers, my mother and I after several years.”   

This activity was very emotional as well as cathartic. The participants found through the art the opportunity to work on healing the hurt and unresolved grief caused by immigrating. They talked of missing family members, food and their hometown. Even though they preserve many of their costumes and traditions, they face the reality of not living in their country of origin.

During the activity, we had planned for them to discuss as a team how to express their emotions by creating a “mural”; however, we realized that each participant needed to express individually everything she had repressed for years. All of them felt that this activity helped them overcome their immigration experience both psychologically and emotionally. Each of them poured in paper those emotions that had been intangible before to make sense and meaning of it.

The end result was a group of shared emotions contained on one canvas, but most importantly this activity resulted in growth for the whole group and for each individual.

While the governments of Mexico and the United States keep thinking of ways to resolve the political side of immigration, they refuse to see the underlying causes that force women to leave their home country. Somewhere near the border there are be people like us using art therapy as a means of expression and healing.