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Virgin Mary in Cuffs Art is Testament to Inhumane Treatment at the Border

Katie Jo Suddaby took 22 days to create a sand painting depicting La Virgen being taken into custody by ICE agents and two years later it still resonates with people. The Philadelphia Inquirer spoke with the artist about the enduring significance of what she dubbed the “Unholy Escort” and how it remains relevant today, often used in protests.

“Every time our administration does something terrible to immigrants,” Suddaby said, “people share that image.”

“Unholy Escort” came about after Suddaby watched news coverage of federal immigration arrest and – as a minister and activist – she saw similarities between the Virgin Mary and the immigrants being led away.

“Putting the Virgin Mother in that position, taking on the suffering of the refugees,” Suddaby said, “I wanted to say, if you look, you can see the spirit of God, the fingerprints of God, on people who have nothing and who need help.”

During the Trump administration, 24 people have died in ICE custody and this year the largest raid in the U.S. in more than a decade occurred in Texas where more than 280 immigrants were arrested. As Trump continues to push for stricter immigration policies like “Remain in Mexico” and stories of inhumane treatment in ICE centers and migrant deaths, the religious imagery is even more poignant.

This week the Virgin of Guadalupe was honored in Mexico and cities with larger Mexican communities in the U.S. as a revered symbol of faith and devotion. It’s that very significance juxtaposed with the image of her in cuffs at the border that speaks to the depths of the inhumane treatment affecting all migrants regardless of the severity of their situation.

Suddaby, 37, was raised Catholic and today she’s an ordained American Baptist Church pastor trained by monks in the ancient art of creating sand mandalas. After “Unholy Escort” was finished and photos were taken, it was destroyed in keeping with tradition that requires the mandala sands be returned to nature through a flowing body of water to carry blessing downstream, according to The Inquirer. The act is meant to represent impermanence and “Unholy Escort” disappeared into the waters of the Genesse River flowing through New York and Pennsylvania but its powerful messages continues to make an impact.

“I see a woman being abused in an oppressive, hypocritical system that claims to exist to protect people,” Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia told the publication. They also spoke to Edgar Ramirez, the founder of Philatinos Radio and a well-known voice in Philadelphia’s Mexican community, who said that the image contains a haunting message that if such a holy figure is helpless in the face of the current politics, “what could we expect for us, the ordinary people?”