Díaz Lewis, “34,000 Pillows,” at the For Site Foundation, San Francisco (photo credit Robert Divers Herrick)

The Los Angeles-based artist duo known as Díaz Lewis encourage you to jump into their installations of their ongoing “34,000 Pillows Project.” As the piece is arranged into a positively cozy-looking mound of patchwork pillows, many take them up on the offer. But the invitation to curl up is actually an opening into a conversation about a wholly uncomfortable subject: The Detention Bed Mandate.

Enacted by Congress in 2009, this Orwellian law required Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to occupy an average of 34,000 beds every night across 250 detention facilities nationwide. Filling one bed for one night cost the taxpayer approximately $159, or about $2 billion per year. Since three-quarters of detainees are held in privately operated facilities, critics often contend the draconian quorum has more to do with profit than national security. Even its name smacks of 1984-esque doublespeak, as “bed” implies a kind of hospitable sojourn rather than indeterminate incarceration.

“Pillows Pile” installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery in Chicago (photo courtesy the artists)

Though the Detention Bed Mandate was repealed in 2017, ICE currently far exceeds this once unthinkable, now baseline quota, detaining approximately 50,000 immigrants at any given time. “It’s not political anymore,” Alejandro Diaz-Perera spoke to a crowd of students at the USC Fisher Museum earlier this month about the continuing evolution “34,000 Pillows Project.” “It’s about people passing through these rough times. It’s a humanitarian project at this point.”

Back in 2009, in response to the real and symbolic implications of this mandate, Díaz-Lewis created the first iteration of their “34,000 Pillows Project” as a series of workshops with residents of the Interfaith Immigrant Hospitality House in Chicago, many of whom had themselves been detained at such facilities. The results of the workshop were then displayed in an exhibition at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery.

The Marie Joseph House of Hospitality operated by Interfaith Committee For Detained Immigrants

“We wanted to know how it was impacting real individuals,” said Cara Lewis, one half of Díaz Lewis, in a recent phone interview, “so we basically became artists-in-residence there. We wanted to hear the real stories and also help to educate those had been formerly detained who didn’t know that they had been part of systemic oppression that profits private prisons.”

In order to reflect the community in which they worked, the materials for the pillow covers were largely sourced from undocumented immigrants themselves in the form of donated clothes. “Each piece of clothing carries the story of the person that wore it,” said Díaz-Perera. “one of the people, for example, crossed 14 counties on his journey to the United States, and he donated the pants he wore on his journey.”

(photo courtesy the artists)

It is here where the project’s strange paradox becomes clear: it juxtaposes the hard realities of detention centers, border checks, and ICE raids with soft thoughts of sleep. This oxymoron speaks to the government’s own efforts to obfuscate the reality of these detention centers with euphemistic names like “Family Center” and their “Hospitality Guidelines,” as if trying to invoke a sense of travel and rest. By mirroring the government’s language, the “34,000 Pillows Project” reflects back what should be rather than what is.

Workshop Chicago Cultural Center (photo courtesy the artists)

So far, Díaz Lewis have created over 800 pillows either themselves or through workshops that engage students, community members, and recent immigrants in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and elsewhere. They continue to source material from undocumented immigrants and their allies, often incorporating numerous articles of clothing into a single pillow, literally sewing together the vestiges of different immigrants’ stories. Even the stuffing has significance as it’s made of kapok fiber, a cotton-like substance found in seed-pods of the ceiba tree, native to Mexico and Central America, where the majority of immigrants to the US originate from, and considered sacred by the Mayans who often depicted it as the symbol of the universe.

In 2016, “34,000 Pillows” was installed as part of Home Land Security, an exhibition organized by the For Site Foundation in the former military structures in San Francisco’s Presidio. The location was eerily appropriate. Framed in cement behind thick double doors, one got the sense that the pillows — seemingly personal items in their color and patchwork — were abandoned by their owners in less than ideal circumstances.

But more than a socially conscious artwork, “34,000 Pillows” also functions as a rolling fundraiser for organizations working to affect change within the system and to support individuals who are affected by US immigration policies. Every pillow in each of the installations is for sale at the price of $159, or about the price of keeping one person in a detention center overnight. So far the pair has donated thousands of dollars to organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants. In theory, the goal of the project is to raise enough money to keep detention centers empty for one night.

Díaz Lewis also donate their proceeds directly to immigrants, such as one individual they met who was held for months at the privately operated Adelanto Detention Facility, widely understood as one of the most dangerous in the United States.

“US nojotros” at Weinberg Newton Gallery in Chicago (photo courtesy the artists)

“We were part of a detention center visitation group that would go to Adelanto,” said Lewis, “and we met Carla who was visiting her husband, Alfredo. But when we met Carla she was about two or three days from losing her apartment because Alfredo was the breadwinner.” In response, Díaz Lewis auctioned a number of their 34,000 Pillows pieces and “were able to keep a roof over her head and pay for some legal services,” said Lewis. Alfredo was eventually released to a large degree because of the stabilizing funds provided from “34,000 Pillows” that allowed Carla to stay in her house and continue to call the detention center every day, demanding to know the whereabouts and condition of her husband. 

Still, all this may seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket. But to a certain extent, that is the point. Rather than claim to contain the end-all, be-all solution in some grand gesture, the strength of the “34,000 Pillows Project” lies in its admission that its goal is beyond its grasp. As Lewis pointed out, “it would take us 16 years, full-time, to make 34,000 pillows.” But, as Díaz-Perera continued, “the project itself is more about the trying, and in the trying you create the sense of movement, and you need that as an individual and as a society.”

Lorissa Rinehart is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has recently appeared in Hyperallergic, Perfect Strangers, and Narratively. As an independent curator, she has organized exhibitions at institutions...