Photo by Nathan J. Shaulis courtesy of Pittsburgh Glass Center.

The glass sculptures of children stand silently, yet say so much about America’s refugee crisis.

Cuando el Río Suena (When the River Sounds), artist Jaime Guerrero’s exhibition at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, draws attention to the fragility of life and the dangers migrants face when they attempt to cross the U.S. border.

During a nine-month residency, Guerrero sculpted these 14 pieces using photographs of young detainees and asylum seekers as inspiration. The ones who died in custody are represented as guardian angels.

Photo by Nathan J. Shaulis. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

“I wanted to illustrate the stories of real children who were going through the migration process,” Guerrero says. “They’re unknown and vague for a reason; they’re meant to disappear. It’s symbolic of the children whose faces we see on TV or in different news sources, but know nothing about.”

This striking body of work is displayed throughout the gallery. One life-sized sculpture is of a 2-year-old Honduran girl whose audio went viral as she was being separated from her mother while crossing the border. Although disturbing, the sounds and pictures from her experience help to humanize her for visitors to the Glass Center.

On view through Jan. 26, 2020, the exhibition also features hundreds of letters from people who have gone through the immigration process. A Los Angeles native, Guerrero started the project in his hometown by gathering stories of family separation from local residents. When the show moved to the Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts, he started to receive letters from all over the world, including some from people who survived the Holocaust.

Photo by Nathan J. Shaulis. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

In addition to the letters on display, the exhibition features clothing and personal items collected, and discarded, at detention centers along the border. Fellow artist Tom Kiefer, who was working as a janitor at one of these facilities, salvaged nearly 10,000 pieces and photographed them for his own exhibition, El Sueño Americano (The American Dream), currently on view at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Guerrero, now a Pittsburgh resident, doesn’t consider his work political. But he’s aware that there are political undertones to it. Through his platform as an artist, his goal is to give a voice to the speechless.

Jamie Guerrero. Photo by Tracy Certo.

In conjunction with Cuando el Río Suena, the artist partnered with Casa San José, a community resource center based in Beechview that advocates for and empowers Latinos by promoting integration and self-sufficiency.

Guerrero, who has practiced the art of glass blowing for 25 years, is giving free lessons to children affiliated with Casa San José.

Pittsburgh Glass Center also invites local students to tour its facilities. In preparation for each gallery exhibition, they send out a curriculum to area educators and schools. It provides a way for teachers to bring the show into their classrooms before taking their pupils on a field trip.

“For Jaime’s show, we invited students to research their own migration and immigration history to see what stories and information they could find,” says Ashley McFarland, Pittsburgh Glass Center’s education and accessibility manager. “We then invited them to share these stories with us by coming to PGC, walking through a guided experience of Jaime’s exhibit and then leaving their story with us to potentially be displayed at another location. By exploring their own histories, we are hoping that this will help children at least identify with those talked about in the show.”

As his exhibition garners international attention, Guerrero, a husband and father, hopes to connect with some of the children and families depicted in Cuando el Río Suena.

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.