On a cloudless day in early February, light streams through the windows of Vault Gallerie in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The gallery is airy, with a high ceiling, potted plants, candles and an old-fashioned fireplace.
Delilah Martinez, 40, has owned the gallery for almost five years, and though she’s often been involved in community work (she’s co-led the arts non-profit Mural Movement since 2020), her latest activism has transformed her homey gallery into a space for more than just displaying art.
Today, paintings sit beside donated coats, backpacks, school supplies and other essentials destined to help asylum-seekers from Central and South America. And, Martinez now regularly serves as a point of contact between Chicago community members who are filling service gaps experienced by the migrants in her own city.This transformation started in 2021, when Martinez saw news coverage of asylum-seekers being treated poorly at the US border. She says she felt a deep connection to their pain, which compelled her to travel to San Diego to help migrants at the U.S. border.
There, she worked alongside her mother who provided arts-based trauma therapy to migrants, many of whom survived dangerous journeys to the border. Mural Movement artists decorated shelters.
Last summer, though, state governments of Texas and Colorado began bussing asylum-seekers to Chicago.
Martinez says at first she thought the migrants would need mostly toiletries, as they did at the border. But by winter, she says, she saw asylum-seekers arrive in Chicago with no shoes and socks.
“That really freaked us out,” she says, adding that U.S. Border Patrol often seizes migrants’ property. “That includes shoes, coats, backpacks, prescribed medicines, taking everything from people. Then, [they’re] putting them in scrubs and flip-flops. But they don’t have a system that gives them the stuff back.”
Martinez and other activists say there are significant gaps between what the city provides and what the more than 5,000 asylum-seekers in Chicago actually need. She’s helping connect the dots between local landlords, restaurants, and nonprofits who can provide housing, food, legal help, and other basics.
On this day in early February, Martinez packs blankets for a drop-off at a temporary migrant shelter in the Little Village neighborhood.
The first stop, though, is to pick up tacos for the migrants at a Little Village joint called Mariscos La Playa.
“I like to go there because they were one of the first people to donate to us when we were passing out coats and shoes to the refugees,” Martinez says.Today, she insists on paying half-price, but usually the restaurant caters for asylum-seekers for free.
“It just feels natural,” says Ruben Delgado, who owns the restaurant with his family. “It’s the type of morals my family has always instilled in me, to always give back.”The temporary migrant shelter is a nondescript storefront next to a flower shop. The windows are covered in tarp for privacy.
The space is a desperate measure created by 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez. No one can predict when new migrants will arrive, and when Chicago’s homeless shelters are full, migrants end up sleeping at police stations or even on the streets.
Before the alderman secured the space for this shelter, Martinez says, “he was asking landlords to house them. He himself has even housed them in his office.”The shelter houses 12 asylum-seekers, all men. Through another connection made by Martinez, the men sleep on air mattresses provided by the Chicago Bulls.
Darwin Farias and another asylum-seeker, Argenus Ramirez, both say they’re eager to stop receiving assistance from the community and get work. But the legal path to work can be long; it also differs from migrant to migrant, based on asylum status and other factors.
On this particular stop, Martinez finds that the donated blankets are not needed, but the tacos are welcome. On her way back to Vault Gallerie, Martinez notes that, because of these legal barriers, the migrants might need help for a while.
“If they were just to speed up the process, [asylum-seekers] would get the job, and they would get their own apartment,” Martinez says.
But for now, she says, asylum-seekers need patience and understanding.
“A lot of them say they witnessed death. They witnessed all types of stuff in the Darien jungle,” Martinez says. “That just goes to show how desperate they are to get here, to work and get a job.”