The Central American caravan became a fear-mongering cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric last year as he claimed it was a vehicle for crime riddled with gang members that presented a national emergency to the U.S.
However, that was a far cry from what Ada Trillo witnessed through the lens of her camera.
The Philadelphia-based photographer opened her “Chasing Freedom” exhibition at the city’s University of the Arts this month, where until Thursday, she is showcasing a series of portraits taken during her time traveling with the caravan in October 2018.
Speaking to HuffPost last week, Trillo pointed to one image in particular among the collection of black-and-white shots ― an 8-year-old girl named Diana who stands before a tent of migrants in her stocking feet wearing a shimmering dress and a grin.
Trillo titled the photo “The Princess.”
It was taken at the Benito Juarez shelter in the border city of Tijuana just after clothing was distributed there. Diana made sure she grabbed the item as the pieces were offered up one by one.
“That day they had very little to eat,” Trillo recalled, adding that portable restrooms had begun to leak.
“Very little food, awful smell, kids with no shoes walking through there, but she was smiling because she got this tiny little thing, which was the dress, and that reminds us that we’re humans, that we have the ability to smile, that we have the ability to have small joys, that we have the ability to have hope.”
Last year, Trillo made the decision to photograph migrants’ journeys after reflecting on Trump’s June 2015 speech where he announced his run for the White House.
For Trillo, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and spent her childhood in the nearby Mexican city of Juarez, the remarks the then-candidate delivered on immigration weren’t just political; they were personal.
“When Trump made his comment that Mexicans are rapists and murderers and that they don’t bring their best, I was extremely offended because growing up on the border, I knew that that was not true,” Trillo said.
For several weeks, Trillo traveled with migrants, documenting their experiences and offering a glimpse at their humanity.
Still, she believes tensions surrounding immigration issues has only intensified.
“I feel that this president has divided the country extremely and it’s a shame,” she said. “I see a lot of people very, very angry on both sides — I’ve never seen it as bad as I see it now. The situation on the border is absurd.”
Now, Trillo worries that Trump’s retaliatory effort to cut U.S. aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will backfire by worsening conditions in the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries, prompting more citizens to flee their homes.
The photographer’s work on the border isn’t over. She is currently seeking grants to return this summer to continue her mission and follow up with subjects with whom she’s kept in touch.
“This is my way of saying, ‘No, this is not what I think is right,’” she said. “This is my way of a peaceful protest ― through art.”
View more of Trillo’s photographs in the slideshow below.