Young Americans, housed at the InLiquid Gallery, captures the treacherous, frustrating, but hopefully worthwhile campaign towards becoming American. Photographer Ada Trillo and a cohort of students from Photography Without Borders (PWB) are the narrators and the guides. Trillo makes the political intimate through her up-close documentation of migrant convoys. These candid glimpses of the physical trek to America accompany accounts of the persistent toil of being read as American. The PWB cohort, latinx children living in North Philadelphia, recount personal stories. Stories of uncovering their difference, the tension of holding onto their culture, residing in America, and adhering to expectations from both sides. Providing these perspectives highlight how migration is not completed at border crossings or even in lifetimes as its toll is inherited. Young Americans simultaneously becomes a shrine to their struggles and accomplishments and a pensive location to educate and advance action.
Starting in 2018 and again in early 2020, Trillo journeyed with these migrants, working to reveal the individual amidst the mass movement. This archive provides the backbone to the show as it snakes along the northern and western gallery walls. While the work can be viewed in any order, the arrangement promotes a certain order, intended to invoke the odyssey out of their original homes, up and through towns and wilderness, aspiring for ingress to America and its better life. The welcoming images show a child peering over a bus window “Heading to Tijuana” and migrants marching with the flag of Honduras. These chicos, young working-class men, stand shoulder to shoulder across the photograph’s width heading towards the viewer. Migration is politicized when performed by those not perceived as endemic. Being read as other prevents their integration into a collective group. Confronted with racist barriers, the group heads onward with flags, posters, and determination. The march northward becomes an international march, a global protest. As a pair of opening images, this duo replaces the homogenized and media-crafted narrative with an eye-level encounter with these individuals. The ensuing works ask the gallery guest to face the issue directly, reciprocate the sincerity, and accept these specific and intimate accounts without barriers.
Subsequent works have additional figures in motion, but the sequence is interrupted at the fifth entry. Here the viewer is shown a group shielding themselves from the sun under the shadow of an indiscernible structure near Mexico’s southern border. A few figures stand, but the majority repurpose their packs as headrests and chairs. Displaying a tender moment of rest, the antithesis to the traditional news coverage and cadence, offers a pause for contemplation. At this point, one takes note of their bumps and bruises and how little they are carrying, just two small backpacks for the arduous trip. Interrupting the viewer’s inertia allows for this insight and foregrounds their displacement and sacrifices. Recounting their story is telling both immigration’s trek and optimism and emigration’s departure and loss. Migrants are seldom certain of their next meal, rest stop, nor local response; thus, visitors are denied a streamlined and convenient experience. An awe-inspiring mountain vista is set beside a parent trying to comfort their child. Northward momentum slows as the caravan comes across walls and blockades of government officers. The staccato layout a fraction of the unrest experienced during the strenuous journey of the caravan via truck, raft, and foot through deserts, forest, and unwelcoming towns. The exhibition’s exemplary images stand in for numerous moments of violence and uncertainty looming over the refuge seekers. The installation continues to foster an uneasy feeling with its technical choices. Photographs are unframed, marking these objects as impermanent and fragile guests, evoking migration anxiety.
In the center of the room, eight portraits printed on fabric hang from the ceiling. The subjects are a mix of student artists and migrants, all photographed by Trillo. It is tricky to differentiate the two groups. This difficulty in parsing exhibited artists from migrants further entwine their story. Current migrant and child of immigrant provide the scaffolding to understand the migrant lived experience, the difficult and unjust, and its long term impact. Specific moments and agents from this selection are placeholders for the vast amount of undocumented, unheard, unlucky migrants.
While Trillo’s migrants are heading into America, the PWB cohort question if they can ever arrive. Each student, under the mentorship of Trillo, produced one to two works about their internal turmoil as first and second-generation Americans. These works are installed opposite Trillo, on the southern gallery wall. The students discuss being American enough, Puerto Rican enough, body dysmorphia, and additional reflections of how external perceptions filter into their self-making process. The students present themselves as subjects; yet, never show their entire faces. Audiences are offered only profiles, silhouettes, and a scattering of body parts, representing their hyphenated existence. For these young individuals who hold onto their heritage while “only know[ing] America,” migration is a demanding experience to articulate and manage. The immigrant label is inscribed in successive generations and becomes these students’ onus. The students do not want to discard their heritage; instead, grappling with paying deference to their multiplicity and having others make space for them. American identity is a collectively curated moniker; yet, Trillo and these students’ work reveal that it is not a democratic issue. American-ness is designed by the endemic group via who they allow across physical borders and ensuring conditioning.
Equipped with these stories, a new America that atones for past atrocities and prioritizes care can be built, at least one that commits to becoming more sympathetic. Migration is a story of exclusion, delineating who has the political, financial, and physical access to valuable locations. Countless policies, formal and informal, restrict and define a desirable immigrant. Every degree of differentiation from this ideal implies more numerous and daunting bastions. The exhibition’s subjects, contemporary migrants and their descendants, survive these perilous conditions in hopes of gleaning a fraction of the advertised American Dream. Young Americans holds space for healing and hope within this unfavorable environment.
The show closes with a massive photograph, occupying a gallery wall on its own. A border wall stretches the complete length of the image, recalling the opening image. In both, the stoic figures face the frontera, one visible and one implied. Whereas the audience entered the exhibition opposite the migrant, face to face like the officers in the series, the spectator has since rotated and stands behind them as an ally and confidant. Ideally, this position change is replicated in the actions of the guest once they leave the show.