The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story behind the photo of the little girl crying in the migrant caravan

Camila Savioll Mejia, 4, cries and refuses to walk any farther in San Pedro Tapanatepec, Mexico, on Oct. 29. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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SAN PEDRO TAPANATEPEC, Mexico — The migrant caravan came alive one morning last week with a rustle of plastic tarps being taken down and packed. A crowd gathered well before dawn.

Near the back of that crowd stood Keila Savioll Mejia. Two weeks earlier, the shy 21-year-old had left home in Honduras to join the caravan with her 2-year-old and 4-year-old daughters. She listened as organizers announced that two trucks were available to take women and children from Tapanatepec to the next stop, 33 miles away.

Mejia thought about rushing forward to claim the last spot. Both of her daughters were sick and Camila, the oldest, was tired of walking. But she said she worried they would be crushed or suffocated in the throng. So she let others climb into the back of the truck, which soon overflowed with about three dozen people.

“There are no more trucks,” an organizer said over a loudspeaker. “Let's go.”

And with that, Mejia and her daughters set off on foot.

President Trump has portrayed the migrant caravan as a monolithic threat, a mass of “terrorists” intent on “invading” the United States. In reality, the caravan is a collection of individuals and families, each with their own story. And few were worse off than Mejia.

As she carried 2-year-old Samantha through the streets of Tapanatepec, she saw several families with sturdy strollers they had bought for 900 pesos — around $45 — at the Mexico-Guatemala border. Others were flimsy, held together with tape or twine. One father pushed his 5-year-old son in a donated wheelchair.

Mejia had nothing, not even a baby carrier.

By the time the caravan reached the edge of town, Mejia’s thin arms already ached from carrying her toddler. So mother and daughters rested under a tree.

Mejia wore pink plastic slippers so thin they were like walking in bare feet. The girls wore sandals that were hardly any better. Besides a few donated diapers friends carried for them, all their belongings fit into a tiny “Mafalda” bag on Mejia’s back.

Soon, they were back on their feet, Samantha on Mejia’s shoulders and Camila holding hands with Bessi Zelaya, a friend from Peña Blanca.

As they walked through the pre-dawn darkness, the silence was broken every few minutes by the buzz of approaching motorcycle taxis. The tiny three-wheel vehicles would pull up, and half a dozen migrants would pile in, paying a few Mexican pesos to get a little closer to the next stop.

But Mejia didn’t have a few pesos.

In Peña Blanca she had made 100 lempiras — about $4 — a day selling tortillas. The girls' father had left them long ago, so they lived with Mejia’s mother and siblings in a small cinder block house.

When she heard of the caravan forming in San Pedro Sula just 50 miles away, Mejia borrowed 500 lempiras from a friend, packed her daughter’s backpack and boarded a bus to the capital. By the time they caught up to the caravan a few days later, Mejia had spent half her money on bus fare. She quickly used the rest to buy food for the girls.

“We've had to walk ever since,” she said.

As young men strode past and another overloaded mototaxi sped away, an organizer in a yellow traffic vest issued a warning to those falling behind.

“Hurry up,” he said, “or immigration will grab you.”

The fear was real. The sheer size of the caravan made it difficult for Mexican authorities to stop. But small groups that had split off had reportedly been detained and deported. The same could happen to stragglers.

Camila, her tiny legs already exhausted, collapsed to the ground. The girl closed her eyes.

“Camila!” Mejia said sharply.

“Arriba,” said Zelaya, lifting her onto the shoulders of Fernando Reyes Enamorado, a neighbor from Peña Blanca. Camila drooped over the 19-year-old’s head.

They continued walking, but when they stopped at a house where the owners had brought out a jug of water for the migrants, Camila refused to get up. Mejia splashed the girl in the face with water, but she just sat on the ground, kicking off her sandals and beginning to cry.

“Levántate,” Mejia told her. “Get up.”

A family with a stroller went past. Then another, and another. Flashing lights in the distance behind them were a reminder that if they fell far enough behind, their journey could be over in an instant.

Strangers stopped to offer to carry Camila, but the girl refused to let anyone touch her.

Minutes passed as Samantha cried and Camila screamed and the caravan kept going without them. Friends disappeared into the distance. Dawn began to break. Soon the sun would rise, and the temperature would climb to nearly 100 degrees.

So Mejia did the only thing she could: She lifted both girls — one over each shoulder — and started walking.

Within a few minutes, she had caught up with the others where the road met a highway. Migrants slept in the ditch as they waited for trucks on which to catch a ride.

Mejia set the girls down and handed them candy to keep them awake.

But as vehicles approached, it was the young men who always reacted first. They climbed atop oil tankers and leaped aboard moving container trucks.

So Mejia started walking again, Samantha in her arms and Camila flailing unhappily at her side.

But then their luck suddenly changed. As she passed a red car belonging to a Televisa news crew, the cameraman recognized her.

Paco Santana, a TV anchorman, had interviewed Mejia a few days earlier and had given her a lift. Now he offered to do so again.

“I wish I could take you all like last time, but I have a woman who is very pregnant,” he told Zelaya and Mejia’s other friends.

“No, no, no,” said Ana Velazquez, 36, who was traveling with her 16-year-old daughter. “What we want is for her to get a ride because the little girl doesn’t like to walk.”

“Well,” Santana said, turning to Mejia. “What do you think?”

She looked at her friends. Then she looked at her daughters.

“Do you want to go in the car, like the other day?” Santana asked Camila and Samantha.

With shouts of excitement, her daughters made the decision for her.

“I don’t have cookies this time,” Santana said, opening the door of his car, where the pregnant woman and her partner were already waiting for a ride. “Should we go get some?”

And then it was on to the next town, the single mother’s odyssey over — at least for another day.

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