Karla Trujillo doesn't want kids growing up to feel the same way she did.
An undocumented immigrant from Mexico — who moved to the United States with her family from Oaxaca when she was 9 — Trujillo grew up feeling ashamed for living in her brown skin. The child of an abusive, work-riddled household recalls turning to places like libraries as sanctuaries and escapes from reality.
Life for the now 37-year-old Oceanside woman hasn't gotten easier, she said. Recently, she considered she “painted a target on [her] back" after she defended immigrants when Solana Beach was deciding whether it should be a sanctuary city, offering a safe haven for such individuals. Solana Beach did eventually declare itself as a "welcoming city," suggesting they are "very, very nice to all people, especially undocumented immigrants," according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
"I'm a gay, Latina woman who is also an immigrant and who has been without a visa for the last 28 years of her life," Trujillo said. "How many more targets do I need to paint on my back?"
She added that she has worked jobs to keep herself afloat and has attempted to earn her visa on multiple occasions, but deadlines and birthday cut-off dates have prevented her from succeeding. She said she is currently in the permitting process and has an individual tax identification number that allows her to work and pay the government. She expects to earn citizenship within the next few years.
Trujillo, who received an A.A. degree in anthropology and university studies at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, has channeled her frustration with her struggles in her photography, which was on display earlier this month at the Solana Beach Library in a show called "Blooms of Brown America."
The artist, who also exhibited her work at Solana Beach City Hall last year, said she felt humbled when she was asked to exhibit her work at the library.
Tearing up in a recent interview, Trujillo shared how she would often go to libraries after school instead of home, where she'd be responsible for caring for her younger siblings, enduring abuse and cooking meals on top of her classwork and under-the-table jobs.
"When you're a kid who doesn't like to go home, the library and schools offer you a safe place to go," she said. "When the librarian asked me to bring my artwork here, I told her it was an honor and dream come true."
She said this was one of the first times that the Latin American community has been featured in a government building in Solana Beach.
The images feature captured moments from Trujillo's time volunteering with various Latino communities throughout San Diego. One photo shows a gardener at the Carlsbad Flower Fields, while another image depicts Dia de los Muertos and indigenous events.
Each photograph was placed in a decorative frame that Trujillo bought from thrift stores, sanded down, painted and adorned with jewels, stickers, cut-outs and other items to help bring her pieces to life.
"The pieces don't really stand for much," the photographer said. "It's really the people in the communities of North San Diego County. Each picture, each frame represents a moment in time somewhere in the communities that I work with. ... You look at the beautiful flowers, but you never really look beyond them and see the people that plant them and handle them."
Trujillo considers herself a life-long photographer. When she was younger, her brother gifted her first camera, a small three-megapixel Casio.
"For me, I have maybe three or four pictures from when I was a little kid," she recalled. "I wanted to catalog what was going on in my life."
She'd often bring the camera to places like state parks — which have inspired her to become a forest ranger someday — and eventually opted for more professional gear. She now shoots with a Sony Alpha camera similar to what National Geographic photographers use.
But the artist contests that the cameras don't make the work; people have to know what they're doing with the equipment. She emphasized the importance of working with natural light and knowing how it changes throughout the day.
"People are under the impression that you put a picture on social media, you get a bunch of likes and suddenly you're a photographer," she said. "Nowadays, people can go buy an expensive camera and call themselves a photographer. ... To me, photography is an extension of the being that I am. It took me a long time to realize that I am a being of light. What you see in my photography isn't just a pretty picture; it's really the essence of the person that I saw."
Trujillo has also extended her passion for anthropology by developing the Teenology Rangers program at the Solana Beach Library, in partnership with La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at providing resources for one of Solana Beach's oldest, largely Latino residential areas.
Teenology Rangers aims to teach kids — currently aged 4 to 17 — about various activities and cultures, including those of Latino descent.
"What I love about these kids is that they're eager to learn," she said. "They show up every Wednesday and they're ready to learn. They say yes to being Aztec dancers. They say yes to volunteering and picking up trash. They know the definition of anthropology."
Trujillo aims to help the kids who "fall through the cracks."
"I grew up in Carlsbad," she said. "I had to shed my identity as a Latin American woman to survive in the white world of Carlsbad. One day I woke up and realized I had been lied to my whole life and the only way that I could learn about my culture is if I went to a four-year institution. I'm bringing these kids that knowledge now so they don't look at their brown skin or the color of their hair and be ashamed of who they are."
For more information about Trujillo, visit www.rangertrujillo.com.