Yehimi Cambrón is a self-described #UndocuBoss Muralist and Activist. Cambrón has painted numerous murals around the city of Atlanta depicting the underrepresented immigrant community. Her art is bold with its vivid colors and symbolism of migration through the monarch butterfly.
Cambrón is one of many DACA recipients in the state of Georgia. She was born in San Antonio Villalongín, a small town in Michoacán, México, and came to the United States at the age of seven. Since then, she has spent all her life living in Atlanta, Georgia, and continues to provide support and representation to this city.
Being undocumented, even with DACA, is a difficult life in the south. There are multiple restrictions to what an undocumented person can do, from gaining a driver’s license to pursuing higher education. In a personal interview with Yehimi Cambrón, she provided us with a view into what it was like growing up in that environment:
“I think that when you’re undocumented and you’re coming of age in this country, you know there’s that time period in high school, where you start having all these experiences; where you start to understand really what it means to be undocumented…For me, one of them was, I had won an art contest. I got third place and they were supposed to give me $50 as a prize, and they told me they couldn’t award me the $50 because I didn’t have a social security number. So you have moments like that when you try to get a job, when you’re like “oh! it’s time to drive!” and then you figure out you can’t get a driver’s license, like, those moments are very big landmark moments of realization and I think our parents learn along the way with us.”
After completing high school, Cambrón received a full-ride scholarship to Agnes Scott College from the Goizueta Foundation. With a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, Cambrón went on to join Teach for America (TFA) as a corps member. This made her the FIRST of two DACAmented educators placed in Georgia by TFA.
“I wanted to use everything I’d learned and give it back to my community. And so that’s when I decided to apply for Teach for America, and I became a teacher.”
Wanting to become more than an educator, Cambrón went on to complete her first Mural at the Latin American Association in 2017.
“There were all these artists that were coming from outside of my community to paint murals of my community, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m right here!” Instead of whining, I decided to participate in the community conversations with one of the artists that was coming to my neighborhood, because I wanted to be a part of the project really badly. That’s how I became a Muralist.”
“As a student, I grew up pledging allegiance to the flag, reciting words that spoke of liberty and justice for all. I believed it—at least until I began to transition into adulthood and began to feel rejected by the country I call home.”
This is Cambrón’s artist statement regarding her Mural We Carry the Dreams.
“My intent was to have the symbols of the American flag and the Monarch butterfly, which I painted hovering over the shoulder of each person, draw the viewer to the mural and invite them to make a more intimate connection. Once pulled into the mural, I hoped the viewer would invest time reading the courageous statements made by the diverse group of undocumented young adults,” states Cambrón. These words are transcriptions of her conversations with the people painted.
“I felt like I had to be very intentional about using my work to provide a space for people to share their stories in their own words, rather than me being the one telling their stories.”
In a private interview with Latina Republic, Cambrón shared a statement about these murals listed as “Monuments” as a response to GA’s confederate monuments such as Stone Mountain:
“We have the largest monument to the Confederacy in the country, and with the street names and monuments everywhere are reminders of that history… My people, my community, my undocumented people deserve monuments in their honor and I’m going to make it so.”
In Cambrón’s artist statement for Monuments: Atlanta’s Immigrants, she explains the activism that exists within her artworks:
“My murals serve as a platform to reclaim the immigrant narrative and unapologetically center the stories of power and hope of people who have been historically and systematically oppressed. These spaces of public art actively juxtapose the symbols of hate, slavery, colonization, and racism that are courageously being taken down around the country by the people. There is a focus on diversity and intersectionality among the five portraits of the mural, an aspect that must be embraced in our fight for social justice.”
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium has become one of Atlanta’s biggest event stadiums and was also a mass vaccination site during the peak of COVID-19. To the many Atlantans and non-Atlantan visitors who encounter this mural, the art serves as a reminder of the communities that exist here, and the diversity within these communities.
Yehimi Cambrón’s mural, We Give Each Other the World, is described as a community-responsive mural inspired by five children that represent the community of Hapeville, Georgia. In her artist statement for the mural, Cambrón states:
“Reaching for the sky and looking up, all with hopeful looks on their faces, the children are being elevated by the hands of adults that are working to give them a world that is worthy of them, encouraging them to be limitless in their hopes and dreams for the future…
The lines that come out of the hands and connect both sides of the mural are inspired by flight maps you might find tucked away in the back seats of airplanes when you travel. While I know traveling/flying is not an accessible experience for everyone, I am using the imagery of flight maps in a way that replaces bodies of land with the hands of Hapeville residents.
The Monarch butterfly in the mural symbolizes migration and resilience and it is included so prominently because most of the children in the mural have an immigrant background through their parents. I included a variety of butterflies soaring alongside the children in the mural not only to capture the diversity of the Hapeville community but also because of the many colorful butterfly sculptures you can find in Hapeville’s downtown area.”
In Monuments: Our Immigrant Mothers, Cambrón depicts three immigrant mothers surrounded by plants reminiscent of saints in many religious iconographies. One of the women is Cambrón’s mother, and the other two are Ms. Kapembwa and Ms. Nguyen. In her statement Cambrón explains the iconography of this piece :
“I included two additional portraits: Ms. Kapembwa, the mother of a former high school classmate, who is from Zambia; and Ms. Nguyen, the mother of a former student, who is from Vietnam. This mural was going to be a bold celebration of women of color. Monuments: Our Immigrant Mothers allowed me to celebrate the diversity of the immigrant community and to challenge the perception that migration is an experience exclusive to Mexican or Latinx individuals.
The symbolism of this mural includes desert plants and flowers. I wanted to depict plants and flowers that survive in extreme temperatures, because immigrant mothers—and immigrants in general—have to learn how to survive and thrive under policies and conditions that push them to the margins. The thorns in the prickly pears symbolize protection—and for me, the many things my mother has done to protect her children.
Behind the heads of each women, I painted a round succulent plant, almost as a halo or a crown. I wanted these women to look regal, because that’s how I see them in real life. This mural was an effort on my part to continue to push back on that good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative—and to celebrate immigrant parents, “the Original Dreamers.”
Yehimi Cambrón in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta
This collection of portraits is a representation of Cambrón’s own family. In an interview with Latina Republic, she explains her conception of these portraits:
“I decided to create a series of portraits, titled “Family Portraits,” that was about my family, and I wanted to use those portraits to highlight the complexities of mixed immigration status families and just to highlight the individuality of each person and their own stories. Each of the portraits has their own story that comes directly from them even my parents.
I didn’t translate their stories, I left them in Spanish because I wanted the viewer to understand that even if you can’t understand the language of what’s being said, that doesn’t mean that they’re less deserving of your attention or your dignity. And so, it’s their portrait, the first thing that people see or notice… The next thing is a story, and the last thing that I wanted people to notice, are these ghost-like layers of documents that we each have, and kind of dictate a lot of the opportunities and limitations that we have within our own status.
So like you know, me and my two brothers were DACA recipients, my little sister was the only one born here, so she’s a US citizen. And then my parents are; I hate saying this, but they’re fully undocumented. They don’t have any sort of relief, any sort of protection. And so for their portraits, all I had was their Mexican passport, their matricula, their birth certificate. Whereas for my brothers and I, we had our DACA correspondence, our work permit. I had my college transcript and awards, and then my little sister had her American passport…
This process kind of forced me to really look at the words that are used on our documents with more intention and to realize how our documentation and exchanges with USCIS say alien this, alien that, alien, alien, alien! It just highlighted how ridiculous that word is to describe immigrants.
There’s a lot of intention behind the terminology. And I do believe that that’s a word that was put in place, specifically to dehumanize immigrants, and so to be called an alien or like a resident makes me cringe. But then there’s my little sister’s passport, and there’s a quote in there. That was like, beautifully speaking about immigrants, and the skills that they bring to the country.
This was during Trump’s administration, and so I was like this literally is in the passport of the only person in this family who is not an immigrant. And the way that this talks about immigrants, doesn’t even apply to the way that this country is treating immigrants right now.”
“It is immigrants who brought to this land the skills of their hands and brains to make it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men.” – Herbert H. Lehman
Why do you Stay?
During the interview, we asked Cambrón why she and many other immigrants choose to stay in Georgia. This question highlights the hope and resilience many immigrants hold in states like these.
In a state so hostile against immigrants, why do they stay? Why not move to “friendlier” states? Why do you stay in GA? What makes GA, home for you? And others like you?
“This is where the change needs to happen. There are states that are friendlier towards immigrants, but this is where we need to do the work right now to make sure that things change for the people that make Georgia home. I’ve stayed in Georgia because this is the community that made me the activist that I am today. I don’t know if I had been in a friendlier state where I had access to scholarships, and I didn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition, and where I had been able to get a driver’s license if I would be the activist I am today.
We shouldn’t have to be fighting for our humanity constantly. I feel like I’ve had to turn all the experiences that I’ve had in Georgia into something that empowers me. If anything, I feel like I’ve learned how to be very resilient and find a way to thrive no matter what happens. We shouldn’t have to be resilient. We should be able to live and be human beings. My family is here, my community is here and I felt like there was a lot of work to be done. I wanted to teach in the community that helped me grow… a lot of that was giving back to the community that molded me. In painful ways sometimes, but also in really beautiful ways.“
Flor Chavez Barriga is an undergraduate student at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA studying History and Sociology with a focus on research. She was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and grew up in Atlanta surrounded by the rich history of Martin Luther King’s legacy. She previously attended Freedom University where she was given the opportunity to achieve higher education, while also learning about collective action and human rights. Flor is passionate about the south’s reaction to immigration with its restrictive policies and infamous detention centers. She hopes to highlight the voices of communities in the south that have helped combat all the hurdles that continue making immigrant lives harder.