Muralist Yehimi Cambrón speaks of immigration reform and social justice

Yehimi Cambrón is the artist behind “We Carry the Dreams,” on display at the Georgia State MARTA station. Photos by Shel Levy and Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

For Yehimi Cambrón, an artist and activist who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of eight, Atlanta is home.

Cambrón grew up on Buford Highway and attended Cross Keys High School. After graduation, she went on to attend Agnes Scott College. 

Going to college, Cambrón had no idea whether or not her degree would allow her to work, as she is an undocumented immigrant. But for her, the choice was still obvious.

“I felt like I still deserved that education, even if I wasn’t going to be able to work,” Cambrón said. “That was so naturally the next step for me. My teachers had always encouraged me in that way, and there was no question in my mind that I would go to college until I realized that my undocumented [status] meant I wouldn’t have access to certain things.”

During her college years, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in a presidential memorandum. DACA is a renewable two-year work permit allowing undocumented immigrants to live and work within the U.S.

“Legally, DACA provides us with a temporary protection from deportation, and for those two years that we are DACA recipients, we also get an employment authorization document, which is just an ID,” Cambrón said. “DACA doesn’t give you any sort of legal status. It gives you something that they call a legal presence, so for those two years, you’re legally able to be present in the United States.”


‘We Carry the Dreams’: Stories From Undocmented Americans

While Georgia State students may not have heard of Cambrón directly, many are already familiar with her work. Cambrón’s mural, “We Carry the Dreams,” painted in November 2018, can be seen outside of the Georgia State MARTA station and is passed by hundreds of students each day. 

“We Carry the Dreams” was a part of the “Off the Wall” project, which shares stories from Atlanta’s social justice and civil rights journey through murals and media. “Off the Wall” was led by the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee in preparation for the Atlanta Super Bowl in February.

Before choosing what she was going to paint, Cambrón chose the spot to paint her mural. For her, the location of the project on Georgia State’s campus and around the corner from the Capitol building felt empowering, especially because both of these institutions are places from which she’d previously been turned away.

Up until 2018, undocumented students, DACA recipients included, were turned away from Georgia State and many other public universities in Georgia in compliance with state policy. Currently, undocumented students are still barred from three of the state’s top schools, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Georgia College and State University.

Additionally, as a sophomore in high school, Cambrón won an art contest and was invited to the Georgia Capitol to receive her prize only to find out that she was unable to claim her prize because she lacked a Social Security number.

“Someone decided that I had the skills necessary to be awarded a prize, but the fact that I didn’t have a Social Security number made it so that I wasn’t worthy of being compensated for my artwork,” Cambrón said. “That was really heartbreaking, but also very eye-opening, because it helped me realize that being undocumented would limit a lot of what I could or couldn’t do in Georgia. Being able to paint a mural right around the corner from the place where I was once turned away empty-handed to me felt like justice.

“We Carry the Dreams” features five faces of undocumented people who have inspired Cambrón. Three of the people were her students at Freedom University, and one individual was her student at Cross Keys High School. The fifth face is that of a local entrepreneur. 

“These are all people who are fighting for their dreams and are in the front lines, despite their immigration status,” Cambrón said. “They’re people who are a part of American communities in so many ways. I wanted to focus specifically on students, because of that ban on undocumented students at Georgia State, and to send a message that we  still have this presence. We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. For me, as an artist, this message that the contributions and impact that we have made will always be a part of this country’s fabric, regardless of what happens with us.

Behind the faces are words spoken by these people in conversation with Cambrón, as well as the stripes of the American flag. Monarch butterflies are featured in the piece as well.

“I worked to be a space for them to share their stories in a way that is not censored or sugarcoated or twisted,” Cambrón said. “I think our narratives are so often extracted from us for people to do whatever they want with them, whether it’s for political gain or whether to use us to negotiate or to vilify us and make us look like criminals. I wanted to have a space that was protected from all of that and where people didn’t have to censor themselves and could just speak their truth and their experience, which has intellectual value.”

The stripes and the Monarch butterflies both have symbolic meaning for Cambrón.

“The American flag I feel is such a strong symbol, and I think it’s something that everyone in this country can connect to,” she said. “I’ve felt so betrayed at times by the country that I call home, so there’s a lot of nostalgia for me when I see the American flag. But I also wanted to assert the contributions that the people in the mural made to American society, and the fact that no matter what happens, we’re going to continue building American communities.”

The monarch butterfly is just as American of a symbol as the flag itself.

“The monarch butterfly is a symbol that immigration activists have identified with for a long time because of its journey that it makes from Mexico to Canada across borders,” Cambrón said. “It’s such a seemingly small insect, and it takes on this [huge] journey. It’s just a reminder to people that as human beings, we have the right to migrate. It’s such a natural thing to do, and these migration patterns existed long before borders.”


Cambrón’s Other Work Around Atlanta

Cambrón’s other work includes a piece called “Freedom Fighters,” which features a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. and is on display on the back of the American Hotel. The piece was painted in January and was also a part of the “Off the Wall” project.

Cambrón also has a piece in Decatur called “Monuments: Our Immigrant Mothers,” which features Cambrón’s mother, the mother of one of her former classmates from Zambia and the mother of one of her former students from Vietnam.

“I wanted to have this representation so that people remember that migration is not a Latinx issue and is not a Mexican issue,” Cambrón said. “This is a global thing that happens, and immigrants look like everyone.”

The women in the piece are depicted in a sanctuary of Mexican cactus plants and, again, monarch butterflies.

Unable to leave the country and reenter due to her undocumented status, Cambrón yearns to visit her home and family in Mexico, but is unable to.

“I felt like I was creating a little piece of home for myself through that mural,” she said. “Being Mexican is often something that people feel is so bad. I wanted to show that pride that I have for myself and for my Mexican roots.”

Cambrón’s first ever mural, “Education is Liberation Monarch,” is in its second location now after being removed from the Havana Sandwich Shop on Buford Highway.

In the mural, under Cambrón’s signature is the hashtag #HereToStay. The hashtag was painted over to keep the restaurant owners away from involvement with the DACA issue. Cambrón added the hashtag again to her piece in order to protect the intent behind it, and was told that if she attempted to do so again, the entire mural would be painted over. Two days later, she shared what had been happening on social media, and hours later the mural was painted over.

“It was painful, and I cried, and I mourned the loss of that mural,” Cambrón said. “It felt like an act of violence for me because that was my existence that I put on there. I wanted to take all of that energy and create a space for conversation, so I raised money to repaint the mural. I finished repainting it at the Latin American Association bigger, better and bilingual [the mural now features the hashtag in Spanish as well]. It’s right up the street from where it originally was … It was a great way to show people that in all of these situations where we feel censored and hurt that we have the power to turn that anger and that fear into something positive.”


An Uncertain Future for DACA Immigrants

In 2019, Cambrón’s future is unsure. The Trump administration and the Supreme Court are both working to remove DACA from American policy. At this point, DACA recipients are still allowed to apply for two more years in the country, but immigrants are no longer allowed to apply to become DACA recipients. 

“We came out of the shadows,” Cambrón said. “We let our country see us, and now what? What happens when DACA goes way? We become immediately eligible for deportation and it feels like such a betrayal of us coming forward in good faith.”

But Cambrón is not giving up the fight for herself and for her fellow DACA recipients

“We need to remember that things like DACA happen because we mobilize and organize,” she said. “No matter what decisions are made now or in the future politically, we have so much power within our community. That’s where we should find hope. People like me are not going to give up, DACA or no DACA.”