In May 2020, Yehimi Cambrón had an unusually good view of Atlanta, from a hundred feet in the air, where she stood in the bucket of a boom lift surrounded by paint cans and brushes in the sweltering heat, painting a massive mural on the side of a seven-story brick hotel building near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. To her right, she could see helicopters hovering over the city, where large crowds had gathered at several sites to protest the murder of George Floyd and the pervasive racism and violence that led to his death. During the night, Atlanta’s mayor had declared a state of emergency in the city; the governor ordered the deployment of the Georgia National Guard to Atlanta. Below Cambrón, a police car occasionally passed through the parking lot below, adding to the surreality of the experience. For much of her life she’d been terrified of the police, fearing that even the most minor traffic incident could lead to one of her parents being imprisoned or deported—as undocumented immigrants they couldn’t get drivers’ licenses. She and her siblings, apart from their youngest sister, were undocumented too. “Every time we were in the car and a cop pulled up behind us or next to us, nobody would breathe,” she recalls. “My body would just get numb and cold, because we knew that that’s how people got deported.” Now the police were driving by to confirm her safety—the city of Hapeville had commissioned the mural along with the National Endowment for the Arts—underscoring how much her life had changed. “If you’re not scared for your life when the police pull up, you’re privileged,” she says.
Cambrón is afraid of heights, but that doesn’t stop her from painting her murals herself. As a young woman artist sometimes working alone, she is subjected to catcalls and sexist comments with varying severity of magnitude, but she still shows up. On the mild end of the spectrum, people want to know who drives the rented lift, and she tells them—she does. She still worries every day about family members or other loved ones disappearing into ICE custody and fears sometimes that her activism could make her the target of white supremacist hate groups. She constantly considers contingency plans for the emergencies that threaten, but she still works tirelessly to end racist and anti-immigrant policies in the United States and in her home state of Georgia, through her art and by working with direct action groups in the region. Georgia has been far from hospitable at times to Latin American immigrants like Cambrón and her family, and some friends advise her a move to Los Angeles or Chicago could benefit her career, but she is determined to stay and fight for change here. Even if she is not actually fearless, her convictions are strong enough for her to behave as if she is.
The Hapeville mural, titled We Give Each Other the World, depicts five children, whom Cambrón based on actual young people living in the city, with details inspired by a listening session where city residents were invited to share their families’ histories. “The children are being elevated by the hands of adults from the community who 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 city’s press release explains. The hands, some wrinkled and some young, with different skin tones, also release brightly colored butterflies. Monarch butterflies migrate between Mexico and the United States, and are widely used as symbols for the people who have likewise made the arduous journey between countries and have made beautiful and vibrant lives amid hardship. In the distance above the children’s outstretched hands, airplanes fly overhead, also suggesting journeys and nodding to the huge international airport nearby, the world’s busiest.
Cambrón’s own childhood is suggested by the mural; now she is one of the adults represented by the outstretched hands who give their time and talent to supporting others. Cambrón has lived in the Atlanta area since she was seven years old, when her family immigrated from a small town in Michoacán, Mexico. Living as undocumented residents was very stressful for the family, but they were able to create a loving home full of creativity, and settling in the Buford Highway area offered a diverse community with other immigrants from all over the world. Still, as a child, the need for secrecy was a burden, as was the growing awareness that their status meant that their achievements would not always be rewarded. In high school, Cambrón won third place in an art competition, but could not receive her fifty-dollar prize because she lacked a Social Security number. Despite her academic talents, she was not eligible for in-state tuition at any of Georgia’s public colleges or universities, and undocumented students are barred from receiving federal student aid, putting many schools out of reach. Fortunately, Cambrón received a full scholarship to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s college in Atlanta, but during her college years, new state policies specifically targeted undocumented people’s access to public higher education. In 2010, the regents of the University System of Georgia passed a series of measures addressing (unfounded) concerns that undocumented students were being supported by taxpayer funds or taking spots from qualified applicants who were legal residents of the state. Undocumented students were banned from attending the five schools in the public system with competitive admissions, which include University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and the Medical College of Georgia.
Two years later, the Obama administration passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, eventually giving Cambrón and her brothers more stability. After graduating in 2014 with a degree in studio art, she joined Teach for America and became one of the first “DACAmented” educators in the program to be placed in a Georgia school. She taught for two years in an elementary school, and after finishing her Teach for America commitment joined the staff of her alma mater, Cross Keys High School. She left the high school in 2019 to pursue her art and activism full-time, but with the Hapeville mural she employed young women graduates of Cross Keys to assist her. Since then, one of those artists has gone on to paint two murals of her own in the area. This spring, Cambrón is teaching an art class for Freedom University, which continues the tradition of the Civil Rights–era “Freedom Schools” by offering free courses to undocumented people. At the end of the course, her students will also create a mural together.
Cambrón has completed several large-scale public murals that feature members of Georgia’s immigrant communities. Some of them share the same title: Monuments. Her 2019 mural Monuments: Our Immigrant Mothers includes a portrait of her own mother, alongside a former classmate’s mother who immigrated from Zambia and a former student’s mother who came to Georgia from Vietnam. Monuments: We Carry the Dreams (2018), commissioned as part of a citywide exhibit called Off The Wall: Atlanta’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Journey, depicts the faces of five undocumented people, against the background of the American flag, juxtaposed with quotations from Cambrón’s interviews with her subjects. Both murals continue the motif of monarch butterflies.
The word monument has obvious resonance right now in the U.S. South, as communities grapple with the ubiquitous reminders of white supremacist legacies in the form of statues, building and street names, and other honors for white Southerners who promoted slavery or segregation. When Cambrón was growing up, her school took field trips to the state capitol, where they would see the enormous equestrian statue of John Brown Gordon, who was not only a Confederate general but is believed to have been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, atop a tall marble pedestal on the front lawn. Around the grounds and inside the capitol, multiple other statues honor white Georgia leaders who actively fought for white supremacy. A larger-than-life oil of Robert E. Lee in uniform decorates a wall near the House chamber. In high school as members of Beta Club, a service and leadership organization, Cambrón and her classmates would annually visit Stone Mountain Park to see the Lasershow Spectacular, an extravaganza involving music, lights, and pyrotechnics—with a ninety-foot carving of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson at its center. The world’s largest Confederate monument, the carving is not a relic of the distant past; it was finished in 1972. Likewise, streets throughout Atlanta and other Georgia cities bear the names of prominent Confederates and segregationists. As Cambrón grew older, she understood that these symbols told a story about who was in power and who was and was not welcome in a space.
Like Stone Mountain, many of these tributes to the Confederacy dated to the twentieth century. Atlanta’s Confederate Monuments Advisory Committee, convened in 2017, determined that the Confederate monuments and street names came in three waves, corresponding to the period immediately after the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and then the “massive resistance” movement against civil rights for Black Southerners, a backlash to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Though today many Georgians support the removal of these monuments and renaming of streets, in 2019, the state senate passed a bill prohibiting any monument on property owned by the state from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion,” protecting the Confederate monuments that were the subject of protests. But amid the direct action activated by the deep rage against racist power structures that had killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, some locales in Georgia have devised ways to remove Confederate statues from civic spaces, following the lead of other Southern cities. Georgia lawmakers from both parties have passed a resolution to replace Georgia’s statue in the U.S. Capitol of Alexander Stephens (vice president of the Confederacy) with a statue of the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. The movement against Confederate monuments also raised interest in developing new public artworks that reflect cities’ present inhabitants and values.
“I was seeing these symbols of slavery and hate being taken down by people around the country, and I felt very privileged to be doing what I was doing in that very moment in history,” says Cambrón of her mural in Hapeville. She embraces the way the word monuments connects her art to those conversations, but she in fact first used it several years earlier in college as the title for a portrait of her father: Monumentos: Mi Padre. Monument/Monumento conveys her desire to portray immigrant people as powerful, dignified, and even regal. In contrast with the life of hiding and anonymity that many undocumented people must adopt for their safety, the larger-than-life faces call for them to be seen and valued. The murals proclaim that Atlanta’s streets belong to all of its inhabitants, not just the ones celebrated by the mythology of the Lost Cause. The murals’ vivid colors also contrast with the heavy, pale marbles and stones used for so many Confederate statues, suggesting diversity and dynamism rather than uniformity and resistance to change.
Cambrón’s latest exhibited work offers a more explicit denunciation of anti-immigrant injustices. In fall 2021, she mounted an installation in collaboration with the advocacy group El Refugio at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, titled #ChingaLaMigra (rough translation is “Fuck ICE” or “Fuck the Border Patrol”), in a narrow installation area called “Sliver Space.” There, 1,966 butterflies cut by hand and watercolored in reds, oranges, and golds, light washes of the saturated shades of the monarchs in her murals, perch on the walls and are suspended from the ceiling. The number 1,966 represents the maximum capacity of Stewart Detention Center, a private prison in rural Georgia that is one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the nation and has been condemned by opponents for its dehumanizing and dangerous conditions, which worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of the corridor, nine stark black butterflies face the viewer. Each one represents a person who died in SDC. Directly underneath, their names are penciled on the wall. The colorful butterflies on the walls beside are arranged on a diagonal that leads the eye toward the black butterflies; this pattern and their close proximity suggest solidarity and keeping vigil for the deceased.
El Refugio is an organization that operates a hospitality house with free meals and lodging for people visiting their loved ones in Stewart Detention Center (though the house is currently closed due to Covid). It grew out of Georgia Detention Watch and is part of a network of groups advocating for immigrants and asylum seekers and calling for the United States to stop imprisoning immigrants. Cambrón has also volunteered with one of their partners, Casa Alterna, offering support to immigrants and asylum seekers at Atlanta’s airport. As an artist she has brought the conversation to spaces such as Instagram, where followers who have engaged with her artwork have shown up to in-person events for the cause. On her website, she calls on visitors to “Educate Yourself,” providing links to articles and reports about private prisons and immigration detention, including coverage of SDC. “All social justice movements have powerful art components,” she says.
Even as her art has gained national attention and she has been invited to speak at universities around the country, Cambrón’s life is still affected by her undocumented status. If she attends graduate school, as she is considering, she still can’t receive in-state tuition in Georgia or attend the University of Georgia. The terms of her DACA status, which must be renewed every two years, prohibit her from traveling outside the United States, including to the region where she was born. She still worries about her family. But despite these and other restrictions resulting from her legal status, Cambrón practices civic engagement and loyalty far beyond the level of many people born in the places where they live. She is optimistic, pointing out that Georgia’s Latinx community is comparatively young, having grown dramatically since the mid-nineties, when many workers came to Atlanta during the building boom in preparation for the 1996 Olympic games. But much work needs to be done to make the state equitable for all of its residents, and the full burden cannot be placed on those who are the targets of unjust policies and discriminatory practices. “People with privilege need to step up,” Cambrón says.
“[It] takes a new level of innovation, resourcefulness, and resilience, not just to survive but to thrive as an immigrant in Georgia, specifically in this state,” she believes. “I want people to understand the power of our community. I think that the value of immigrants is placed on us because of our labor, that narrative that ‘immigrants work so hard, and we need them, because who’s going to work construction and who’s going to clean houses and who’s going to work in the kitchens?’ That narrative is so dehumanizing and capitalist. Immigrants deserve better than that.”
The arduous work of activists in the region is bringing forth a fuller story, and so are the creations of the artists imagining new monuments to a new vision of what the South is and can be. Through these endeavors, Cambrón has been heartened by hearing from different people inspired to become personally involved in fighting for immigrant justice. “I have hope for Georgia and for the South.”
C. J. Bartunek
Images © 2022 Yehimi Cambrón