*Photo courtesy of Yehimi Cambrón, LLC (Instagram: @ycambron)
The sound of jet engines roaring and traffic building up fills the streets and highways. All of that is drowned out as the stroke of a paintbrush and the sound of a power lift brings art, conversation, and change to a community. This 100+ foot tall, 60 foot wide mural lives by the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Hapeville, Georgia and was Yehimi Cambron’s latest office. As an artist and activist, Yehimi has merged her love of immigrants and representation with her own experiences as a DREAMer to create her latest piece, ‘We Give Each Other the World,’ depicting children of color surrounded by sunshine, butterflies, and hands to support them all. Like the wings on a plane or a butterfly, these DREAMers have soared upwards; creating lives for themselves, opportunities, and a future in this country. It would not have been possible without the parents who took a chance to create more for their children.
“My work is focused on celebrating the humanity, the resilience, and the contributions of immigrants […] While I do depict young, undocumented people, I also want to make sure that I am expanding that definition of “dreamer” to our parents, who are the original dreamers. I want to always be challenging the stereotype that migration is exclusively Mexican or exclusively Latinx […] especially here in the city of Atlanta, that is the heart, the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. To also send a message that migration is also a Black issue. It’s an Asian issue.”
It is Yehimi’s mission to make sure her community is heard and all faces are seen. Growing up in the Buford Highway area of Atlanta, her immigrant experience was full of others just like her. With immigrant-run stores lining the street, she could find a panaderia or carneceria anytime she wanted. “I felt like a little piece of home was there because there were things that I could read and understand, they were familiar to me […] I think I just kind of felt at home almost right away.”
As an eight year old girl crossing the border with her family from Mexico, home was about to be a lot different for Yehimi. What started as an adventure in her eyes, became a scary reality as they got to the desert and had to leave their bags — no longer the “vacation” she thought it was.. While their journey across was relatively safe, there are still so many that cross into the United States every day that are separated from their families, creating chaos and confusion in a child’s upbringing, and suffering for the parents. Growing up, Yehimi understood what it felt like to be separated from her family.
“When we moved to Morelia, which is the capital of Michoacan, we lived in this makeshift shack that was built of compressed cardboard material. It was so bad that every time it rained, my mom had to put pots and buckets around the house to catch [it]. Then my dad would go to the U.S., worked and lived with family or other immigrant men, and gave us as much money as possible. He would come back and he would upgrade our house. And then the second time he came back, he built a house made of wood. And then the third time he came back to me, the house was built of concrete and brick. So to me it just sort of reminds me of the three little pigs.”
As goes the story, it is the underrepresented, struggling folk that are constantly having to fight for a better life that is the focus. Creating murals for her community is a way for Yehimi to include the stories of people who “are typically left out of the conversation, or who are misrepresented.” It was her parents’ insistence on having a better life that gave Yehimi her first example of leadership and is what led her to be the leader she is today, “Their sacrifices have become a guiding force.” Like her parents were for her, she has been that light for others. As a former elementary and high school art teacher in the school she used to attend, she had one of her former students help her with her latest mural, “I want to help other people feel how powerful it is to be up here on a lift painting these massive murals.” To build up the youth in a way where they feel empowered and proud of their community and culture is something Yehimi had to fight to achieve. As a third-grader she felt shame in her undocumented status after being unable to claim the $50 prize of a contest she won because she didn’t have a social security number. Today, she says “I would just tell my students straight up from the very first day that I was undocumented and that the reason I was able to become a teacher was because of DACA. They created artwork about their identities and their stories.”
While Yehimi loved the bonds she made while teaching, she had to remove herself from a system that didn’t support her or her undocumented students in the way they needed. Because of her preparation and focus on her artwork and the opportunity of someone noticing, she began painting her murals, which has made her feel freer in this country than ever before. Her job of listening to the community, showing up, and creating something for them has been so successful that she no longer feels defined by her status, “When I was a teacher, my livelihood was tied directly to having a work permit. It hasn’t even been a year that I’ve been building my business from my artwork and my public speaking and I can feel a little bit more at peace. I feel like I’ve created a safety net through my artwork.”
It was Yehimi’s first mural, Education of Liberation Monarch, that got her so impassioned. Visitors from everywhere took pictures in front of the butterfly to give them wings. Made to call attention to passing the DREAM act at the time, it wasn’t until someone painted over “#heretostay” where she knew she had to “stand up for my art and protect the integrity of the message and of my work. We are surrounded by that criminalization of our humanity and our identities. I think my job as an activist is to push back on that and to remind us that we do have power, that we are deserving of dignity and of humanity.”