A popular mural celebrating the immigrant experience on an outside wall of the Havana Sandwich Shop restaurant on Buford Highway was partly painted over this week due to political concerns. The artist is alleging censorship of its message to embrace immigrants, but the restaurant owner says because the mural was recently vandalized, it has become too politicized and her business must remain neutral on sensitive political issues like immigration.

Yehimi Cambron in September 2017 as she painted her mural as part of the Living Walls and We Love BuHi collaboration. (File/Dyana Bagby)

The mural was one of many murals painted on the sides of various businesses along Buford Highway in September 2017 as part of a Living Walls and We Love BuHi collaboration to use public art to bring awareness to the immigrants living and working on Buford Highway.

The mural was painted by Yehimi Cambron, a Cross Keys High School teacher and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. Her parents moved to the U.S. from Mexico when Cambron was very young and they lived for many years on Buford Highway. Cambron is a well-known DACA activist and spokesperson and has been featured in USA Today and the New York Times.

The mural, painted on the side of the iconic yellow Havana Sandwich Shop, included a large monarch butterfly with one wing serving as the pages of a book and its body as a pencil to express the importantance of education. Other smaller monarchs were painted to depict how millions of butterflies migrate each winter from Canada to the warmer temperatures of the U.S. and Mexico, with the vast majority settling at the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico, during the summer, she said.

Cambron’s mural included the hashtag “#heretostay” as a message to DACA recipients like herself, known as “Dreamers,” and other immigrants, that they deserve to live in the U.S. despite backlash from the current administration, she said in a previous interview as she was painting the mural.

But the “#heretostay” was recently vandalized when someone spray painted over it. When Cambron painted the “#heretostay” back on her mural, she received an email from the restaurant’s owner, Debbie Benedit.

The partly painted-over mural this week. (Special)

The email from Benedit to Cambron, which Cambron provided to Reporter Newspapers, stated the hashtag phrase is a “very contentious issue in a highly divisive political environment.”

Benedit said in the email to Cambron that because someone painted over it because they apparently had an issue with the statement, she intended to paint over the #heretostay herself, saying her business must come first. She asked Cambron not to replace the #heretostay again nor to bring the issue up on social media.

“When we discussed this project I was very clear that we and our restaurant are neutral and have no public opinion on any political issue on either side. The DACA movement is a highly and heated issue and we will not be dragged into it,” Benedit said in the email to Cambron.

Cambron took the issue to social media on Nov. 7, posting a video of her replacing the hashtag using a black marker. She said she could not remain silent on an issue that is important to her and her art despite the possibility of the mural being painted over.

“This symbol was meant to create a space of solidarity for people who are criminalized and dehumanized in this political environment,” Cambron said in a Nov. 7 Facebook post. “It’s a reminder of our dignity and resiliency. If it’s not welcome where it currently lives, I will find a new home for it. After all, that’s what immigrants do. We carry home with us wherever we go.”

Most of the mural was painted over on Nov. 7 with yellow paint.

Debbie Benedit. (File/Dyana Bagby)

Benedit posted a Nov. 7 statement on the Havana Sandwich Shop Facebook page saying the restaurant agreed to partner with Living Walls and We Love BuHi to bring awareness of the Buford Highway community, one the restaurant has been a part of for 42 years. As part of those discussions, it was agreed the mural would be “neutral, non-political and impartial,” Benedit said on the Facebook post.

“Unfortunately it has become a political backdrop which I was very clear the restaurant would not be part of nor have we ever!” Benedit wrote on the post.

“We are a restaurant that serves food but have always prided ourselves on being part of this great community thus we gave this young lady the opportunity to display her talent on our restaurant,” she said. “From the first day we opened our doors we have always welcomed everyone!!!” she added. “We have always and will continue to be a neutral party on anything other than selling the best Cuban food in Atlanta!”

Cambron said she was not immediately available for an interview but would be able to speak on Saturday. Benedit said she would be able to talk after meeting with representatives with Living Walls that is taking place today, Nov. 9.

This story has been updated.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.