I had to check my GPS twice when I arrived at the plantation-style building located at 5329 Mimosa Drive. ‘The Mayor’s House’ is a traditional Southern home that was built by enslaved people in the 1800s for Andrew Johnson, the first mayor of Stone Mountain. The oldest standing structure in the city, the home was purchased by husband-and-wife team Daniel and Shellane Brown in 2015. In recent years the aging building had fallen into disrepair and the Browns have since transformed into a community incubator complete with a coffee shop, lounge areas, and artist studios. I was there to meet with activist Yehimi Cambrón, a revolutionary and spirited artist dedicated to using her platform to improve the lives of immigrants in America and, more centrally, Atlanta.
On the floor above the bustling cafe is Cambrón’s bright workspace, separated by a bead curtain in the doorway. A rolling rack with t-shirts emblazoned with her iconic Monarch butterfly design is tucked in the corner adjacent to a shelf stacked with books, brushes, and mason jars full of paint from recent projects. Light filters in through the windows to illuminate rolling desks that are stacked high with works on paper and piles of delicate paper butterflies. Bookshelves lined with awards, photographs, and keepsakes. I found my way to the couch in the corner, taking in the pleasant space while we discussed Cambrón’s artwork and her life’s goals.
“Art was the only thing that I could do that no one could take away from me,” explained Cambrón, opening up about her experience as an undocumented child living in Georgia. “It was always a safe space for me when I immigrated here; the art classroom is what gave me the confidence to thrive as a third grader in the public school system who didn’t speak English.”
Naturally creative, Cambrón has been making art for her entire life and devoted herself to being a full-time artist in 2019. Born in Michoacán, Mexico and raised in Atlanta, Cambrón is an artist, activist, and public speaker. Though she knows she is often described as such, she doesn’t use the term “Dreamer” when talking about herself as it perpetuates a narrative that labels immigrants as either good or bad. This term, along with many others and designations placed on immigrants in this country, is inherently problematic and harmful to the immigrant community. “That narrative throws our parents under the bus,” she said. Instead, Cambrón simply refers to herself as a DACA recipient.
Propped against the wall in her studio are a few matted prints of photographs depicting her massive murals that are in such prominent locations like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the city of Hapeville just a few miles away from the airport, around the corner from the Georgia Capitol, and the Latin American Association building on Buford Highway. Depicting people of color, and typically hyper focused on the immigrant experience, they highlight a demographic that is often overlooked in Atlanta, a city which Cambrón has experienced as a black-and-white city
“My artwork focuses on elevating the stories of immigrants and celebrating their humanity and their dignity. I focus specifically on centering the voices of undocumented people in the South through their portraits on a monumental scale most of the time, through their own words and stories without them being filtered, censored, or white-washed.”
I recently viewed Cambrón’s, #ChingaLaMigra, which is installed in a nearly hidden area of the Atlanta Contemporary called the Sliver Space. This piece features 1,996 meticulously hand cut and delicately water-painted butterflies that are pinned to the walls and suspended from the ceiling. The number represents the capacity for detainees at the Stewart Detention Center (SDC) in Lumpkin, Georgia. This for-profit facility is one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country. Targeted for closure by Georgia’s ACLU and the Detention Watch Network in 2012 and following the deaths of eight detainees in the last five years, SDC has been cited for numerous human rights violations. Dehumanizing treatment and isolation have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Cambrón wanted to use her platform as an artist to bring attention to the plight of those held within the SDC’s walls.
In #ChingaLaMigra the butterflies, each as unique as the people they represent, appear to be pushing upwards to freedom from the confined space. Behind a partition is a speaker which plays the voices of those who have been affected by the confinement of SDC. Nine black butterflies pinned to the back wall have their names scrawled next to them, these are in homage to the immigrants who lost their lives there.
“The ever-present monarch butterfly is a huge element in my work because of the symbolism of it being a creature that we identify with as immigrants,” Cambrón explained. “It has been used in immigration activism for a long time – it is a fragile but also very resilient creature that goes on this epic journey across borders, and each generation is stronger and stronger. So how can we not identify with that duality of this fragile creature? Because at the end of the day our immigration status makes our livelihood and our stability very fragile, but we also have this forced resilience because of the obstacles that we face as undocumented people.”
Despite being celebrated and embraced by her community, Cambrón is not exempt from the tenuous existence of her immigration status. Plagued by nightmares about being raided by ICE since she was a child, she has an innate understanding of the plight that immigrants face in our country.
Cambrón carries a significant responsibility as one of the few undocumented artists working in such a visible way in our city and even the country. She was the first undocumented artist to ever show her work at the High Museum of Art, for example, and her hard-earned reputation has given her unique access to institutions with reach. “I never would have dreamed that I would have been in a museum at that age, I was 27 at the time,” said Cambrón. She uses her artwork to bring attention to the all-too-often unheard struggles of immigrants, hoping to educate, inform, and provide actionable steps to improve their lives in real ways.
One of Cambrón’s most iconic images is the Education is Liberation Monarch. This motif is half butterfly and half book, united in the center by a pencil. Originally developed when Cambrón was working as a full-time teacher, the symbol was created in response to a request from two fellow Teach for America staff members who were supporting DACAmented Corps members. They wanted something that would highlight the intersection between the identity of an immigrant and their role as educators, and so the Education is Liberation Monarch was born.
“It’s a symbol that for me represents so much resistance. It represents our fight to thrive, and not just to survive. Our parents did that for us; they migrated so we could survive. Their courageous decision has given me the privilege to find ways to thrive. The book is that thriving piece.”
Cambrón hopes that by continuing to paint murals and create works that exist in public spaces she can provide a much-needed bridge to awareness of the issues that immigrants face in this country. ““Family separation, immigration detention, anti-blackness, racism, imagining a future beyond DACA, all the complex issues that form part of our experience,” said Cambrón.
Working hand in hand with El Refugio, a hospitality and visitation ministry serving immigrants at SDC and their loved ones, she often uses her social media accounts to share actionable aid. Those efforts include fundraising, coordination of transportation once released from SDC (she told me how immigrants are often driven to the airport and deposited there with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and frequently in the dead of the night), and care packages to help newly released immigrants as they acclimate to life outside of the detention center.
Check out Cambrón’s website at yehimicambrón.com and follow her on Instagram at @ycambron.