Creating Change Through Artwork

For this month’s thought leader piece, Yehimi Cambrón shares her story of being a DACAmented artist, activist, public speaker, and entrepreneur in Atlanta. She immigrated to the US with her family when she was seven, leaving San Antonio Villalongín, a small town in Michoacán, México. Cambrón’s work elevates the stories of immigrants, celebrates their humanity, and has a special focus on the experiences of Undocumented Americans. She has painted landmark murals in Atlanta that unapologetically assert the presence of immigrants, depict the intersectionality, diversity, and complexity of their stories, and challenge the white male-centered history of who is worthy of a public, monumental celebration.

When I immigrated to the US with my family at the age of seven, we came directly to Buford Highway, which has and always will be home to me. This is where we began to build our lives as new Americans and where I navigated coming-of-age undocumented in an anti-immigrant state. This month as I spoke at the New Americans Celebration at the Georgia State Capitol, I was reminded of my first visit to the Gold Dome. At the age of sixteen I was invited to the capitol for a ceremony and celebration as the third place winner of an art contest and where the winners were to be awarded with $50. At the capitol, I was told that without a social security number, I could not be compensated for my work like the other contest winners. I walked away with a medal around my neck, a rolled certificate, and my first real taste of what it meant to be undocumented in Georgia. 

This realization expanded as I navigated the college application process and learned I would have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend any of my own state’s public colleges and universities, and undocumented students were not only disqualified for financial aid, but banned from attending any of the state’s top five public institutions. With public avenues for higher education blocked by the state, I was proud to receive a full-ride scholarship from the Goizueta Foundation to attend Agnes Scott College and graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art in 2014. After graduating from college, I joined Teach for America (TFA) as a corps member, becoming the first of two DACAmented educators placed in Georgia by TFA, and serving on TFA’s DACA Advisory Board for two years. I then returned to my alma mater as a highschool art teacher and witnessed the impact on my students as DACA was rescinded and politicians used undocumented and DACA recipients as pawns. 

My experiences growing up as a DACA recipient and teaching in the South have molded me into the artist and activist I am today, sharing my story in the fight for change. Returning to the capitol over a decade later to advocate for more equitable education practices was affirming and brought me full-circle, as I celebrated and shared the moment with other advocates and new Americans. As an art student in college, I learned to use art as a tool to share my story without even realizing that this in itself was activism because as a DACA recipient, my livelihood has always been politicized. So often undocumented individuals are put in the shadows, so I have continued to assert my presence and humanity just by showing up and creating art — and that is the intersection of being an artist and an activist for my community. Telling my story through artwork has been a way for me to process my experiences and has been therapeutic. Over time my work has transitioned as I have learned to use murals as a basis for the community to be in solidarity, including holding events such as phone-banking for the DREAM act. 

I have also intentionally created artwork that I didn’t see growing up — pieces that depict the humanity of undocumented people in the South. As a byproduct of my murals and public art, I have created these public spaces that have become spaces of resistance that challenge the confederacy and legacy that inundates us living in Georgia. I believe my murals have played a small role in the national movement to redefine monuments and who is worthy of being celebrated. As I continue to grow as an artist, my work is now focused on using art to create a call to action to help advocate for my community. I have done this through some of my recent pieces, including the butterfly installation at the Atlanta Contemporary Museum of Art which called for the shut-down of Stewart Detention Center here in Georgia. I want to continue building consciousness in the city of Atlanta for what is happening in our own backyard and how we can make a difference.  

For others wanting to support new Americans, I urge you to show up to conversations where immigrants are exposing their stories and putting themselves out there. Find opportunities to educate yourself without putting the burden on new Americans. To be an advocate, you have to ask yourself how far you’d be willing to go to have our backs. Truthfully, we don’t need more allies, we need accomplices in the fight for equity. You have to be willing to get uncomfortable, sit with the discomfort, and recognize your privilege and when your actions have been harmful. 

For now, I am committed to continuing to establish spaces that celebrate new Americans, whether that is through public art or murals both in and beyond Atlanta. My dream is to one day work with emerging immigrant artists and create a program that would help to fund their work. In the meantime, I will keep creating pieces that serve as a statement of not allowing immigrants to be invisible. I will stay focused on direct calls of action that support those centered in my artwork. The fight is not over and the work is not done. 

To see more of Yehimi’s work, visit her website or follow her on social media @ycambron.