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Artist and Activist Yehimi Cambrón Talks Immigration and ‘Monuments’

Winthrop House is one of Harvard's twelve residential houses.
Winthrop House is one of Harvard's twelve residential houses. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Sofia Andrade, Crimson Staff Writer

“Yehimi Cambrón. The ‘h’ is silent in Spanish, and you need the ‘m’ otherwise it’s a bad word,” said Mexican-American artist, activist, and public speaker Yehimi Cambrón by way of self-introduction. Cambrón came to Winthrop House on Feb. 27 to give a talk titled “Art as Activism: Celebrating the Contributions and Resilience of Immigrants” for the Harvard Immigration Initiative — and in her talk, she discussed the importance of art in the undocumented community.

Born in Michoacán, México, Cambrón now lives in Atlanta, having come to the U.S. as a child with her parents.

“That’s when I became undocumented, at seven years old when I crossed the border,” she said.

Cambrón has lived under that status ever since. In Winthrop, she spoke about the biographical inspiration behind her art, from pencil drawings now hanging on the pristine white walls of an Atlanta museum to murals, or "monuments" as she prefers to call them, scattered throughout the greater Atlanta area and the entire country.

As an immigrant, Cambrón said she struggled to integrate herself in a culture where she didn’t speak the language.

“I felt so ignored and so isolated, but when I was in the art classroom, I didn’t feel that way. That was the only space where I felt that I could be successful without having to use the English language,” she said. “Being in this space gave me all the confidence that I needed to be successful.”

While Cambón found art welcoming, she said it was also through art that she first felt the pangs of institutionalized alienation. After winning third place at a state art competition, Cambrón was barred from accessing her cash winnings due to her lack of a Social Security number.

“I had grown up feeling so normal and all of a sudden someone decided that, because I didn’t have a Social Security number, I didn’t deserve recognition,” she said. Cambrón was bewildered that her hard work could be ignored simply because of a status she didn’t even know she carried.

Since then, Cambrón has struggled with the fact that she was and is "growing up in a system that was forcing [her] into illegality.” She said her undocumented status prevented her from basic aspects of life that would otherwise be taken for granted, such as the ability to be hired or to get a driver's license. Despite these barriers, Cambrón earned a college scholarship, the only viable option for her family. She chose to study art knowing she would not be able to find work in another field, instead choosing to focus on her passions. At Winthrop, she would unpack the various traumas of living undocumented in America.

“You feel the trauma in your body,” she said.

It was during her time as a teacher after college that Cambrón became a DACA recipient and began to feel she could truly be an artist and make a name for herself, starting with her design of the iconic “Education is Liberation” monarch butterfly. This icon signified not only the intersection between education and migration, but also built off of the use of the monarch as a symbol for migration and immigrant rights. The next step for Cambrón was murals, one of the first of which featured that same monarch, blown up for all of Atlanta to see and right across the street from the high school where she taught.

For Cambrón, her art is akin to monuments. They were and continue to be powerful testaments to the life, struggles, and successes of immigrants and their families.

“I want people to look at [my murals] and be like, ‘these are my neighbors,’” she said.

Cambrón described, for example, a particular mural she was commissioned to paint which would be placed over a previous mural of two indigenous Black women. After hearing input from the community, the mural featured an immigrant Black woman at its center.

“At the end of the day, that was the right thing to do, because if anyone is discriminated against in this country, it’s Black women,” she said. “If I have this privilege, and I have this platform, then I’m going to use it to put people front and center that need to be front and center.”

Cambrón also acknowledged her relatively privileged status as a DACA recipient. "We were deserving, but our parents had to be deported," she said.

Cambrón highlighted what she considers to be the nonsensical disparities in how the United States views its immigrants: celebrating a select few while bashing those who choose to sacrifice ever seeing their homes or families again, as well as to sacrifice their safety, in what could only be described as an "act of unconditional love.” This struggle featured prominently in Cambrón’s life, and it continues to guide her art today.

At the end of her talk, Cambrón emphasized the importance of the allies who “shut up and listened” to her struggles and those of other undocumented children.

“I am a product of immigrants. My ancestors immigrated from Italy,” said Jeff M. Perrotti ’85, an audience member and the director of the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students. “I feel a real connection with being an ally to immigrants and understanding the issues and seeing really how I can be involved in helping them to fight for their rights in this country.”

Emilia R. Pfannl '04, a tutor in Winthrop House and one of the event organizers through the Harvard College Cultural Agents Initiative, felt similarly.

“I was also a teacher, so seeing how she was able to connect her work in the classroom as a teacher with her art and her activism. I just think that the three are connected no matter what in so many ways, and to see a person modelling that is really powerful,“ Pfannl said.

“I was an activist in high school and continue to be now in college,” Juan C. Venancio ’23 added. “I’m going to walk away from this feeling inspired to do something.”

Cambrón ended her talk with an open call for questions, followed by “or we could just drink wine.” A roar of laughter came from the audience.

— Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at sofia.andrade@thecrimson.com.

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