When tens of thousands of people flock to Atlanta for the Super Bowl next month, they will be greeted by dozens of colorful murals painted throughout the city that highlight the Civil Rights legacy. Two of the murals were painted by Cross Keys High School art teacher Yehimi Cambron, an artist willing to tackle controversy through her art by raising up the voices of undocumented immigrants.

Cambron first made her mark in the world of murals in 2017 with a colorful mural featuring large monarch butterflies on the side of the Havana Sandwich Shop on Buford Highway in Brookhaven.

Yehimi Cambron, a teacher at Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven, believes art can empower her students and others who look for inspiration in the struggle for justice and equality. (Dyana Bagby)

The mural was one of many murals painted on the sides of various businesses 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.

Cambron was selected to participate in the public art project in part because she is a “Dreamer,” 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. The Buford Highway mural was a love song to her family and to other Dreamers and included the vow and hashtag “#heretostay.”

But when vandals in October painted over the “#heretostay” declaration, Havana’s owner decided she did not want it replaced, saying her business was going to stay neutral when it came to the hotly debated topic of immigration and Dreamers.

Cambron went against the owner’s wishes and repainted the “#heretostay” on her mural. Days later, the entire mural was painted over. In recent weeks, a new mural of the word “Atlanta” was painted on the side of the iconic yellow restaurant. An American flag is also now posted at the door’s entrance.

“I don’t regret what happened,” Cambron said in a recent interview about her first mural being painted over. “My artwork is never going to be neutral.”

That first mural also inspired Cambron to want to create more wall-size art. WonderRoot, an Atlanta arts organization dedicated to social change, announced in 2017 it was teaming up with the city’s Super Bowl Host Committee to create the “Off the Wall” public art project.

This mural painted by Yehimi Cambron depicts portraits of Dreamers, or undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. The mural is part of the “Off the Wall” public art project organized to highlight the city’s Civil Rights legacy when visitors come to the city for the Super Bowl. (Dyana Bagby)

The project selected 11 artists to create 30 murals with community input to paint murals in downtown Atlanta that tell the city’s story of the struggle for civil rights, human rights and social justice. The murals will be permanent fixtures in the city and after Cambron earned a spot in the project she again saw a chance to celebrate the stories of fellow Dreamers through art.

Cambron’s mural under the Georgia State MARTA station at 170 Piedmont Ave. depicts portraits of Dreamers who attend Freedom University, a local college for undocumented students, and other students and undocumented immigrants.

Yehimi Cambron works on her mural at the The American Hotel Atlanta Downtown. Cambron is one of 11 artists selected to participate in the “Off the Wall” art project to paint 30 murals around downtown for the Super Bowl.  (Dyana Bagby)

The words that surround their faces are words they told her during her talks with them, Cambron said. And the red and white of the American flag as the backdrop is a bittersweet symbol of the country they call home but also a country that currently rejects them and also views them sometimes as political footballs in the ongoing debate over immigration, Cambron added.

The mural also includes three monarch butterflies, a tribute to her previous mural. But they also symbolize that all people have the right to flee danger to find a safe home, much like when millions of the 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.

Cambron’s second mural, still being painted, is on the side of The American Hotel Atlanta Downtown at 160 Ted Turner Drive. It includes Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

Surrounding King’s words are an image of young black people seated at a lunch counter as part of a protest sit-in and a Dreamer being arrested to protest deportations of undocumented immigrants. They tie together the fights for civil rights through acts of civil disobedience, she said.

The NFL and Super Bowl are themselves controversial, much like art can be, she said. Cambron said she is inspired by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality, systemic racism and oppression.

“He is unapologetic … and for him, his voice is as an athlete, his canvas is the space on the football field … he was using his platform to stand up to injustice,” she said. “For me, my canvases are these walls.”

Cambron said she tells her students that controversy is not always something to be feared. Telling their stories — about being undocumented, about being LGBTQ, about being black or Asian or women — is important to share so others can see themselves, she said. This is the philosophy she uses when she creates her art.

“Telling my story and being open … is a way to resist and stand up to all the things that want to alienate and exclude me,” she said.

Dyana Bagby

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