On the edge of The Constitution of the United States, stands the premise that civil and individual liberties are of the utmost importance. Yet, noncitizens are fighting deportation in immigration court due to the thinning of bureaucracies. Is the Biden administration reflecting one of the constitution's most critical foundations?
According to a study done by the Center for Immigration Studies in January 2022, there were 11.35 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States—a 1.13 million increase over the 10.22 million in January 2021. The significant increase does reflect the Biden administration and its continuing efforts—by the White House and some in Congress—to pass a bill legalizing undocumented immigrants. The new campaign that was launched to help Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants become U.S citizens (currently out of the total estimated number of immigrants, 2.5 million are AAPI), also encouraged people to enter the United States.
In art and culture, we can also notice an underrepresentation of immigrant artists, as many residency opportunities, grants and fellowships require citizenship or legal resident status. If we take into consideration the total number of immigrants, we can surely conclude that there is a big chunk of culture that has not been fairly represented. Yet, some organizations undertake this wave of inequality fearlessly.
One of these is The Define American, an organization founded in 2011, which holds an annual fellowship supporting immigrant emerging artists working in narrative art forms regardless of their citizenship status. Each of the selected artists receives a $5,000 stipend and access to workshops and networking events.
“The Define American Creative Fellowship is one of the few US artistic fellowship opportunities that welcomes any applicant regardless of immigration status, including undocumented creatives,” Jose Antonio Vargas, creator of the fellowship, said in a statement. “We’re proud to showcase such a broad range of personal and artistic backgrounds, representing perspectives that are not always highlighted by the mainstream art and film worlds.”
Yehimi Cambrón is one of this year's five selected artists. Born in San Antonio Villalongín, Mexico, she became an undocumented immigrant at the age of seven when she moved to Atlanta. Cambrón creates large murals representing the experience of undocumented people in America. The landmark murals celebrate the presence of the people portrayed and the intersectionality and complexity of their stories.
Aiming for Reduced Inequalities and creating Decent Work and Economic Growth—two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—the artist's most recent mural illustrates the determination and diversity of Atlanta's immigrant community. Created on The Home Depot Backyard at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the monumentality and intimacy of the artwork expresses the distinctive and individual story of five people. Each portrait has its unique aesthetic, with lines embodying a sense of complexity and grit that each person's story entails. If you look closer, the five figures resemble a counter map of mountains; the lines reflect connectedness, reminding us that the people portrayed are our neighbors; the bold colors signify the resilience of these individuals that despite countless limitations still make immeasurable contributions to economic and community growth.
“My status as an undocumented immigrant means there is a constant threat of my forced removal from the home and community I have created for myself in Atlanta and in the United States.” the artist states. “Consequently, I am constantly learning to redefine home for myself and my murals have become a part of that.”
Furthermore, Cambrón’s art and activism has awarded her several recognitions. She became the first known undocumented artist to exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in 2019 and the same year she was nationally selected for Off the Wall: Atlanta’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Journey, a public art project leading up to Super Bowl LII.
“My murals serve as a platform to reclaim the immigrant narrative and unapologetically center the stories of power and hope of people who have been historically and systematically oppressed,” Cambrón highlights.” These spaces of public art actively juxtapose the symbols of hate, slavery, colonization and racism that are courageously being taken down around the country by the people.”
Most communities and countries have been populated by different ethnicities for generations and are an intrinsic part of their culture, therefore it should be celebrated and acknowledged. Several other organizations like The Define American are paving the way for a more intersectional representation in art. Go have a look at Undocupoets, The Disruptors Fellowship, and the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective.