VIEW: A Mural Grows in St. James

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Andrea Duarte-Alonso is a regular VIEW columnist. She lives in Worthington, and works at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and with the Southwest Initiative Foundation. She is working on “Stories from Unheard Voices,” an online platform of immigrants in Southwest Minnesota.

One of my favorite ways to shift rural narratives is through storytelling. While I prefer writing to enact change, public art is another great storytelling tool. In the two years of my post-college fellowship, I have become intrigued by artists that tell a story through community art. Before the pandemic, I got to travel across southern Minnesota and would find glimpses of visual art in downtown areas and on random buildings in the outskirts of towns. I find mural paintings a way to beautify and tell the story of a community. 

This spring, as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I noticed Yehimi Cambrón, a Latinx artist from Atlanta, would be arriving in St. James to begin a three-week mural project. St. James is a small town located in Watonwan County in southern Minnesota. It is a diverse community with a large Latinx population.

I live about 45 minutes west of St. James, but often make a trip there to visit my the Mexican story run by my boyfriend’s family in the middle of the downtown area called ‘Las Americas.’ I was astonished that a Mexican-American from Atlanta was coming to a small town in Minnesota to create a masterpiece about the community. I had to get myself to St. James to meet the artist and her assistant, Pamela Tellez Coria. 

Cambrón gave a presentation to the community at the local St. James high school. There I learned that she was born in Michoacan, Mexico (where my father is from), and she has her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals paperwork, designed to protect individuals who arrived to the country at a very young age from deportations and allow them to get legal work permits (aka DACAmented). Former St. James resident Laura Murvartian, who now resides in Atlanta, made the connection. Murvartian and her family grew up in St. James and she recalls how welcoming the community had been to her immigrant family. To honor St. James, she asked the artists to work on a mural to capture what makes the community so unique. Pre-pandemic, Cambrón engaged with focus groups of community members to find out what they would like to see in their downtown.

It is not often that I get to sit in a high school auditorium in a small town and listen to a dynamic woman of color. As a Latina myself, I felt inspired and energized by Cambrón’s presentation. It sparked my desire to advocate for more mural art in our communities.

During their time in St. James, the artists got to know local community members well, from local business owners to students. They transformed a public space into a community gathering. To me, that was powerful. Local artists also lent a hand in the later stage of the work.

I wonder: Are we inviting all the people we can to the table, and our community’s walls and centers, to represent who our community is?

The author captured an image of the final mural. For more details, Yehimi Cambrón used her Instagram (@ycambron) to show the progress of her artwork and the moments they experienced with community.