In this painting, titled “Struggle,” Mr. Campos focuses on the things that are so common and obvious that we don’t always see them. On the right side he depicts a group of students on top of a column; Mr. Campos says that he modeled the column on the one that appears on social security cards. The combination of students and column points to undocumented immigrants’ struggle to go to college without a social security number. Beneath and across from the students are images of immigrant laborers—farmworkers and construction workers—who contribute to this country through their work. Growing up in Mexico, Mr. Campos often heard stories from immigrants now living in the United States about the good times they were having and the many opportunities they encountered; these stories, however, never spoke of the hardships they faced.
The central image in this painting features a crying Statue of Liberty. With rays extending well beyond the central medallion, however, Mr. Campos seems to depict the Virgin of Guadalupe through the Statue of Liberty. Moreover, in the bottom center of the piece stands a winged-man struggling to support the U.S. flag and the Statue of Liberty with his outstretched arms. Through this figure, Mr. Campos invokes the presence of an angel that is often found in depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mr. Campos asserts that no one really pays attention to the angel who is holding up the Virgin in other paintings. In like manner, he argues, no one really notices the farm laborers and construction workers who are supporting the U.S. economy.
A painting of monarch butterflies flying towards the Statue of Liberty.
This painting depicts monarch butterflies flying towards the Statue of Liberty. Monarchs hold a special importance to Mr. Campos, because their annual migration takes them from the United States to Mexico (and specifically to Michoacán, his home state), and then back to the U.S. This migration, of course, calls to mind Mr. Campos’s own immigration journey. It also brings him back to his childhood, when he remembers seeing so many butterflies on trees that entire branches would fall off under their weight. The bird of paradise flower is also important, in that it symbolizes Mexico, and more specifically evokes the ties that Mr. Campos feels to his homeland. Additionally, with the bird of paradise flower and the Statue of Liberty, Mr. Campos seems to represent a transition from beauty and paradise to a land of industry and promises of work.
“Realidad Nortena” by Cornelio Campos .
This was the first painting Mr. Campos completed after almost ten years away from art. During his period, he worked as a farm laborer, and did not have any free time to create art. Mr. Campos says that he expressed all the emotions that had been bottled up during those years in this painting; consequently, he recalls, this painting was very healing for him. The most apparent feature of this painting is the split-image dividing Mexico from the U.S. The central medallion portrays a split figure with a brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe on the left and a light-skinned Statue of Liberty on the right. Likewise, toward the bottom of the central medallion a bird of paradise flower is split and contrasted with a dogwood flower. Finally, the stark Mexican desert with a traveling immigrant on the left contrasts with a seemingly lush field of crops and workers on the right. These differences are all bridged by the wings of a monarch butterfly.
This painting, now displayed in the Campus Y at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been a particular source of controversy for Mr. Campos. When it first went on the walls at the Campus Y, a local newspaper ran an article about the exhibit, and mentioned the painting. Later, ALIPAC, a conservative anti-immigration PAC, published a response that criticized Mr. Campos and his work, highlighting the fact that this featured artist had crossed into this country illegally. According to Mr. Campos, the PAC tried to portray him as a poor immigrant who was attempting to garner sympathy. This attack initially saddened Mr. Campos, but after a few days he realized that his contribution as a lone individual had prompted a conversation in a national organization. This experience taught Mr. Campos the power of art, and helped him to realize the capacity he had to affect others’ lives.