Artist Cornelio Campos talks about his life as a Mexican immigrant in the United States, his roots, and the indispensability of art
Before Cornelio Campos came to the United States, he listened to stories of immigration from friends and relatives. His hometown in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, has a long history of immigration. But, Cornelio remembers:
“The impression I had of the United States was only the nice things… nobody spoke about any of the struggles. So my perception was that everything in the US was wonderful. I wish that they had said more. A reason I paint about immigration is to show the reality. I want to tell the truth.”
When Cornelio arrived, he was mistreated on the job as a farmworker. Although he barely spoke English at the time, he sensed that the words they used were demeaning. And now that he knows English well, he says, he understands the language they used against him.
But not everyone was unkind, and he remains grateful for his decision to move to the US. Two years after immigrating, he moved to North Carolina, where he has been ever since. During these initial years, he faced deep loneliness as his life was marked by loss and abandonment.
For ten years, Cornelio did not pick up a brush. The first painting he produced after this period was called Realidad Norteña, which he describes as a sort of biography: “Into it, I put all my thoughts and anger.”
Cornelio’s family and friends, the first to see his paintings, aren’t afraid to share their thoughts on his work. They are Hispanic, and, as a result, are predisposed to loud opinions: “It’s cultural.”
The second painting he produced after Realidad Norteña was a piece entitled Frontera. At the time, he had begun to work in construction, and the bottom right-hand corner depicts a man laboring in this profession. He describes Frontera as a continuation of its predecessor. The theme is self-sacrifice.
His painting career began to take off—so much so that he now struggles to find the time to paint in addition to maintaining his full-time job as an electrician: “Art used to be a hobby, and now it’s a second job!” But his two jobs feed one another, he explains. He could never bring himself to give up either one.
Cornelio’s works celebrate his Native Mexican roots: he belongs to the indigenous group known as the Tarascos. He describes the town he grew up in as a communal place with high regard for old traditions—which, as a teenager, he often refused to be a part of. “I was rebellious” he chuckles. Now that he is older, he is returning to his roots with greater respect, exploring the folklore of his people through his art. One of Cornelio’s strongest intentions is to help his community and share it with other cultures.
He experienced this viscerally when he was invited to a church to showcase his work. Most of the members of the church were of Dutch descent. As a Latin American, Cornelio did not expect to connect with the church members, but he was amazed at how deeply they identified with themes of immigration in his work.
“They began to share stories, about their parents and great-grandparents, about their family arriving in New York… I discovered the power of art: it doesn’t have to be aimed at one culture, it is to share the culture.”
His story is a great example of the manifestation of polyculturalism through art.
Like so many artists, Cornelio feels strongly about the indispensability of art. “We need art because it feeds the soul.”
Despite being exposed to criticism and hatred many times in his life, Cornelio retains an unwaveringly positive outlook. An anti-immigration organization picked up on his work and made fun of him publicly on their blog. He recalls this experience as painful, but ultimately realized that this helped expose him and his art. He describes this occurrence as the worst and best compliment he has ever received.