Latinx Artist and Activist Yehimi Cambrón Talks Creating the Hawks’ First ‘Harry the Hawk Alebrije’ for ‘Hispanic Heritage Night presented by CareSource’

The Hawks will celebrate their ‘Hispanic Heritage Night presented by CareSource’ tonight at the award-winning State Farm Arena. The night will celebrate the cultures and contributions of Hispanic and Latin Americans through various in-game elements, music, dance, food and an exciting night of Hawks basketball. Leading up to the night, the Hawks recently unveiled artwork depicting Harry the Hawk as an Alebrije on various promotional items. Created by artist, activist and public speaker Yehimi Cambrón, the ‘Harry the Hawk Alebrije’ is representative of the popular Mexican folk-art sculptures of fantastical and mythical creatures. In this intimate Q&A with Hawks.com, Yehimi recounts her journey growing up as a Latinx artist in Atlanta, shares her experience creating Harry the Hawk as an Alebrije and explains the artwork’s importance to the Mexican culture.

1. What is an Alebrije and why is this form of artwork so important to Mexican culture and tradition?

Alebrijes are brightly-colored sculptures of fantastical creatures and are iconic of Mexican Folk art. The art form was created by Pedro Linares López, a cartonero in Mexico City. Like his father and grandfather, Linares dedicated humself to the creation of papier-mâché pieces, including piñatas, skeletons and masks.

In 1936, when he was 30 years old, Linares became seriously ill and in a state of unconsciousness, dreamed he was walking in a strange forest where he encountered these colorful creatures, from a winged donkey and a dog-headed lion to a rooster with bull's horns, all shouting alebrijes. When Linares recovered, he used his skills to replicate the fantastical creatures from his dream.

The colorful sculptures gradually became popular, and soon other artisans began to imitate Linares' creations. In 1975, the British filmmaker Judith Bronowski made a documentary about his work, launching him to fame internationally. The artisan also went so far as to make several alebrijes for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, whose collection is now in the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City.

In 1990, Pedro Linares received the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes in celebration of his artistic career and his contributions to Mexican art. He passed away two years later at the age of 86, but his family continues the alebrije tradition to this day.

Although the alebrijes originated in Mexico City, artists throughout Mexico made their own iterations of the creatures. Artists such as Manuel Jiménez in Oaxaca combined the area's traditional carved wood crafts with the ideas of Pedro Linares. While maintaining the vivid colors of the papier-mâché versions, Oaxacan alebrijes are made from copal wood and are inspired by the idea of nahuales, supernatural beings that have the ability to transform into animals.

Today, the alebrijes are an undeniable part of the cultural and artistic imagination of Mexico, and it is a craft in constant evolution. Since 2007, the Museum of Popular Art of Mexico City has organized a parade of monumental alebrijes with the intention of promoting the arts and Mexican folk culture. In it, hundreds of artisans build alebrijes up to four meters high and parade them through the historic center of the city in an event full of dance, music and color.

2. You worked on the first ever Alebrije for the Atlanta Hawks and created a Harry the Hawk Alebrije. Can you walk us through that experience and creating that piece of art?

The first part of creating an Alebrije of Harry the Hawk was educating myself on Harry’s personality and the story behind the Alebrije. During this research portion of the process, I reviewed YouTube videos of Harry performing, as well as his Instagram and photos of him shared by the Atlanta Hawks. I spent a great deal of time learning about the origin of the Alebrije and the art techniques behind how the fantastical creatures are made today, especially in the state of Oaxaca. I really enjoyed getting to know Harry and was amazed by the attention to every intricate detail Oaxacan artists pour into every inch of their Alebrijes.

I drew Harry the Hawk with a fiery mohawk and added wings and a tail of realistic feathers inspired by photographs of hawks in mid-flight. Since Alebrijes are sculptural, I painted Harry as a three-dimensional form before adding the intricate details. I referenced Oaxacan Alebrijes to determine the colorful patterns on his body and clothes.

3. What does it mean to be a part of the Hawks’ annual ‘Hispanic Heritage Night presented by CareSource’?

I feel so incredibly proud to have created something so emblematically Mexican for the Atlanta Hawk’s Hispanic Heritage Night. It was very exciting to capture Harry’s fierce attitude through a piece that honors my Mexican roots. I hope seeing Harry the Hawk as an Alebrije allows the Hawks’ Latinx fanbase to feel welcomed and embraced.

I never saw things like this happen in Atlanta growing up. There are so many of us across fields in our city who have been working to ensure our stories are included in these spaces that belong to us all—we are an intersectional community that plays a role in Atlanta’s history. We are part of this city’s fabric. I am grateful that the Hawks see this value and that they have been so intentional in planning this amazing celebration!

4. What are you looking forward to seeing during Hispanic Heritage Night?

I can’t wait to see how Harry’s Alebrije is incorporated throughout the night! Nina Sky’s “Oye Mi Canto” continues to be such an anthem so I was very excited to hear that they will be performing. And of course, any time Mariachis are performing, it’s a party!

Most importantly, I am thrilled that I will be joined by my family, mentors and friends at the game! They have been so excited about this project and I think tomorrow will be an incredibly special night for us all.

5. As a Latinx artist, you understand the challenges artists of color face as they look to have their work recognized in mainstream visual arts. Can you tell us about one of those challenges you faced and how you overcame it?

It’s challenging to pinpoint to one specific instance because it has all been an uphill battle. All the more reason why this collaboration is so meaningful for me!

One of my earliest memories of being an aspiring artist also turned out to be my first heart break. When I was sixteen, one of my teachers encouraged me to participate in an art contest hosted by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. I won third place but was denied the prize because I didn’t have a Social Security Number. The rejection was a sobering realization of what it meant to be an Undocumented American and raised alarming questions about my future. What should’ve become a pleasant memory for me as an aspiring artist kindled a fire that galvanized my path toward becoming an activist, educator and artist hoping to play a role in the multi-generational movement for immigrants’ human rights.

My first mural (2017) was destroyed by the owners of the wall one year after I painted it because they became concerned about politics and wanted to remain neutral. Almost every project has entailed these uncomfortable conversations, but eventually, my persistence started bearing results. In 2019, I was invited to exhibit work at the High Museum of Art and became the first openly-undocumented artist to show work there. Atlanta has embraced my work and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to emerge as an artist in this city, where being steeped in the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement undoubtedly contributed to my passion for art as activism.

Over the past five years, I've served as a monument-maker asserting the humanity of immigrants in Atlanta through public art. My murals are the life-affirming spaces I needed to see growing up. They provide the sense of sanctuary art affords me amid uncertainty. I've claimed barren walls to paint landmarks that belong to undocumented people who, through my community-responsive process, share their desire to be defined by more than their immigration status. The murals depict them vividly through larger-than-life, shoulder-to-shoulder portraits, often accompanied by the Monarch butterfly—a symbol of resilience and migration used in activism and a reminder of my first home in Michoacán, where the Monarchs seek sanctuary. Agency and vulnerability coexist in the murals; my subjects choose to come out publicly as undocumented while valiantly facing a system that forces them into the shadows.

The monuments I've painted in Atlanta institute a space for immigrants within the South's dominant racial binary. From my first mural on Buford Hwy—the immigrant heart of Atlanta and where I grew up—to my mural at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, I confront the idea of who is worthy of public celebration in the home of the largest Confederate monument in the nation. My portraits and Monarchs have also found their way into major institutions of art in Atlanta. Like my murals, they have served as a platform for difficult conversations on immigration within a historically anti-immigrant state.