One day, a man fell ill, and in his dreams he was visited by fantastical creatures–brightly colored mashups of real animals and mythological creatures. Suddenly, they all came together and began chanting, “Alebrijes, alebrijes, alebrijes!”
It was enough to scare away his illness, and when he recovered, he began to recreate the dream-creatures in papier maché. He called them by the name they had given themselves: “alebrijes.” (al-le-BRI-hez.)
At some point, his whimsical and often incredibly intricate creatures caught the skittish eye of the international markets. Now they are made of wood and have since become big business, mostly in Oaxaca.
You can find alebrijes all over Mexico, but Oaxaca is their special home, and it is there that they march in their legions through stalls in the markets and tables in the shops. They are everywhere.
And of course, there is a village near Oaxaca that specializes in making them–San Martin Tilcajete.
I’ve been fascinated with alebrijes for years. Accordingly, one Sunday morning, my sister, nephew, and I caught a bus heading south to visit this pueblo of just over 1,000 residents. The bus trundled past the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, where the famous Oaxacan black pottery is made, and we were let off on the dusty road heading into town.
When you visit places like San Martin and wander from shop to shop, you realize that, not only is most of the village engaged in making whatever widget it is famous for, but also that some artisans are more passionate, gifted, or skilled than others. Yet, everyone makes them because the special craft drives the economic engine.
The workshop of Jacobo y Maria Angeles is the big name in alebrijes. Jacobo exhibits internationally, and they have the studio, gallery, and bevy of artisans working, even on Sunday, to prove it. The intricacy of their work is staggering, which is why the best of their carvings are commissioned and command prices in the hundreds.
Although Jacobo and Maria live next to the workshop, we didn’t see them on this Sunday morning, but we were graciously shown around, probably by relatives who staff the place, and we received a tutorial in the process of making alebrijes.
I hadn’t know that alebrijes are made from copal—a soft resinous wood that grows in the mountains around Oaxaca. Copal, to me, is a gummy incense that is sold in the markets. Neither did I know that just beneath the bark of the unassuming tree is a dark purple layer that is used as a natural dye for the alebrijes carvings. The Angeles workshop is one of the few that still use natural dyes.
The process of making alebrijes is laborious and requires a skilled hand. Wet wood is carved, first with machetes then with ever-smaller instruments. Sometimes the wood itself suggests a shape; sometimes other pieces are glued or pegged on to create a shape. Then the carving is left to dry for up to 10 months. The cracks that appear are filled. A base layer is painted on, then the fine and often incredibly intricate detail is added last with tiny brushes.
Even though Sunday was a slow time to visit, and even though the town was preparing, so we heard, for a wedding that afternoon, we had a blast wandering from shop to shop and ending at a fabulous restaurant and gallery/gift shop run by the Angeles family at the highway turnoff.
After lunch, we soldiered on to Santo Tomás Jalieza, known for its woven textiles. We arrived just as the few shops were closing up. Everyone was going to mass in the village church, so we joined them.
I love going to mass in the various churches in Latin America—I feel like I can take a different pulse of life in these places, where faith tends to be a deeply felt communal celebration. I may not know the prayers in Spanish, but I know what’s happening, and I can participate just as actively as the rest of the village crowding into the pews around me.
We found a colectivo back to Oaxaca and arrived with a satisfying tiredness that signals a good day of exploration. A few competitive games of gin rummy finished off the evening.