Field trip #2: Mexico’s fantastical creatures

 

Jacobo y Maria signOne 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.

One of the dozens of workshops in San Martin Tilcajete. I especially liked this young woman's work.

One of the dozens of workshops in San Martin Tilcajete. I especially liked this young woman’s work.

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.

See why?

See why?

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.

Phantasms in copal drying at Jacobo y Maria's workshop

Phantasms in copal drying at Jacobo y Maria’s workshop

Take the deep vermilion of the copal (in the background) and add lime, pomegranate, or baking soda for a rainbow of natural dyes.

Take the deep vermilion of the copal (in the background) and add lime, pomegranate, or baking soda for a rainbow of 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.

Sitting around a table on a warm, sunny day creating magic.

Sitting around a table on a warm, sunny day making magic.

Really TINY brushes. All this intricate detail is done freehand.

Really TINY brushes. All this intricate detail is done freehand.

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.

Main Street-Santo Tomas. Just another pretty town.

Main Street-Santo Tomas. Just another pretty town.

Weaving on a backstrap loom in Santo Tomas.

Weaving on a backstrap loom in Santo Tomas.

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.

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4 Responses to Field trip #2: Mexico’s fantastical creatures

  1. Tiffany 17 November, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    I love that…so interesting.

    Out of curiosity, and since Google has failed me, does alebrijes have a rough English translation and meaning in Spanish? (Besides alebrijes–a Spanish animal in folk art)

    To leave those dry for up to 10 months, they have patience of gold. I would get antsy.

    • Kate 17 November, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

      i wondered that myself, and after my own rummaging around, I think “alebrijes” is it’s own special word. I read the story of the dream of Pedro Linares in a couple good sources, so I’m inclined to believe that he made up the name based on his dream.

      Kinda cool, I think.

      Re: the 10-month drying period. Big places like Jacobo Y Maria have dozens of figures in all stages of production, so nobody’s watching paint (or alebrijes) dry in those workshops.

  2. Hoz 13 November, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

    Thanks for showing me the alebrijes, Wonderful craftsmanship. I’d never seen such a thing.

    Though I’m not Catholic…nor especially religious, I too like to visit churches in other places. San Felipe de Neri Church in old Albuquerque, the White Dove of the Desert outside Tuscon, Saint Louis Cathedral with it’s garish mosaics, Santo Nino Cathedral in Cebu, the Notre Dame Basilica in Saigon where we attended Easter Mass conducted in Vietnamese are all different, yet alike.

    • Kate 14 November, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

      So cool, Hoz. When you go to the Sacred Valley, try to get to mass in Pisac. I stood outside during the Consecration, and heard something like conch shells being blown–all indigenous and I think all in Quechua.

      I’ve had some really inspiring experiences in the churches, and i feel like I experience a different vibe when I go to them.

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