The word “alebrije” refers to two separate traditions of making colorful creatures of varying sizes. In central Mexico and some other places, it refers to the making of creatures which are an amalgam of parts from real and imaginary animals, and even sometimes people. It is part of a larger craft tradition of paper mache objects (cartonería).
In the state of Oaxaca, the word refers to a style of wood carving and is essentially a stand-alone craft, rather than part of something larger. Most depict recognized animals although amalgamations and even human figures can be found.
Oaxacan tour books, guides and even alebrije makers will swear that their alebrijes have a direct link to the inventor of alebrijes, Mexico City pioneer Pedro Linares, usually by stating that he has roots in San Antonio Arrazola, where the Oaxacan version originated. The real linage of these wood carving is a mix of native Oaxaca Central Valleys native woodcarving traditions and influence from Linares’s work.
The native aspect is in the carving and in the depictions of animals real and imagined. Carving real animal and spirit animal/monsters called nahuals (sometimes spelled nagual) goes back to the pre Hispanic period at least among the Zapotecs that dominated much of this area. The more realistic animals were related to hunting and the nahuals were related to native religious beliefs. By the 20th century, the tradition was waning, generally to create toys for children.
However, Arrazola is the “cradle” of Oaxaca alebrije making, and the credit belongs to a man named Manuel Jimenez. The maestro began carving as a boy in the 1920s as a side activity, often while doing other chores such as tending sheep. His carving was traditional and by the 1950s, his work was well enough known to be sold in the city of Oaxaca. It was even noticed by an early notable collector of Mexican folk art, Nelson Rockefeller.
The shift came when Jimenez was invited, along with Pedro Linares and others by filmmaker Judith Bronowski to demonstrate their work in the US. Jimenez was impressed by Linares’s alebrijes and set about making a version using a local soft wood from a scrub tree called copal. The new, colorful creatures took off, and by the late 1960s, he was exhibiting his work in Mexico City and the United States. By the late 1970s, tourists found their way to his workshop in Arrazola. This popularlty permitted him to become the first full-time carver in Oaxaca.
Jimenez guarded his methods, teaching only those in his family. For this reason, even as late as 1985, when the alebrije business began to boom, there were only six families in Arrazola making alebrijes. This is probably the reason why another town, San Martin Tilcajete, has been able to build a bigger name in the craft than Arrazola.Jimenez died in 2005, and today, those lucky enough to buy even a small piece of his need to pay in the hundreds of USD. The Jimenez family still makes alebrijes, but interestingly enough have shifted to carving a tropical cedar imported from Guatemala.
Neither the old or new carving traditions had names and since the Linares influence was obvious, the name “alebrijes” stuck. It is important to note that most carvers are not Zapotec and the figures are considered to be novelty ítems, not expressions of cultural heritage. Despite this, the craft is one of the most recognized from Oaxaca, and there are a number of well-known and highly respected artisans in the field each with his/her own style. In Arrazola alone there are several including the Antonio and Sergio Aragon and Martin Sandiego, whose works command prices of hundreds of dollars and often comes in sets.
But Arrazola, as Jimenez’s hometown, is the undisputed origin of this colorful figure. It not only produced them first, but its proximity to the state’s political and tourist capital means that the town popularized them as well. Today, the city has nearly overrun the small town and it’s accesible by local city bus. Despite this and the annual “Cradle of Alebrijes” fair it holds each year, Tilcajete is better known for its alebrijes.
Initially, alebrijes were more crudely carved, today called a “rustic” style, and generally carved in pieces which would assemble and disassemble only by pressing the tabs of an extremity into the corresponding hole in the body. This is not easy as the pieces are dried after carving, which changes the sizes of both tabs and holes.
Today, some small details are still carved separately, such as thin tails, wings and spines, but rarely legs. Originally local animals were the base, those known to the rural carvers making them. Over time, these carvers gained contacts with dealers and with markets that wanted other animals as well such as lions, dragons, elephants, etc. The start of carving competions in the 1970s also prompted artisans to experiment with new forms as a way to winning prizes and getting museums to buy their work. Perhaps the last change is that the rustic gave way to smooth, flowing forms which are often surreal. Two things have stayed the same, which distinguish Oaxaca alebrijes from their paper cousins. Oaxaca alebrijes are almost always of a single animal. The most common are dragons, dogs, armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, cats, elephants, deer, dolphins and fish. Arrazola specializes in the making of alebrijes with complicated bodies, especially iguanas with curled tails, often from a single piece of wood.The second is the use of bright colors, almost always a single background colors with intrícate lines, geometric shapes and/or dots covering the piece. These can be so fine that some artisans have taken to using medical needles to paint dots.
Copal carved soon after it is harvested, meaning it is still wet. This allows it to be carved easily and quickly, using hand tools such as machetes, chisels and knives. The tree is kind of scraggly, so these capricious turns are taken advantage of in the final carving. After carving the figure is left to dry for up to ten months. The soft wood cracks during these stage, so they are then filled in with paste made from copal sawdust and resin and sanded before painting. Every piece of copal is used. Paints were originally made from local plants and minerals but today the vast majority are commercial acrylics. The old paints give a rustic look that some customers prefer.
It would be difficult to underestimate the economic impact that the craft has had the rural familes of these towns. At least 150 families in Oaxaca make a living from it, and the income even for modest carvers is enough to allow families to add onto their houses and send children to secondary school. By 1990s most households in Arrazola were making at least part of thier income through carving, shifing local economies away from farming. But it has not eliminated the need to farm or send family members to Mexico City or further to work.
The main reason for its success is likely that these alebrijes are far less “scary” or “intimidating” than their central Mexican cousins, making them more appealing to the tourist for whom they have been sold from the start. Alebrije making has a two-tiered market. The high-end features high-quality, unique and labor-intensive peices, with pieces from those with excellent reputations commanding prices into the hundreds to thousands of dollars. The lower-end market is mostly for the casual tourist and tend to have pieces which are small and repetitive.
But there has been a price for all this success. Copal was almost a “waste wood,” with little economic value, growing all over uncultivated lands. The success of alebrijes created a high demand for the wood, and now wild stocks of copal trees in many parts of the Central Valleys have become seriously depleted, with nearly all the trees around Arrazola and some other location disappeared. The situation is similar to the ficus trees which are the base of amate paper making in northern Puebla. Like the ficus, copal trees need at least 5 to 7 years growth before harvesting, either whole or just taking branches. There have been efforts to reforest and even farm the trees, but the demand outpaces these activities significantly.
This issue has led to an interesting development, seen only in Arrazola so far in any significant way. While there are carving styles to be sure, one way to distinguish work is through painting, especially in very fine designs over the piece. In fact, the fineness of this work can add significantly to the piece. With copal wood scarce, artisans here have been transferring painting techniques to objects which are not alebrijes and not from copal wood. These include wood cases, picture frames, crosses and even bottles and other commercially made items. This may wind up being the future of the craft.
Special thanks to the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art for various photos (in CC-by-SA 4.0 license). All other photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia.