In an article about popotillo I talked about the division of handcrafts in Mexico as “artesanía” and “manualidad” with the former having a higher cultural status. The work done by Josué Samuel Hernandez and his wife Elidee Arellano Dominguez might just straddle the divide between the two.
They work a technique called “crystalized tissue paper.” When thinking about classic Mexican handcrafts, a commercial product such as tissue paper does not come to mind. Most of our experience with it is its use as wrapping or maybe to make flowers in primary school arts and crafts classes.
Hernandez and his wife live in the small town of Nogales, just outside the state capital of Veracruz. Crafting with tissue paper and the like does have some history in Mexico and in Veracruz as there was a time when it was associated with expensive imports. Papel picado was born as a way to reuse the paper. It is also used in a number of areas to make sky lanterns (called globos de cantoya in Mexico), with one Veracruz town, Zozocolco, particularly known for the making of elaborate lanterns for Day of the Dead.
The paper is also used to make a number of figures such as animals and flowers by folding, crumpling and twisting it into desired shapes. Such figures are set by applying multiple layers of varnish, hence “crystalizing” the paper.
Both Hernandez and Arellano come from families who have done this technique for 3 generations, and between the two of them have over thirty years of experience. While a number of other artisans do this in Veracruz, this family has experimented with new designs and ideas. The main distinction is the creation of alebrijes. Hernandez is from a small town in Oaxaca but also spent years living in the northern suburbs of Mexico City. Both areas have distinct crafts called “alebrijes.” In both areas, it is the making of fantastic creatures, but from different materials and in different styles.
Hernandez’s alebrijes are strongly reminiscent of the Mexico City version, which is made from cartoneria, a hard paper mache. Not only does he also use a paper base, he also follows the example of making creatures with body parts from several real and imaginary animals. All but the smallest figures start with a wire frame, but instead of layering the tissue paper over the frame (which would be terribly time consuming and wasteful) he uses crumpling and twisting create all but the very outer “skin” which is a layer or more of tissue paper. It still requires a lot of paper, with an alebrije of only 20cm long or so using at least 50 large sheets. According to Hernandez, they did experiment with more traditional paper mache, but found it did not work well in their humid environment, not to mention that the area’s insects liked to eat the paper/paste mixture.
Thought not as strong, there is influence from the Oaxaca alebrije tradition as well. Tissue paper comes in an almost infinite variety of colors, but the family seems to be inclined to strong bright colors, very similar to the colors used in Oaxaca. While the tissue paper provides the basic color(s) of the piece, tiny, repetitive, decorative details are painted on alebrijes, but not to the extent seen in the Oaxacan variety.
The workshop’s alebrijes and other pieces also have unique elements. First, Hernandez is very fond of iguanas and many of his alebrijes are based on these animals. Second is the use of local natural elements such as seeds, seed pods, seashells and even local pottery in their works. Details such as teeth, horns figures etc, maybe be made purely with tissue paper and/or with these local resources. This is very distinct from Mexico City artisans, for whom the use of anything other than paper and paste for the creation of items is controversial.
Hernandez calls his fantastic creatures “Verabrijes” (Veracruz+alebrijes), which is accurate. There are ties in form and technique, but the end result is distinct. The color that the tissue paper provides along with the high shine of the layers of varnish make the figures more “kitsch” than those in either Mexico City or Oaxaca. But this does not keep the family from selling their work, especially to vendors in tourist areas as far as Cancun. Hernandez says he has had the chance to meet David Linares, grandson of the inventor of alebrijes (Pedro Linares), who has approved of his family’s innovation.
Photos courtesy of the artisans and Alejandro Linares Garcia