Unlike the cute creatures featured in Disney’s Coco, the original alebrijes have inspired a range of emotions. Amalgams of various creatures, both real and imagined, decorated in bright colors, alebrijes originated not in Oaxaca, but in Mexico City.
The creation of these creatures are correctly credited to a cartonero (paper mache artisan) named Pedro Linares, sometime in the mid 20th century. The traditional story of their origin states that Linares came down with a very high fever. While in bed, he hallucinated various terrifying creatures, which kept whispering alebrijes. When he recovered, he worked to recreate what he saw in his visions.
The real story is more mundane and convoluted than that, and it is easy to dismiss the dream story as a fanciful way to sell more alebrijes. However, there may be more to it than that. More than a few cartoneros attached more meaning to the creatures. One notable example is “alebrijista” Susana Buyo, who considers the creatures to be a kind of home or spiritual guardian, often telling a story about a boy that saw one of her alebrijes and exclaimed “That’s what I dreamt last night!”
L: Susana Buyo and student with alebrije in progress R: Close up of a Buyo alebrijes in progress.
Indeed, if the scary, ugly/beautiful creatures were merely the product of one man’s fevered imagination, they would not have the iconic status they do now. After decorations for Day of the Dead, alebrijes are the most important product for cartoneros, and the main reason why paper mache workshops can be found now in most cultural centers in Mexico City, spreading out into other parts of the country.
The idea that alebrijes has some psychological reality for us (hinted at by the dream story) is further enhanced by the work of Durango native Prudence Bermudez.
Bermudez is an artist and artisan from Durango, whose mother and art teachers were a constant source of affirmation to her as a very shy child. Although she started college with the intention of studying business management, fate led her back to art and she received her degree in the field from the state’s School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts.
With little opportunity in Durango, she took the chance to live and work in Buenos Aires from 2007 to 2014. Here, she was not only able to sell her painting, but she gained a new appreciation of Mexican culture and iconography seeing how foreigners responded to it. It was also here that she studied psychology and art therapy, finding this to be her life’s work.
In Argentina, she worked primarily with adults and in painting, doing a thesis on art therapy for adults legally incapacitated by stress. The focus of this thesis was the use of paper (often symbolizing the office) to redirect negative emotions that stem from there.
Bermudez’s work with alebrijes and other forms of cartoneria is very recent. On vacation home in Durango in 2012, she found that her long-time mentor, artist and artisan Trinidad Núñez, had begun a program to introduce Mexico City-style alebrijes to Durango. Taking advantage of what little time she had, she quickly learned the basics and continued to work with the medium in Argentina. She even began selling the creatures here, which were considered a kind of crazy curiosity.
Returning to Durango in 2014, she has begun working as an art therapist. Much of this work is still with traditional painting, but alebrije-making is now part of her repertoire. She finds it useful for certain patients in particular, as the mish-mosh of animal parts can be used to represents various interconnected emotions.
While there are no studies to support this idea, it is still quite interesting nonetheless. Perhaps there are more to Pedro Linares’s “ugly” monsters than he ever envisioned.
Featured image – Artist Prudence Bermudez and daughter with alebrije – used with permission of the artist)