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ALEBRIJES, FIGURES FROM THE BEYOND

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A green donkey with horns, a purple iguana, a blue polka-dotted horse, a porcupine with red and yellow spikes – who would have thought these curious and colorful animals which prowl on street corners and in markets had been inspired by a nightmare? Named alebrijes, (gypsy slang for “a difficult tangled thing, shaped in confusing or fantastic figures”) were invented by Pedro Linares in Mexico City as a result of fever dreams.

He dreamt of being in a strange and foreign world populated by bizarre and unfamiliar creatures with wild colors and designs. When he recovered, Linares wanted to share these animals with his family, so he began molding them in paper. Manuel Jiménez, a talented carver of Arrazola, was inspired by Linares’ creations and began carving alebrijes in wood. He experimented with different kinds of wood and found that Copalito was best because it has a small heart and no layers, so the animals can be carved in one piece without splitting. At fist he was the only person in Oaxaca carving alebrijes. Later, he was discovered by an American patron, and soon his pieces were famous all over Mexico. Other carvers in Arrozola followed suit, and soon there was a boom in the little animal industry. After 1985, many other artisans joined the trend. Today, the villages of Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete are famous for the magical alebrijes.

Zapotecs have always been carvers, making toys and masks, and alebrijes open up a world for the imagination. Artisans began creating all kinds of fantastic beings: devils, angels, aliens, naguals, mermaids, and every kind of animal, real and imaginary, decorating them in all varieties of color and design. Motifs tend to change monthly depending on demand as well as the restless inspiration of the artists. What you see in an artisan´s workshop one month may not be repeated the next, though there are standard favorites, such as the iguanas and armadillos. Quality varies greatly, not only among the artisans but in the work of individuals. With some artisans, each piece is unique. Others hire staff to reproduce a popular design. In the US and elsewhere, alebrijes sell for three to five times what we would pay for them here, and you will find everywhere from sophisticated art galleries to cheap markets.

It is fascinating to watch the artists at work. All the carving is done with machetes and kitchen or pocket knives, which must be sharpened several times a day. A dull knife is more likely to cause cuts—a definite hazard of the job. Most alebrijes take one to five days to carve, and a week to a month to paint, depending on the design. Little ones cost less because tourists expect that, owever, in some cases they are more difficult to make than larger ones.

Most of the people in Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete are involved in making alebrijes; it is a family affair. Generally, the men carve and the women paint, but both jobs are equally important. Knock on almost any door in these villages and you will find artisans at work. I recommend visiting many studios – it’s fun seeing the different styles of the artists. One of the favorites are, Jacobo Angeles, www.tilcajete.org, María Jiménez Ojeda and brothers. 10 Ignacio Allende St. Juventino Melchor, 14 Reforma St Ventura Fabián, 13 Reforma St. all of them from San Martin
Tilcajete.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Both San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola are about 45 minutes from Oaxaca Centro. You can get to Arrazola by bus or collectivo from the Central de Abasto. Collectivos direct to San Martin leave from an off-thestreet parking lot a few blocks below the Zócalo on Arista Street (the College of Medicine is on the corner). Alternatively, you can take a collectivo from the Central for Ocotlan and ask them to let you off at the entrance to San Martin. It is opposite a big restaurant called Las Azucenas, where you might want to stop for lunch. From there, you will have about a fifteen minute walk into town.
To contact the artists about their work, you can visit the pueblos in person .

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