Oaxacan Communities Where "Alebrijes" Wood Carvings Come Alive


At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, Arrazola was a typical Mexican hacienda that constituted a center of rural work where people of different regions of Oaxaca went in search of employment and sustenance. As a result, Arrazola became a melting pot of customs and traditions of the most varied origins.


It was toward the third decade of the 20th century that the now traditional processions of the Day of the Dead, the 1st and 2nd of November of every year, were popularized.

The residents of that place carved masks in "tzompantle" wood which represented the face of death, viejitos old men, witches, and devils.

They say that one of the most skilled mask engravers of those times was Don Pascual Santiago, a cheerful man, who loved to dance and was a good mescal drinker (an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of an agave). His masks, mainly those representing faces of the elderly viejitos, became popular and coveted among the neighbors. Don Pascual sold his masks for a few cents or exchanged them for a good bottle of mezcal.


Other people of Arrazola learned how to carve masks but none better than Don Manuel Jimenez, who one day realized that his masks and monos "monkeys", as they called them in those days, were a hit which people liked a lot and that he could earn some money if he sold them.


On the weekends Don Manuel, who normally went to downtown Oaxaca in search of supplies and provisions for his home, decided to pass by small arts and craft stores to sell his figures. At that time his art mainly consisted of human figures of farmers, peasants and the elderly. They were rustic and of simple decoration but no one could deny the great artistic genius that Don Manuel possessed. Sometime later, American merchants noticed the beauty of Don Manuel's work and began acquiring his pieces.


Don Manuel no longer had to go to the stores of Oaxaca to sell his figures. Buyers came directly to his home in Arrazola in taxis and luxury vehicles. It is unnecessary to say that this impacted the neighbors of his town after they saw Don Manuel's success.


By 1980 several other Arrazola families like Santiago, Hernandez, Aragon and Morales also devoted their lives to the carving of "monos" as they call these figures. Each family and within them, each artisan, imprinted on each figure a personal touch.

Popularity among tourists and North American merchants was increasing. They no longer only passed by Mr. Jimenez house but rather traveled street by street throughout the entire town, visiting the houses of the artisans and discovering the creative spirit of their residents.


Some carvers were known for the great quality of their work and others just looked to make simple pieces and in great quantity. 


Towards the 90s, many families in Arrazola left their work in the fields to devote their lives to wood carving. Even after ups and downs in sales, related to the United States economy, today the "alebrijes" have a very wide diffusion even in distant countries such as Japan.

Many museums have placed them in their permanent collections and they not only represent a means for artisans to make a living but also provide them opportunities for personal growth.


The artisans of Arrazola, in general terms, have been known for carving realistic figures of tigers, elephants, dogs, raccoons, iguanas, otters, horses, giraffes and frogs. They usually decorate them with lines, points, stains and paint them in pastel or dark colors.




In San Martin Tilcajete, a town near the Oaxaca capital, wooden carvings also have their origin in the creation of masks for processions; in this case those for the carnivals, which are celebrated before the observance of Lent. To this day, the people of San Martin Tilcajete continue celebrating the representation of a traditional wedding ceremony that takes place one day before "Ash Wednesday".


During the wedding representation, the men of the town, both young and old, participate disguised with masks representing characters like death, the devil, monsters or simply famous Mexican characters and people. Everyone wears costumes, beginning with the grooms, who represent the main characters of the wedding. Only men are allowed to participate in this particular celebration.


One of San Martin's most famous and experienced artisans is Don Isidoro Cruz. He cheerfully recalls how he began working with wood when he was only a young boy. On one occasion, he and a cousin made a figure simply for fun.

Don Isidoro remembers that one of his first pieces was a bunny, which he painted with white color stains. Like several other artisans of his time, Don Isidoro began carving figures years ago simply to earn some money. But in those days artisans were looked upon with distrust by the people of the town because they thought these figures were made in order to carry out incantations or witchcraft.


Nowadays, a great number of San Martinís families dedicate their lives to the creation of alebrijes and there are exquisite artists such as Jacobo Angeles, Magaly Fuentes and MarÌa Jimenez.


San Martin is distinguished for the great quality of its carvers who possess an overflowing imagination that allows them to create fantastic figures such as dragons, Pegasus, monsters, devils, angels, and representations of death, which are decorated with flowers and fluorescent colors in which colonial blue prevails.


There is a well-known mistrust that exists between artisans of Arrazola and those of San Martin but this has fortunately been on the decline and artisans of these two towns are beginning to exchange ideas and techniques.

A third town currently dedicated to the creation of alebrijes is the Tejalpa Union. The great charm of the figures of this region is their primitive and rustic features.

Artisans from this town continue to use aniline to color their pieces, even though these colors fade with time. Its geographic location which is much further from the capital than other alebrije towns makes it less likely to be visited by tourists. Traditional figures from the Tejalpa Union include saints, churches, nuns, and pantheons. Though this town shows a smaller evolution, it has great artists, which are extremely popular in stores and galleries.


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