Mexico is well-known for its culture of artesanías, or craftwork. In states with strong artisan cultures like Oaxaca, it’s very common to see entire towns specialize in a single type of craft to elevate the quality of their pieces, make the most of existing infrastructure, and ensure a steady inflow of buyers looking for specific products. One such town is San Martín Tilcajete, known for its alebrijes, colorful folk art carvings of fantastical creatures.
The reason behind a particular town’s craft of choice is sometimes obvious, sometimes less so or even legendary (like in the case of Metepec and its clay mermaids). The alebrijes of San Martín Tilcajete represent the rare case of a craft whose origins are relatively modern and well-documented.
In 1936 in Mexico City, an artist and sculptor named Pedro Linares López had a fever dream. It is unclear if it was caused by the stomach ulcer affecting him at the time, the possibly hallucinogenic remedies for said ulcer, his likely self-medicated dose of alcoholic drinks or a combination of these. In his altered state, he saw many fantastical creatures, seemingly made out of a mish-mash of real animals, all of which repeatedly chanted the word “alebrijes.” After his recovery, Linares took to his preferred medium, a type of papier-mache sculpting known locally as cartonería, and started recreating the figures he had seen in dreams.
Thanks to the popularity of these sculptures, Linares was invited to an event in Los Angeles in 1977 hosted by documentarian Judith Bronowski, where he met a fellow Oaxaca-based sculptor, Manuel Jiménez Ramírez. Jiménez did not work with papier mache, preferring wood instead. Influenced by Linares, Jiménez returned to his hometown of San Antonio Arrazola and began whittling copal wood into his own take on alebrijes. Copal was chosen not only for its carving properties but also its cultural significance, as the resin of this tree has been used as a type of incense, burned for its fragrance, for centuries.
Linares was granted the National Sciences and Arts Prize in 1990 for his cartonería art and the creation of alebrijes, and died two years later. When Jiménez died in 2005, his hometown of San Antonio Arrazola attracted tourists to its many alebrije shops and workshops. Nearby San Martín Tilcajete, with access to copal trees and its own whittling traditions, adopted alebrijes as its favored craft in the 1980s.
Nowadays, both Arrazola and Tilcajete continue to be the primary producers of wood-carved alebrijes in Mexico. The more-isolated town of Tilcajete has been favored by sculptors that create high-end figures, exemplified by the husband-and-wife duo Jacobo and María Ángeles. Their works are exhibited and available for purchase in museums and galleries in Mexico and internationally. Jacobo himself appeared in the alebrijes-themed episode of the BBC docuseries Handmade in Mexico.
Other notable high-end alebrije makers in Tilcajete include the workshops of Iván Fuentes y Mayte and Dante Cruz. Alebrijes have become iconic of Mexican culture, appearing in animated works like Ánima Estudios’s Leyendas franchise and Disney-Pixar’s Coco.