Local Wisdom Guides Alebrijes Workshop of Mexican Folk Artists
Mexican folk artists Jacobo and Maria Angeles are world renowned for the distinctive alebrijes figurines they create. In our interview, the couple explain the history of alebrijes, their personal relationship and their workshop, which they founded in 1994. They share the significance of alebrijes in their Zapotec culture, and how they rescued an ancient ancestral practice and their hometown of San Martín Tilcajete in the Oaxaca Valley from abandonment. Jacobo and Maria's inspiring account also reveals how community and sustainability are at the heart of their alebrijes craft and their lives.
What Are Alebrijes?
The making of alebrijes originated in the early 20th century and they were initially made from cardboards and/or papier-mâché. Techniques for making them have since evolved and they are now carved in wood or include other materials such as metals and wires in their structure.
One of the most widely known styles of alebrijes is that of the Oaxaca Valley, located in the state of the same name, in the southern part of Mexico. In this region, the Zapotec culture continues to be very bold and influential in people’s lives and handiworks. The most notable and successful of Oaxacan artists in this area are Jacobo and María Ángeles, who own a local self-sustainable taller (workshop in English) in which they make wonderful Alebrijes.
Alebrijes are immensely important in the Mexican culture as they are directly connected to the popular tradition of "Día de los Muertos", or the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. Alebrijes are essentially unconventional combinations of different animals imagined by Mexican folk artists and include, but not limited to, iguanas, coyotes, turtles, chameleons, snakes, armadillos, deers, rabbits, frogs, dogs, monkeys, owls, possums, jaguars, eagles, mockingbirds, butterflies, snails, fish, and hummingbirds.
According to local Oaxacan artists, these animals are said to have emerged from the Zapotec calendar, with the four basic elements (water, earth, fire, and air) representing each year, and the 20 animals representing each day. Similar to the Aztec calendar, the Zapotec calendar is therefore divided into 18 months of 20 days each, with 5 additional yet “cursed” days. Using the element associated with each year and the animal associated with each day, people are assigned a spiritual guide upon birth to later on help them with their transition to the underworld.
Alebrijes Are An Evolution of Ancient Art of Wood Carving
Wood carving is one of the most famous and appreciated forms of artwork made by Mexican folk artists. This form of art dates back to the pre-Hispanic times when civilizations used various types of wood to carve religious items, masks, toys, musical instruments, and even furniture. This local artform also takes on different styles depending on which state of Mexico they are made in.
Early in the 1990s, just when the majority of the town's young appeared to have lost trust in traditional arts and crafts and were immigrating to the United States, Jacobo and Maria's studio was established. The tonas and nahuales, the animals with spirits who have always accompanied this historic culture, have been given a second chance thanks to its greatness and success on a national and international scale. After nearly 30 years, the workshop now boasts an incredible community organization of over 100 people who work together in harmony to teach, share, and contribute under the watchful and loving eyes of its professors.
Enjoy this interview with Jacobo and Maria, who share their personal journey as artists, as well as offer insights into Zapotec culture and traditions, the meaning of community, and the importance of giving back to both people and Mother Earth.
Beginning of a Relationship
SOHA: How did you two meet?
JACOBO: We are originally from a village called San Martin Tilcajete which is in the state of Oaxaca, in Mexico, and since we are from a Zapotec village, we are raised with many traditions and customs. The village has a very beautiful party for Christmas. On the 24th of December the “Mayordomo” organizes a party and reunites all the young people of the village [usually we have about 40-50 youths] and he makes them participate in decorating the village. This celebration and other similar events are where many youths meet and mingle, or they start dating, and with the passing of time, get married.
We have had this custom since many years ago, I’m not sure how long ago, but Zapotec People always have the tradition of “Mayordomias”, and they function in incorporating the families. Since we are originally from the same village, we met each other in one of these parties in 1994, and we got married on14 of March 1995.
A Decision to Stop Youth’s Migration
SOHA: Why do you think it’s important to encourage the creation of art in smaller communities and among other Mexican folk artists?
JACOBO: Of course, it is important to keep promoting and generating art. As I’ve been saying these past years, the young generation we have in Mexico has a lot of artistic potential, and if we guide them towards what to do, what to think, what job to pursue; and occupy their brilliant minds, they wouldn’t create so many vices. For me it is important on a personal level because in 1994 when my brothers migrated, I realized that it’s necessary to share what I knew as an attempt to stop the migration a little, and to stop the devaluation that was occurring at that time.
We were 10 siblings, three of whom have died and seven who are alive today. Four of the remaining seven siblings migrated to the north, mostly as an attempt to find better work, but also due to a passion for discovering other parts of the country. And I felt very lonely… Of course, I had my clients, we had production, and we could start again because we were young. This is also the reason for the name "Taller Jacobo y Maria" since Maria’s family joined my line of work, and we have been sharing this experience together ever since.
At that moment, we hadn’t yet realized the gift of the workshop. The moment we started to share our work and generate more jobs and therefore more confidence among the youths, is when we truly excelled. The workshop started to have more success, there were more people interested in doing our work and our technique, and we were able to excel greatly. But there was still not enough sharing as we had hoped.
Local Wisdom of Guelaguetza Guides Alebrijes Workshop
We also applied some local wisdom that is very ‘natural’ in our village which is called “Guelaguetza”. This custom means “to teach what you know, share what you have, and contribute to your village”. This is a philosophy which the villages of San Martin, Ocotlán, and Oaxaca are preserving even to this day. Therefore, the people who live in our villages know that giving “Guelaguetza” is to share, to teach, and to exchange with your community. For example, when a father shares with his child the way to cultivate the land, and to do their artisanal work, he is transmitting the value to respect the environment.
But one important thing is that since we were a conquered village, and it had been formed without Christianity, we love our animals, our deities, and our religious images. We also share some elements of the religion like the sacramental baptism, or getting married in church, but the most beautiful Zapotec custom is when someone dies, we share the pain, we bury him, we support him. And in the village, there is always man who we know as “Chagol” who does the evangelical prayers but also the Zapotec customs so that their soul can go to the underworld.
In addition, if there is someone or a family member who had problems with the deceased, he is in charge to encourage them to forgive the deceased person by gathering them and the family around and speaking with them. In some places they call him Shaman, we call him a Chagol, and he has a place of honor among the village as he is in charge of organizing and keeping our traditions alive, teaching them to our children and teaching them about passing on the traditions and respecting them.
Another point is the contribution, in places like Oaxaca, it’s very common to hear the word “Tequio” and “Faena”, which is the most important custom because it is the way to do communality. There are 511 municipalities, and they are divided into 8 sections/regions, and each of these regions have their own customs and traditions. One of these customs and traditions is to give “Tequio”, meaning to provide a mutual job, to build a school, build a church, or create an overall wellbeing in our village. Therefore, many times these villages succeed in building and doing projects without the need for involvement of a political party, but rather people doing it themselves.
And the most important is that we offer our services, even to create our infrastructure, or if some day there is an emergency like an earthquake or a fire, to help and support each other. For example, in 2017 the school in my village collapsed because of an earthquake, and through Tequio and Faena we were able to rebuild the building and in 2022 to receive the classes in presence after the pandemic. We are also going to open a new building in my village which was built mostly through Tequio and Faena. The government provided the resources, but we provided the manpower. This is very nice when you live in such villages where you can still conserve these traditions.
Increasing the Sense of Community
SOHA: Do you think that sharing art is a way for the community and people to get closer to one another?
JACOBO: I am sure, and I have the evidence. I’m 100% conscious that it is functionable. It also depends on the leader, that they do not become political, that their purpose remains the culture and that they don’t go seeking some political objectives. This way, art will function very well as a way to bring people together.
The Copal Tree and its Preservation
SOHA: It’s incredible that you’ve planted nineteen thousand copal trees over the last few decades. Could you explain the significance of using copal wood and your sense of responsibility to regenerate it?
JACOBO: We’ve planted more! I want to tell you that since 1994 I had the opportunity to become conscious and I am very thankful to Professor Rodolfo Morales de Ocotlán de Morelos in Oaxaca. He was one of the most famous painters of Oaxaca and we went to tell/ask him whether he could help us to create a market or a building where we could sell our artwork in San Martin. And he told me “It’s very nice that you want to do better and sell your work, but before doing that, you should first worry about the raw material. I think the raw material that you have is going to end. You need to return a little bit of everything that the Copal tree has given you. It is slowly being destroyed in the mountains and you guys are not planting any more trees.”
This hit me with a lot of awareness and concern, and he also told us “Before you can sell more figures, you need to plant some more trees…”. And this was the most important point: due to this, a committee started to form for 10 years with my village, and we planted 100 hectares with about 100 thousand trees. This is a tree that does not need much water, and the area of Oaxaca where we live is arid and dry. But when the trees were more or less 14 years old, a highway started to pass nearby and even though we put much effort, every year some of our trees [and therefore our reserve] burned.
I was very much in love with this project, and with my wife we started to plant more trees in 2016 under the name Taller Jacobo y Maria and the seven biospheres that we created here. I think that in the end we planted even a bit more than what you mentioned, but in the last years, we have invited more villages that are close to Oaxaca and to us, to join and together we have created an ecosystem in this valley.
The Copal tree is sacred to us, it’s important as raw material, but we are not planting them to abuse and harvest it, but rather to give back a bit of all that it has given us. This tree is scientifically called Bursera Bipinata or Bursera Glabrifolia, and you can find it from Los Cabos to Yucatan and Merida. All this zone has Copal trees, but it is known with different names in different places. So, for us it’s very important that this tree is preserved.
Qualities of the Copal Wood for Carving
SOHA: Does copal have a special quality that makes it easier to carve or paint?
MARIA: Yes, because of the types of ‘veins’ it has, it is easier to be carved, it’s also softer and more manageable.
JACOBO: And it also gives us the resin, which we use in ceremonies, and it gives us part of the colors because of the pigmentation. It is known as the sacred tree, but it gives us the most important thing: the raw material for our figurines.
Mexican Folk Artists Fuse Tradition and Fantasy With Alebrijes
SOHA: Could you like to explain this piece?
JACOBO: This is a fusion of a jaguar. We always do two animals in one figure because many times it is our spiritual animals. Depending on the year there is one and depending on the day there is the other. In this case it’s a jaguar with wings which represents for us the day of the jaguar and the year of the eagle. Only that we add a bit of fantasy to it, so it has little horns. But we also make frogs, coyotes, and different animals which are iconic.
Each drawing on our pieces also has a meaning and significance. In each piece, we include drawings of geometric forms, symbols of seeds, symbols of the pyramids. It’s from one single piece of wood and to create a piece like this one we need about 6-7 months, so the process is not fast.
Sustainability in the Zapotec Culture
SOHA: How is sustainability important to the Zapotec culture and Oaxacan artists?
MARIA: We are a self-sustaining and sustainable workshop, this is very important because I think without looking for this sustainability, we wouldn’t have been able to preserve the roots, the traditions, but above all our beliefs and the respect for the culture. So, one of the things we focus on here in the workshop is that we were not only able to depend on art but also to do the whole cycle: from the seed to the finished figurine. But also, not merely seeing it as a production, rather as an impact towards the youth, towards the village, and not only in San Martin Tilcajete but also the neighboring villages.
The workshop is formed around about 16 villages, and we have seen an impact, not only in the economic sense but also a social impact, an environmental impact, a cultural impact, an employment impact, in other words it’s very extensive. It’s not only the fact of coming and working and doing it just for the sake of doing but also the educational part can be seen reflected in the people’s quality of lives.
JACOBO: And I think to reach the well-being and ‘well-living’ as well. If we can do it, the youths that believe in this project and in the fact that they can do this kind of art can also live from this with more dignity.
SOHA: I saw on your website that you mentioned you are frequently reinventing the workshop. What are the difficulties in maintaining a gallery across decades while still staying relevant and innovative?
MARIA: As your question says it well, the workshop has had some challenges, more than anything to maintain the space and the project itself. And like you mention “what are the difficulties to keep reinventing” well, there has been many difficulties!! The workshop keeps being reinvented and innovated. We are not doing the same pieces we did 28 years ago. We have learned to play with and integrate different materials, not just wood, but also, we work with metal, we work with ceramics. Our space here in the workshop is wide enough and our techniques are very extensive.
One of the very recent challenges we had was the pandemic. Usually, we would create our pieces in somewhat bigger sizes and with a bit higher price, and we were used to receiving people directly here in the workshop. So, one of our challenges was how to transmit our work to people via media or digitally, and how to make them feel our work, because eventually it’s all about emotions. People see it, they get emotional, and they buy it. But this was a challenge to make everything that we did reach people in the same way.
The Economics of Folk Art
Another thing is that we always give a small class of "Paint your Nahual" which has also been a challenge because now with social media and everything that is occurring recently, we’ve had to give this class as well through Zoom. And the challenge is not learning how to give a class via Zoom, but rather how can we do it in a place where the technology is not at 100%. This has been the major challenge, in other words, when we need the technology to transmit and show our work, we don’t have what we need. So, the challenge was how to obtain it, how to find this strategy to be able to show our work to the rest of the world.
And another challenge was not how to innovate it, but how to sustain it. As we said in the previous question, this is a living space with many students as well, but above all it’s the fiscal aspect which is a challenge for us. Because we are artisans or artists but not accountants, so we have also had to learn from professionals in the field, how to survive this situation. When selling a piece, you are charging a huge amount because the man hours cannot be counted.
So, our next challenge was how to put a price on your work, because it’s not so simple anymore and it takes much more details and even, we ourselves find it hard to say “Ohhh this piece will cost this much” because we put ourselves in the shoes of the clients. So, I think that there are never-ending challenges but, in the end, we were able to solve them as a team. So, we found a way to carry it to the end.
Connection to Other Communities and Cultural Identities
SOHA: When you’ve visited other international communities, have you ever noticed a connection between your cultural identity and the community of the people you were visiting? Do you have any anecdotes of how your art form resonates with people in other parts of the world or how your art form shares an approach with folk art in other places?
MARIA: Yes, of course we have noticed this connectivity when we visited different countries. For example, some of the countries that we both like are Peru, Guatemala, or even the USA. When we started to visit the States, we discovered a lot about the Hopi and Navajo communities or the villages of New Mexico. It’s incredible everything that they have in their communities, and we were also able to approach them with elements of our own culture and to learn from them.
It was important to learn about culture from other countries and even in our own country because we didn’t know. Usually when you live in one place, whether it’s a state or a village, you might know the location, but you will not know everything about it. When we started to go out of the country, we started to appreciate and find this connectivity with other countries, states, and artisans who had the same philosophy that we have here in our workshop.
Sharing Best Practices With Other Indigenous Cultures
JACOBO: We also found in the USA a big organization that inspired us to go forward. For example, we saw how the Hopi and Navajo people organize themselves or in New Mexico how they have managed to become autonomous villages, as they call it over there. For us it’s very important because we are defending our Zapotec roots and culture. As Maria said, we have also been to other countries like Guatemala and Peru, and we appreciate our own cultures as well; for example, the Mayan culture which is in Guatemala.
We have had the chance to see everything that has been done on Lake Atitlan, and you also realize that there are so many people endorsing their cultures, that are proud of being native of those areas and want to project it to the world. We have learned a great deal from them, but we also taught them some of our own knowledge. Also in Peru, we had the opportunity to work with artisans from Cuzco and I want to thank a representation that we have in Mexico which is called "Momento Cultural Banamex" which helped us get to know LATAM. With their help we got to know the university of Chile where they organize a big exposition of design and handicrafts.
Or in Ecuador for instance, they are also great artisans in religious arts, people from the Galapagos, how they’ve organized themselves and how they’ve seen the evolution of tourism. People from Costa Rica which is another big destination for Ecotourism and everything they taught us. We had the chance to visit Puerto Rico, see the Intercontinental Fair of Artisans and Cultures and also how they are appreciated. So, we have learned from all of these places and their cultures.
Scale, Similarities and Coincidences
But one country with which we share a lot is Japan, and it has helped inspire us a lot. So as an anecdote, the first time we went to Japan, we took some big pieces in gigantic boxes, and when we were there, my friend who had invited me was very worried and I was wondering why. She explained to me that she was worried for the garbage, and I couldn’t understand what ‘garbage’ she meant. And that was when she told us "These boxes that you have brought is a big problem for me. "
When we asked why, she explained that: "Because there is not much space in Japan, and we need someone from my community who will ‘adopt’ them because I don’t have a place to dispose of them. And if I say anything, I will receive a fine, because we [Japanese people] know the size and dimensions of the garbage cart.” So, we never imagined that we were creating problems because of the dimensions of a 1m2 box, when in Japan, everything is regulated and smaller. This was an experience and another thing we noticed is that such a big piece does not really sell well, and people tend to buy more smaller pieces.
MARIA: Something important that also particularly surprised me about Japan is that with all the technology and advancement they have, they do not forsake their culture. I mean, they have everything extremely advanced, but when you approach a Japanese person’s house and you enter in their lives, you realize that they do not abandon everything, meaning their essence and spirituality. So, I think there are many places where we have similarities and coincidences and I think that we are all following the same vision in what we do. And as we said in the beginning, we had the opportunity to get to know different countries, and comrades and artisans of these countries as well, and we have taken in their knowledge as well as shared ours with them, and I believe that this process is what enriches any form of art.
World Class Workmanship of of Mexican Folk Artists
JACOBO: In the year 2010, I got the chance to visit Germany, and see places like Dusseldorf, Dortmund, and Cologne. And one of the reasons for which my friend Luke took me there was because I had done some very fine/delicate pieces and they were wondering how I had learned the excellence of the quality. During this experience, they took me to one of the famous brands of car in Germany where they made the panels for the cars. And they wanted me to see that even though they had all the advancements in technology, robotics, mechanisms, and machinery, it was eventually the human hand which polished these pieces and achieved this excellence.
They also informed me that in Germany, carpentry is a degree, and they were wondering how a Mexican like me was able to reach such quality when to them, excellence was achievable through education and practice. And they also told me that Mexican folk artists has great workmanship and people with the potential and capacity to do it, while in Germany, this is left to technicians and can only be reached by going through an educational degree. And this is what I learned from this part of Germany, and when I returned, I taught it to my wife and to my children, and to the workshop and this is how we have kept this quality.
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Iranian by birth, a multilingual travel enthusiast with a degree in International eTourism from Lugano, Switzerland, I have lived in over 20 different houses and have as much experience as a 60-year-old!