13 Apr San Antonio Arrazola: Home of the Alebrije
Manuel Jimenez, a young woodworker from San Antonio Arrazola, dedicated himself to making driftwood masks and drinking heavily in the evenings. One night, a drunken dream left him in awe. Magical unknown creatures appeared to him, made up of an infinity of parts: bird, mammal, and reptile blended together; scales, wings, hooves; horns, feathers, tails. When he awoke, astounded by what he had seen, he began to carve what would become Oaxaca’s first Alebrije, an artistic expression that would go on to embody the identity of its people.
Commonly known as “Arrazola”, the town is famous for this particular piece of art. Born of a dream, the alebrije gave life to a tradition in San Antonio Arrazola. Now the town is dedicated to creating alebrijes and a myriad of workshops line the village streets, inviting in passerbys to see the sculptures take form. From tiny to quite large, the brightly-painted, intricate designs take you on an adventure of imagination. The sculptures are full of life, eye-catching and bizarrely beautiful. It makes a perfect day trip from Oaxaca if you’re looking to explore (more on Day Trips from Oaxaca here.)
Alebrije comes from caló, and Iberian Romany language, meaning “a difficult and entangled thing, fantastic and confused.” Taken from the Copal plant which is also used for sacred incense, the alebrije is carved while the wood is soft and malleable. It is sculpted and polished by hand into an extraordinary range of forms – otherworldly beings inspired in plants and animals. No two alebrijes are alike; there is an infinite number of combinations one could create mixing colors, designs, shapes and more. Painted to perfection these artworks are a sight to behold.
Apart from seeing and purchasing alebrijes, meeting the artists who design and paint them, and visiting the sweet little village, you can also take painting workshops and make your own alebrijes or commission one to your specifications. Many families and artists have a signature style or detail that they include in their alebrijes. One alebrije painter that we interviewed, Johny Morales Flores, explained that the alebrije is like a totem – “mi otro yo” (my other self) he said. The alebrije is a reflection of who you are, and which one you’re drawn to instinctively is a mirror of your own qualities and misgivings.
There is another village that holds the same title as Arrazola, home of the alebrije, and it’s San Martin Tilcajete. The town was promoted by an American advertising company who romanticized the concept of the alebrije and the town to create tourism in the area. It’s a bone of contention with the people of Arrazola who originated the concept and production of alebrije. In their telling of the story, the other town copied their idea, only to have it promoted and receive recognition that the true originators didn’t receive. It’s certainly true that the streets of Arrazola are quiet. We’d read the story prior to going and decided to go to San Antonio Arrazola for exactly this reason.
Come let your imagination run wild at Arrazola! A great day trip would be to explore Monte Alban for half of the day and then visit Arrazola for a few hours in the afternoon, or vice versa.
Have you been to Arrazola or Tilcajete? What do you think of their rivalry? And what do you think of the alebrije and what it represents for Oaxaca? We love to know that you think! Please share you thoughts and comments below.