“San Martin?” he yelled from the driver’s seat.
We’re standing on Calle M. Arista in Oaxaca’s Centro, straining our eyes to see the names written on the windshields of the red and white collectivo taxis coming around the corner.
“Si….San Martin Tilcajete?”
We climb in, and ask the mandatory, “cuanto es?” as the car starts to roll away. $20 pesos per person for a 30km drive. No argument here.
There’s another passenger in the car already, riding shotgun, and chatting animatedly to the driver as the city fades away into a secondary highway, small businesses and restaurants lining the road in between each town. We pass through San Bartolome Coyotepec, famous for its black pottery, before the towns become less frequent and the high desert — surrounded by agave, other succulents, and dusty hills — surrounds us.
After about 30 minutes, we start to see the signs: Alebrijes, Artesanías de Madera…snippets of Spanish that I recognize…and buildings painted with colorful creatures.
Ten minutes later, the collectivo takes a right turn down the village’s one and only main road, and we’ve arrived in San Martin Tilcajete.
“Is there a central market?” Geoff asks our driver in Spanish. No central market.
“Drop us in centro.” He tries again.
We pull up in front of the church, and – of course – there’s a fiesta. Because: Mexico.
There’s a live band playing traditional music, and local men are dressed in costumes which look to me like a cross between old-school military regalia — maroon or navy blue coats, brass buttons, shoulder pads from here till the moon — and colorful plumage, like the fanned out tail of a proud male peacock. Colourful flags drape from the church steeple to the courtyard trees, bursting with colour against a blue sky and white, fluffy clouds, and fluttering like prayer flags in the Himalayas.
We round the courtyard, watching the men dance before leaving out the west exit to the fiesta on the street, offering a round of Buenos Dias to smiling locals while completing our circle back to the main road in anticipation of our actual reason for visiting: alebrijes.
History of Alebrijes
Depending on who you ask, alebrijes are either a Mexico City creation of the 1930s, or a centuries-old Zapotec tradition in the Oaxacan valley.
The truth is a mix of the two.
In 1936, Pedro Linares, already a well-known artist in Mexico City, fell ill. In the depths of a fever, he experienced a hallucinogenic dream, in which he saw real and fantastical creatures, unnaturally striped, spotted, colored, winged and horned, chanting their name to him in unison: alebrijes, alebrijes, alebrijes.
When Linares recovered from his illness, he recreated the creatures he had seen, crafting and decorating papier-mâché birds, insects, jaguars and reptiles that wouldn’t be out of place in a magic realism painting.
His creations were an instant hit, gaining popularity among the artists and intellectuals of the 1930s Mexican Renaissance; people like Frida & Diego. Folk arts, which had long been seen as inferior to fine arts, were having their moment in the sun as Mexicans redefined their culture to heal the scars of colonialism, and recognize the place of long-ignored indigenous cultures.
And so it was that Linares, and his fever, introduced the name alebrijes and the foundation from which the Oaxacan form of the craft was born.
Different to Linares’ papier-mâché alebrijes, Oaxacan alebrijes are carved from copal wood, roughly hewn first with a machete, and then shaped into delicate and intricate creatures with precise wood carving tools.
After Linares’ creation, a Oaxacan carver, Manuel Jiménez, began imitating them, blending Linares’ fantastical vision with Oaxaca’s wood carving tradition and the centuries-old Zapotec practice of carving animals as totems, hunting decoys, and masks.
And so Oaxacan alebrijes were born.
Buying Alebrijes in San Martin Tilcajete
The first shop we visit is staffed by a chatty woman in her 40s. In San Martin Tilcajete, alebrijes are a family business, and she is the artisan’s wife.
The shop backs onto a garden: the workshop. Alebrijes are in various stages of completion.
The woman gives us the lay of the land: “these ones are 30 to 50” (pesos), she instructs, waving her hand across a shelf to indicate a rainbow of small grasshoppers, jaguars, turtles, and other creatures.
“These ones here,” she continues, “are 50, 80, 100, 120,” she points to the heart-shaped necklaces.
We spent close to an hour in this shop, talking to the woman, asking the prices, and bargaining.
Because we know we’re leaving Oaxaca soon, we’re not shopping for ourselves. We’re shopping for you (Find the giveaway details at the end of this post!)
And that comes with added pressure.
We make our purchases, and wander back through town toward the highway. Friday is market day in Ocotlán, a few km beyond San Martin Tilcajete on the road from Oaxaca, and all the buses, collectivos, and private yellow taxis are full with locals returning from the market.
We stand under the Corona sign, as instructed by the friendly woman who owns the alebrijes stall on the corner, and wait 25 minutes or so, before finding a bus that has room, and settle in for the 30 minute ride back to Oaxaca.
We picked three different alebrije pieces from San Martin Tilcajete to giveaway, and will be selecting 3 winners at random.
You can see photographs of the 3 alebrijes prizes on our Facebook Page.
The contest is open to readers worldwide. To enter use the Rafflecopter below!