Life and death. Reality and magic. Color and light.
When it comes to the traditions of Mexico’s native people and their relationship with death, the lines blur between life in the physical world and the afterlife. What is seen and unseen. What is real and unreal. There is the understanding that death is a natural journey that doesn’t mean the end but a continuation and the belief that as you sleep, your dreams shouldn’t be dismissed and can be as real as your conscious state.
This can be described in an experience that in the 1930’s indigenous artist Pedro Linares had when he fell ill and, without having the means for medical care, he dropped into an unconscious state where he saw images of another world that actually brought him peace in a place where he felt healthy. As he looked up at an expansive sky, walked among trees and rocks and clouds, he watched the landscape meld into fantastic, bright colored animals that could be described as “magical.”
Linares said as he saw these creatures, they all shouted the word, “Alebrijes!” over and over again, which startled him awake and motivated him to re-create what he saw using cardboard and papier mache, He called them “Alebrijes.”
Linares returned home to his native village, Arrazola in Oaxaca, and shared his designs with other artisans who began to use copal wood and the wood carving traditions of the Zapotec Indians.
Since then, other families from Oaxaca have handed down the Alebrije woodcarving traditions including artisan Paul Blas, who sold his work outside the El Capitan Theater to moviegoers who came to see the film “Coco.”
Blas noted the presence of his family’s traditions in the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) storyline of Disney’s Pixar-animated film and the magical Alebrije that appears in the film, which at first looks threatening but is truly there to assist the person in need.
While much has now been written about “Coco” and its unprecedented box office success, it’s through this film that the Dia de los Muertos sacred holiday and the art form of making Alebrijes have now been introduced to a world wide audience.
In the film “Coco” (a nickname for the film’s matriarch “Socorro”), an aspiring young musician accidentally enters the Land of the Dead and discovers his secret family history, finding along the way characters that lead him towards his purpose, including a stray dog, a Xoloitzcuintli (an Aztec hairless dog) named Dante who turns out to be an Alebrije, or spirit guide.
Blas found himself educating moviegoers as they exited the theater, many who may have seen the wood carved figures but never fully understood what they are.
“In the Zapotec culture, they (alebrijes) represent our dreams, our imaginations,” says Paul Blas, a native of Oaxaca who specializes in creating these art pieces.
The Zapotecs also believe in nahuales, (spiritual guardians and guides for each person).
“In the mountain community where we come from, when a child is born we throw ash on the roofs or around the homes so that the identity of the guardian animal for that person is revealed,” Blas explains. “It can be an eagle, a dog, a cat.”
Those guardian animals are then worked on by artisans to create wondrous alebrijes.
“Each piece we create is unique, none of them repeat,” Blas said. “Each tree and root is different, just like a person.”
Blas shares that his nahual is a chameleon, which fits him well because it defines the creativity, courage and adaptability he shows as an alebrije maker.
A Family Tradition
Blas, 26, who’s visiting Los Angeles for the first time this month, hails from San Pedro Cajonas in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca. He learned to make alebrijes from his family, who have been making these pieces for the past 40 years.
As far as he remembers, he’s been working with wood. The cuts and stains on his hands give testimony to this.
“I was born among copal tree stumps,” he said.
His specialty is alebrije masks that are made for dancers in his community. The masks represent the person’s nahual. “We try to give them the shapes of animals and we paint them with natural dyes,” he said.
The preferred wood used to produce them is the zonpantle, a soft and malleable wood.
“We use them for our rituals in the hills where we speak with nature and we dance, we dance for our gods and we use the masks,” Blas said.
He learned the art from his parents, Paulino Blas and Maria Tomas. His dad would cut and shape the figures; his mother would paint them. By the time he was 7-years-old, Blas started painting them as well. His brothers and sisters also work on the masks.
Blas said he initially didn’t understand the creatures he was making. It was “just a way to bring to life those creatures I would see” in his dreams. It’s interesting to note, that similarly to Linares, the man who first expressed what he saw while in a dream state, Blas also sees what he creates while asleep.
“The American [tourists] who came to our town would say that’s a dragon — “I didn’t know,” said Blas, describing alebrijes as “various animals in the same body.”
The colorful pieces he said, have meaning.
“The essence of our work is the happiness we want to imprint in them, the color and life we put in each of them,” he said.
Each piece takes about a week to be made. It’s difficult and dangerous work involving machetes, knives and other sharp instruments to give the wood its shape.
“Sometimes branches are very capricious,” he said.
The brushes are made of guajolote (turkey) feathers and cat’s hair.
“As an artisan, from the moment you find a root or any part of a tree, you already project what it’s going to be. You see a howling wolf, a dragon eating a serpent, a bird.”
Blas said he liked the movie, but he also wants to see it in Spanish to get a better sense of the words. What he liked most was bringing his art form to audiences that may not know about it and hopefully that would mean more people looking to support the artwork which brings income to indigenous families.
“(‘Coco’) transmits the essence of what an alebrije is, therelationship between a nahual and a person, a guide that helps each person to achieve his mission in life,” he said.
He also likes the way it features Día de los Muertos, a celebration that is all encompassing in the land where he grew up.
Every Nov. 2, one can find altars in each home. Preparations begin the day before, when turkeys are killed to make mole, along with bean tamales and champurrado.
They also place sugar cane, oranges and other fruits native to their fields, mixed with mezcal (liquor), cigarettes, tepache (a fermented drink) and copal (incense).
All of this accompanies photographs of the dearly departed. “It’s a great celebration for our loved ones who have died, with the illusion that they return and eat what we offer them,” Blas said.
He noted that all the fruits and food are thrown away afterward because “the spirits who come take their flavor with them.”
Blas is also trying to break his own barriers and take chances by bringing his art form to this side of the border. He has also taken his work to be sold at downtown’s Olvera Street.
“We’re looking for opportunities and places where they value the work made by hand,” said Blas, who has created “Alebrijes Blas,” an Internet marketplace that is described, “where the creations of 16 families
whose “passion, creativity and originality that characterizes them, express, transmit and spread the Zapotec culture through wood carving to come up with fantastical figures.”
Because in the end, that’s what an alebrije is.
“A feeling engraved in wood that merges the spiritual and physical world,”Blas said.
To view more of Paul Blas’ artwork, visit alebrijesblas.com.