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Mexico is a country steeped in rich cultural traditions and stunning art. From the intricate designs of Talavera pottery to the colorful and vibrant textiles of Oaxaca, Mexican art is a feast for the eyes. Our country's traditions are also incredibly beautiful, with vibrant celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos and the colorful, lively dances of the Ballet Folklorico. There is a deep sense of history and pride in Mexican art and traditions, and it is truly a joy to experience and appreciate.
As a Mexican, many things make me appreciate my culture even more; for example, the hard work and countless hours it takes to create stunning pieces of art, such as the Alebrijes.
What Are Alebrijes?
Alebrijes are magical creatures typically made from carton or paper mache. However, nowadays, many artisans use wood to carve out these creatures. All alebrijes are made with different animal parts; they have exaggerated features and are painted with vibrant colors and intricate patterns and designs. Each alebrije has distinct characteristics, making them a one-of-a-kind work of art. Lastly, alebrijes are often used in festivals and celebrations.
If you've seen Disney's Coco movie, you'll remember seeing them in the afterlife. However, in the film, they say alebrijes are "spirit guides for the afterlife," which is inaccurate.
Contrary to popular belief, alebrijes were invented in 1963 by a Mexican paper-mâché or cartonero artisan named Pedro Linares.
Pedro was a humble man who made a living creating handcrafts made of paper-mâché; such as piñatas and masks. One of his biggest best sellers were his San Judas effigies, used during Holy Week for a tradition called the Burning of Judas.
What is the Burning of Judas?
In many parts of Latin America, this event occurs on New Year's Eve as a symbol of ridding yourself of evil and beginning the year in purity. Some small communities observe this ritual by burning effigies of Judas, hence the name the "Quema del Judas" or "Burning of Judas."
Burning of Judas. (2023, April 14). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Judas
(Photo of Pedro working on an Alebrije)
How Alebrijes Came to Life
When Pedro was 30, he fell ill, which caused him to have feverish dreams of strange creatures, such as winged donkeys and a rooster with a frog's body. In that dream, the creatures chanted the word "alebrijes" repeatedly.
When Linares recuperated, he knew he had to bring alebrijes to life. He recreated these creatures with cardboard and engrudo (glue made with wheat flour and water), the same ingredients used for his other work. His impressive and creative alebrijes caught the attention of a gallery owner, which in turn caught the attention of world-famous artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His work captivated them so much that Rivera commissioned him to create more alebrijes, and over time, his creations became more colorful and less terrifying.
Pedro's work became even more known when, in 1975 a British filmmaker named Judith Bronowski traveled to Mexico and made a documentary on Pedro and his craft.
Two years before Pedro passed away, he was awarded Mexico's National Arts and Sciences Award in the Popular Arts and Traditions category; his work became prized both in Mexico and abroad.
Pedro Linares. (2023, March 6). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedro_Linares
To this day, Pedro's descendants live in Mexico City and carry on the alebrije-making tradition.
Pedro's work is so special and known world-wide, that Google honored him by creating a Google Doodle to celebrate his 115th birthday back in June 29th, 2021.
If you are as fascinated as I was about Pedro and his craft, I recommend you watch Judith Bronowski's documentary.
Here is the link! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUpOWFBVadI