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What Are Alebrijes?

What are alebrijes? These spirit animal sculptures have evolved into a symbol of Mexico. Here’s our guide to Mexican alebrijes.

If you’ve ever been to a Mexican traditional market, you would have seen an alebrije. Alebrijes are sculptures of colorful and whimsical-looking spirit animals that have become an important part of Mexican culture. Originated in the 1930s in Mexico City, alebrijes are known for their imaginative combinations of animal features, often resulting in surreal and visually captivating forms.

These days, alebrijes animals are emblematic of Mexican folk art and creativity. They hold deep cultural significance and play an important role in Mexican traditions, including the Day of the Dead celebrations. Here’s everything you need to know about these Mexican spirit animals.

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What are Alebrijes?

Origin and History of Alebrijes

Alebrijes were originally created by Pedro Linares, a Mexican artist and artisan from Mexico City. In the 1930s, Pedro fell ill and, during his illness, experienced vivid and surreal fever dreams in which he saw a strange place resembling a forest. In this forest, he encountered animals that transformed into fantastical creatures with extraordinary features and vibrant colors These creatures communicated with him, and upon his recovery, Pedro felt compelled to recreate them.

Pedro Linares started sculpting these creatures from cardboard and papier-mâché, giving life to the beings he saw in his dreams. He called them “alebrijes,” a term he coined for these surreal and imaginative creations. The use of wood in alebrijes became popular in the 1980s when a group of artisans in Oaxaca, led by Manuel Jiménez, transitioned from paper-mâché to wood carving, making alebrijes more durable and visually striking.

what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes

What Does “Alebrije” Mean?

The word “alebrije” (pronounced like “ah-lay-bree-hey”) has a magical sound to it, but it has a much simpler meaning to it. There’s no translation from Spanish to English. The original creator named them alebrijes when he was in a delirious fever dream, and some hypothesize that it’s a combination of three words:

  1. “Ale” from “Alegría” (happiness or fun)
  2. “Br” from “Bruja” (witch)
  3. “Ije” from “Embije” (Painting)
what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes in mexico city

The Meaning and Symbolism of Alebrijes

Even though the word doesn’t have a meaningful definition, these Mexican spirit animals do have a deep cultural impact on Mexico and evolved into a Mexican symbol.

Creativity and Imagination

The creation of alebrijes showcases the boundless creativity and imagination of Mexican artisans. There’s not a single way to make alebrijes; artists can use all sorts of materials and make combinations of features of every animal known to man and some other creatures that come straight from their imagination.

One of the things that make alebrije animals so unique as art pieces is that they can be not only a combination of creature features, but a combinations of art forms — from sculpture, to painting, to carving, or even glassblowing.

what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes

Cultural Fusion

Mexican alebrijes often incorporate elements from different animals and creatures, reflecting Mexico’s fusion of cultures. Mexico is a country with not just ONE culture as its culture is composed of an amalgam of the surviving aspects of their ancient civilizations, hundreds of years of Spanish and European domination, and the results of the evolution of its combinations.

The fusion of forms you can find in alebrijes animals mirrors the fusion of cultures in Mexican society. Since alebrijes is a form of art that is less than a hundred years old, it’s fair to assume that it’ll continue to evolve in the future, bringing even more cultural aspects to it.

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what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes at museo de arte popular

Spiritual and Mythological Significance

Some people believe that alebrijes could be seen as a modern interpretation of ancient Mesoamerican spiritual concepts. For some, Mexican alebrijes are not just art pieces, they’re interpretations of mythical creatures. They’re seen as something like totems or spiritual animals linked to each person’s soul.

Alebrijes might represent a connection between the physical world and the spirit realm or be linked to shamanic practices and visions. It’s understandable they’re seen this way not only for their whimsical aspect, but because of the way they came to life straight from a dream of the artists who first made them.

what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes

Individuality and Expression 

Each alebrije is unique, representing the individuality of the artist’s vision. The art of making Mexican alebrijes is so free that artists and artisans can use their boundless creativity and print their own style as creators.

This uniqueness encourages people to embrace their own creative expressions and celebrate their differences. Even alebrije makers can explore their individuality by finding the alebrije that goes best with their identity. 

what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes

A Mexican Folk Art

Mexican alebrijes have become a cherished part of Mexican folk art, celebrated both within Mexico and internationally, and continue to inspire artists and admirers with their unique and captivating forms.

They’re so popular within the Mexican idiosyncrasy that many people in Mexico don’t even realize they’re so “new”, thinking that they have always been a part of Mexican culture and traditions.

what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes

Alebrijes and the Day of the Dead

While Mexican alebrijes aren’t traditionally a part of Dia de Muertos celebrations, they have now made their way into the festivities and become popular Day of the Dead symbols.

Alebrijes are often incorporated into Day of the Dead celebrations as a way to honor deceased loved ones. They symbolize the fantastical and imaginative nature of the spirit world, bridging the gap between the living and the dead.

What Are Other Day of the Dead Symbols?

There are so many Dia de los Muertos symbols — every single item on the altar and in cemeteries represents something and has a meaning. Everywhere you go during Day of the Dead in Mexico, you’ll see paintings, figures and people made up and dressed like her — La Catrina, an elegantly dressed female skeleton adorned in European clothing and often depicted wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

Marigold flowers are also known as “flor de Muerto” (Spanish for flower of the dead) and play a central role in Day of the Dead traditions. Cempasúchil symbolizes the beauty and fragility of life. Pan de muertos is a sweet and festive bread that is one of the most well-loved Day of the Dead symbols. You’ll often see it used as a decoration on altars and graves. Read more on Day of the Dead symbols here.

la catrina

The Alebrijes in Disney’s Coco

If you’ve seen the Disney movie, Coco, you’d know the importance of the alebrijes in Mexico. In the movie, Dante and Pepita, are the spiritual guides and guardians of the main characters. Pepita is the most visually striking of the two: a bright-green jaguar with ram horns and red-feathered eagle wings. Pepita is Mama Imelda’s spiritual guide and helps her seek for Miguel so he can return to the land of the living. 

Dante, the silly Xolo dog turns out to be Miguel’s guide in the underworld and (spoiler alert) in the end he’s revealed to be a winged alebrije with bright colors all over his body. Both of them play an important role in the Day of the Dead themed movie.

what are alebrijes - coco

Where to See Alebrijes at Day of the Dead

An excellent place to see alebrijes in life size is the Museo de Arte Popular, one of the best museums in Mexico City.  The museum is devoted to the weird and wonderful folk art traditions of Mexico and it has a massive collection of Mexican alebrije sculptures and other forms of visual arts that combine tradition with modernity.  At Day of the Dead, the museum also plays host to a colorful and ornate altar.

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A massive alebrije parade takes place in Mexico City for Day of the Dead every year. It starts from the Zocalo, continuing along Avenida 5 de Mayo, then Paseo de la Reforma, ending at the Angel de la Independencia. Once the parade is over, you can see the alebrijes on display on Paseo de la Reforma.

what are alebrijes - mexican alebrijes

Alebrijes: Mexican Spirit Animals

Even though alebrijes are relatively modern creations, they have an undeniable connection to Mexico’s ancient cultures such as the Zapotec and Mixtec who believed in animal spiritual guides.

For the Zapotec people, the “tona” (which means both “animal” and “protective spirit”) was assigned to everyone on their birthdays, similar to zodiac signs. They had a calendar with 13 months of 20 days each, and each day had a different tona including:

  • Coyote
  • Lizzard
  • Armadillo
  • Turtle
  • Snake
  • Rabbit
  • Deer
  • Frog
  • Monkey
  • Owl
  • Eagle
  • Jaguar
  • Butterfly
  • Hummingbird
  • Fish
  • Snail

How Alebrijes are Made

Creating these vibrant and whimsical Mexican folk art sculptures is a fascinating and intricate process that’s steeped in artistic tradition. Artisans in workshops around Mexico spend hours in each one of these creations, as this process can be an exploration of form and color, and a deep dive into a spiritual and creative journey.

Selecting the Material

Alebrijes are typically carved from copal wood, which is native to the Oaxaca region and is relatively soft and easy to carve. This choice is vital as it must be soft enough to carve with ease yet sturdy enough to retain its shape. 

However, you can still find alebrijes made in papier-mâché as they were traditionally created, or other more modern materials such as resin, metal, or even crystal. The process will of course be different for every material, as well as the result, but every artist is free to create the alebrijes as they like them with the material they prefer, even if the traditional way is with copal wood.

how to make alebrijes - workshop in oaxaca

Carving the Shape

In the carving process, the artisan uses basic hand tools like chisels and knives to shape the wood into the initial form of the alebrije. It’s all about precision and attention to detail. Here’s where the shape of the creature comes to life and it can be as fun or crazy or as simple as the artist wants.

Some of the most common shapes or animal features you can find in alebrijes happen to be some of the animals that are present in Mexico’s myths and legends such as:

  • Snakes
  • Roosters
  • Eagles
  • Armadillos
  • Rabbits

But you can also find other features as:

  • Fish tails
  • Bug eyes
  • Dragon wings
  • Deer antlers
how to make alebrijes

Polishing and Preparing for Color

Once the carving is complete, the alebrije undergoes a thorough sanding and smoothing process. This ensures that its surface is even and refined, ready to be adorned with colorful tales. Copal wood may be soft and easy to carve, but that doesn’t mean it won’t need a dedicated artisan to make its surface smooth and even for painting.

The base coat is next — a layer of white or light-colored paint that serves as the canvas for the intricate designs that will soon grace the sculpture. Color is one of the main features of alebrijes, so the artist needs to make sure this base coat is perfect for what’s coming next.

how to make alebrije

Painting the Albebrije

Now, the true magic begins. Artisans, often with years of experience, painstakingly paint the alebrije with vibrant and elaborate designs. Alebrije-makers do not hesitate in using vibrant, almost neon types of colors such as bright cyan, red, yellow or hot pink (rosa mexicano). The paints used are typically acrylic, delivering brilliant and enduring hues.

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painting an alebrije

Finishing the Last Details

Detailing and final touches are where the masterpiece truly emerges. Tiny dots, fine lines, spirals, circles, flowers and additional features are carefully added to enhance the overall appearance and texture, bringing not only depth and dimension, but also personality, identity, and life.

Many alebrijes are adorned with intricate patterns, dots, and symbols, often inspired by Mexican indigenous cultures like Zapotec and Mixtec. However, you can also find alebrijes with different themes and styles that come straight from the artist or artisan’s vision. 

alebrijes animals

Where to Find the Best Alebrijes

While alebrijes are crafted by artisans across Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is particularly renowned for its alebrije tradition. In Oaxaca, the town of San Martín Tilcajete is especially famous for its alebrije artisans. You can visit workshops and galleries in San Martín Tilcajete to witness the creation process and purchase authentic alebrijes. Book a workshop tour to watch artisans carve the figures, then paint your own alebrije animal!

Other places in Mexico, such as Mexico City, Puebla, and parts of Guerrero, also have skilled alebrije artists and workshops. Exploring local markets, galleries, and craft fairs in these regions can lead you to discover unique and beautifully crafted alebrijes.

When seeking authentic alebrijes, it’s advisable to purchase from recognized artisans or reputable sellers to ensure the craftsmanship and authenticity of the artwork. Alebrijes are not only a testament to Mexican creativity but also a stunning representation of the fusion between art and fantasy.

mexican alebrijes - alebrijes mexico

What is My Alebrije?

Some people in Mexico believe that we each have our own alebrije. Everyone’s spirit animal is different and is determined by their exact birthdate and the year they were born. If you want to know what is your Mexican spirit animal, we recommend traveling to Oaxaca and have a proper reading of your birth chart.

For a more casual and less formal reading, this website “Silencio” actually allows you to enter your birthday (month, day, year) and gives you an image of your alebrije as well as a description of what each one represents in you. However, it’s important to note that this website does not use the Zapotec calendar for reference.

what is my alebrije

The Importance of Alebrijes in Mexico

Alebrijes are an enchanting and colorful form of Mexican folk art that have captured the imagination of people worldwide. Their origin, history, craftsmanship, imaginative designs, and cultural significance make them an integral part of Mexican cultural heritage. 

Whether as decorative pieces or collectible art, alebrijes continue to fascinate and inspire. So if you ever visit a Mexican traditional market and see these colorful little friends, you’ll know what lies behind their unique Mexican spirit animals.

For those who are planning to travel more of Mexico, check out other articles I’ve written on Mexico:

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