ALEBRIJES: MONSTERS WE CAN ALL LOVE!
Have you come across these fantastic figures on display? They do seem to be something that would be part of an ancient Mexican tradition. But truth is, they are a 20th century product.
Like his father and grandfather, Pedro Linares of Mexico City, made papier Mache figures, including piñatas and skeletons for Day of the Dead. In 1936, when he was thirty years old, he became very ill and fell into a semi-comatose state. His relatives were sure he would die, but after many days he recovered spontaneously, and awakened to family members at his bedside, praying for his recovery. He then told them a most unusual tale. He said that he had been in a deep sleep, and had incredibly realistic and colorful dreams. In the dream, he found himself in a forest with trees, rocks, and clouds, and heard strange animal noises. When he walked toward the noises he found the most amazing creatures—they were brilliantly colored and kept chanting the word “alebrije.” Among the various creatures, he saw a donkey with wings, a rooster with the horns of a bull, and a dog with the body of a lion.
Once he recovered completely, Pedro returned to making cardboard figures, this time using the recollections of his dream. He called them alebrijes, just as he had heard them call out in his dream.
People were at first scared of the strange monsters and did not want to buy them. But then Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo discovered them and began collecting them. Today, the Linares family collection of alebrijes is in the Museo Anahuacalli in Mexico City. The Mexican chimeras grew in popularity, and others began to copy the idea, using different materials—wood, ceramics, and plaster. The strange, colorful monsters became part of Mexican artisanal tradition.
In 1975 Judith Bronowski, a British moviemaker, made a documentary about Linares’ work, and brought him international attention. In 1990 Pedro Linares, and his artistic contribution was recognized by the award of the Mexican National Prize for Sciences and Arts. He died two years later, at the age of 86. His family continues the tradition of creating alebrijes which he started.
Although alebrijes originated in Mexico City, other artisans in different cities began to recreate them
using their own imagination and materials. In the city of Oaxaca, artisan Manuel Jimenez used wood
and the inspiration of the old tradition of the nahual.
The nahual is the ancient Aztec belief in supernatural beings that have the capacity of transforming themselves into animals. Jimenez combines the nahual tradition with the visions inspired by Linares to make his own version of alebrijes. This may be one of the reasons why the figures are also known as nahuatzkosquit. There are around 150 families throughout Mexico dedicated to making these joyful monsters.
You can find them in the workshops of these artisans throughout Mexico, and in many art galleries. But you can also view them in Mexico City’s Popular Art Museum, as well as the private collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Alebrijes are often displayed in parades, including some specifically dedicated to them. In San Miguel de Allende, for example, there was a display of giant alebrijes along Paseo de los Conspiradores about a year ago.
We’ll never know how Linares’ brain concocted the strange term alebrije, but I see it as a tenuous connection between the latter part reminiscent of the word bruja, witch. And the appended prefix “ale”? I can only imagine it to be the beginning of alegria—joy! For me, the alebrije is a joyful witch or wizard, sowing enchantment with its colors and shapes.