Animal Dreams from Oaxaca

DP is not a great lover of material things. He just doesn’t need them (well… aside from his i-book and his fancy digital camera). And the upside for me? Embracing DP’s thrift and minimalism has allowed me to take more fabulous trips.

Every once in a while, though, DP will find something that sets his world on fire. (That’s his non-materialistic, we-don’t-really-need-any-more-things world). DP calls Mexico the “land of his aesthetic” and Mexican folk art is his only drug.

Photo Credit: Avatrix at Flickr
These colourful wooden carvings created by artists in Oaxaca are known as the alebrije. They also called “animalitos” (little animals), “monos” (monkeys) and “figuras” (figures or figurines). Most of the people I know, however, call them “those amazing wooden animals from Oaxaca.” Our first encounter with them was in Tikal, a posh Mexican folk art store in Monterrey. Although we were bewitched by the animalitos, they were priced way beyond our school-teacher means. “Someday, we’ll travel to Oaxaca,” we said.

Someday showed up right on schedule; two years later we travelled to Oaxaca on our last big Mexican trip before moving to Barcelona. After a couple of days in the city, we rented a car so that we could visit the Tule Tree and a number of small artisan villages outside the city. We were finally going to see the animals on their home turf… in a small, dusty town called San Martin Tilcajete where whole families worked together carving and painting. Most carvers use wood from the Oaxacan Copal tree. The wood is soft and easy to carve when first cut and, once dried, it becomes light, hard, and easy to sand smooth. As we pulled onto San Martin’s dusty main drag, we were greeted by the doors of workshops on both sides of the street. My heart was pounding and DP was already out of the car.

We were in the homeland of the alebrije. Eighty year-old Manuel Jimenez, who still lives in nearby Arrazola, is given credit for founding folk art woodcarving in Oaxaca. He began carving highly stylized monkeys and other animals in the 1960s and his success led to hundreds of families moving from subsistence farming into woodworking workshops in a handful of Oaxacan towns including Arrazola and San Martin.

We weaved and ducked our way into workshops large and small and the carvers we spoke with were friendly and eager to tell us about the pieces in which we showed interest. We were particularly enchanted by the workshop of Vincente Hernandez Vasquez. The family worked, and displayed their carvings, in three rooms off the central courtyard of the family home. Although there are few female Oaxacan woodcarvers, we saw many women painting the animals. Most of our favourites had been painted by women.

DP, who was in animalito heaven, purchased this two-headed giraffe, a dragon and a Pegasus which he gave away as the coolest gift ever.

How to find the workshop of Vincente Hernandez Vasquez:
Avenida Oriente #8
San Martin Tilcajete

What’s your best travel souvenir? Why?


  1. Hi Nomadic Matt!Although I've been to Prague, I had never heard of a golem and was forced to consult Wikipedia. For readers in the same boat: In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated being created entirely from inanimate matter. It turns out that DP knows exactly what it is! To learn more, go to: Matt, did you know that having a golem servant was seen as the ultimate symbol of wisdom and holiness?Cool!

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