colorful alebrije statue, which is a hybrid animal

What Are Alebrijes: A Guide to Oaxaca’s Colorful Art [2022]


Want to know more about the Alebrijes of Oaxaca?

You’re in the right place because this article is all about the alebrijes Oaxaca is famous for.

While some see alebrijes as Mexican spirit animals, similar to a Native American totem, others say these famous Oaxacan wood carvings are little more than decorative Mexican folk art.

From their history and symbolism, the first man to make an alebrije, their prevalence in popular culture today, and everything else you want to know about alebrijes — this article covers it all.

Ready to discover the fantastical Oaxacan alebrijes? Let’s dive in!

What are Alebrijes?

Alebrijes are brightly-colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantasy creatures, and no two are alike.

There are many different types of folk art from Mexico, but alebrijes come from the state of Oaxaca, located in Southern Mexico, to the south of Mexico City.

colorful alebrijes statue, which is a hybrid animal
Wondering, What is an alebrije? It’s the colorful Mexican animal art you see here.

🛍 Want to know where to buy alebrijes online? You can often find one-of-a-kind alebrijes made by Oaxacan artisans on Amazon, like the ones below ⤵ Click on an image to shop!

What is my alebrije?

Some say alebrijes are a spirit animal or otherworldly guide, akin to a Wiccan familiar or Native American totem.

While there’s no evidence that’s what these phantasmagorical Mexico creatures are, you can take this fun quiz to answer the question, What is my alebrijes?

How do you pronounce Alebrije?

Before we go any further, let’s make sure everyone’s on the same page! If you’re still wondering about the alebrije pronunciation, don’t worry because it’s a common question.

The correct pronunciation of alebrije is al-lay-bree-hay.

colorful alebrije mexican folk art
You will sometimes see alebrijes called Oaxaca animals because of their close ties to Oaxaca State, Mexico.

Is there a translation for alebrijes in English?

No — There is no English translation for alebrije, and in fact, there’s no Spanish translation for alebrije either.

Alebrije is a made up word that doesn’t mean anything at all; it’s simply the name of this particular style of Mexican art

Where does the word alebrije come from?

It is attributed to the creator of alebrijes, Pedro Linares.

There’s more about Pedro coming up, but in short, he fell ill to the point of having fev

Brief History of Alebrijes in Mexico

colorful alebrije statue in a window, which is a hybrid animal
A large and brightly colored alebrije statue in the window of a business in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.

Wondering about the origins of alebrijes?

The first alebrijes were made by artist Pedro Linares in Mexico City in the 1940s. He was primarily a cartonería artist (a type of traditional papier-mâché art from Mexico), and the first alebrijes were made of papier mache, not wood.

Linares sold his colorful creations at many local markets, including the well-known Mercado la Merced in Downtown Mexico City.

Eventually, alebrijes made their way into the hands (and hearts) of two other famous Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo, and husband, Diego Rivera.

Pedro Linares Lopez: Creator of Alebrijes

black and white photo of pedro linares, father of alebrijes
The father of Alebrijes, Pedro Linares López, with his National Prize for Arts and Sciences that the Mexican government awarded him for creating alebrijes. (Photo: Gallina X, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mexican artist Pedro Linares is the so-called inventor of alebrijes, and the first person to create what we know today as an alebrije.

He was a pretty well-known cartonería (papier-mâché) artist in Mexico City, and the first alebrijes were made of paper.

As alebrijes started gaining popularity in Mexico City, they also caught the attention of Judith Bronowski, a British documentary filmmaker. She made the 1975 film, Linares: Artesano de Cartón, about his fantastical artform.

In the 1980s, Bronowski organized a Mexican art workshop in the United States with Pedro Linares, Manuel Jiménez Ramírez, and Oaxaca textile artist, Maria Sabina. She is also a famous shaman from Huautla de Jimenez.

Between the documentary and this Mexican folk craft workshop, alebrijes spread, and took on a new form.

pedro linares alebrijes for sale

You will sometimes see Pedro Linares original alebrijes come up for sale on auction sites, like this one that sold on LiveAuctioneers.

They start at about $1,000 USD for smaller pieces, but the large alebrijes usually go for much more.

Manuel Jimenez: Creator of Oaxaca Alebrijes

oaxaca arrtist miguel jimenez holding an alebrije
Manuel Jimenez with one of his alebrijes in Arrazola, Oaxaca. (Photo: Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, CC BY-SA 3.0, via WikiMedia Commons, Alebrijes Oaxaca Artesania)

Manuel Jiménez Ramírez was a Mexican woodcarver, sculptor and painter. He is credited with the invention of the Oaxacan alebrijes we know today. The major changes he made was using wood instead of papier mache, which Linares used.

Jiménez was born in the pueblo of San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca, located just six miles (10 m) from Oaxaca City.

As a young artist, he used clay, then wood, as his preferred mediums. Wood art was common in this part of Oaxaca, thanks to the copal tree.

Oaxacan Alebrijes Today

The alebrijes of Oaxaca we know today are made with wood from the copal tree (Protium copal).

This tree is native to Mexico and Central America, and used for everything from carving Oaxacan animals for alebrijes, to making copal incense from the tree’s resin.

After being carved from the copal wood, alebrijes are hand-painted in their characteristic bright colors.

Since these are fantasy or imaginary creatures, and painted by hand, every authentic Oaxacan alebrije is unique, so no two are alike.

Arturo Caballero: Modern-Day Alebrije Artist

colorful alebrije statue, which is a hybrid animal
The Lagartija alebrije made by Arturo Caballero. (Photo: Arturo Caballeoro Arroyo via Flickr, Mexican painted animals)

Arturo Caballero is perhaps the most famous of all contemporary alebrije artists today.

He makes both small and large alebrijes (some as tall as 6-feet/2 m), which have an almost Asian aesthetic, reminiscent of Japanese artists like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami.

Coco Alebrijes: Dante and Pepita

Alebrijes weren’t part of the older Oaxaca Día de Muertos traditions, but they have made their way into modern-day celebrations.

As part of mainstream pop culture today, they have made their way into Day of the Dead-themed films, like Pixar’s Coco.

The two alebrijes in Coco, Dante and Pepita serve the film’s protagonist, Miguel (AKA Coco), on his trip through the underworld.

This is within the spirit of how they were created — as a sort of spirit guide through Pedro Linares’ frightening fever dreams.

What do Alebrijes symbolize?

Like all good art, this is something for the viewer or alebrije owner to decide.

If we take them from their original creation point, alebrijes were a sort of spirit guide for Linares, navigating his frightening fever dreams throughout a terrible illness.

small colorful alebrijes statues, which are a hybrid animal
Wondering, Why are alebrijes so important? Each person will have a different answer to that question, but one thing’s for sure, these Mexican folklore creatures have captivated the world.

They began as a vision in Pedro Linares’ dreams, crafted out of paper mache in Mexico City. As their popularity grew, alebrijes evolved, and with this, their meaning may have evolved with them.

However, this was just what they symbolize to him, and they can mean different things to different people.

Alebrijes Animals

At a quick glance, alebrijes look like animal figures. When you inspect closer, you’ll see each alebrije combines characteristics from a few animals that have been merged into a single figure.

This is because alebrijes are made up animals, and it’s why no two are alike.

Alebrijes Patterns

small colorful alebrijes statues, which are a hybrid animal
These alebrijes examples show some of the different colors and patterns used to make the famous Mexican animal figurines.

Wondering, What are the characteristics of alebrijes?

Two of the most visually-striking are the bright colors and intricate patterns. While some alebrijes just have dots and stripes on them, some have patterns symbolic to the local  Zapotec of Oaxaca, those native to the land.

The 4 Elements of Alebrijes

Pedro Linares’ original alebrijes were hybrid creatures, containing qualities from the four elements — Earth, Air, Water and Fire.

Nowadays, artists have license to make alebrijes as they see fit, and while many do still take the Four Elements into account, there really are no rules.

You’ll see all types of alebrijes imaginable, but now you know ones with wings may signify the Air Element.

Alebrijes that have fins might represent the Water Element, whereas horns or antlers might represent the Earth, and dragon characteristics may represent Fire.

Where are alebrijes made?

colorful alebrije statue, which is a hybrid animal
The annual Parade of Alebrijes (AKA Mexico City Day of the Dead Parade), which usually takes place the third Saturday in October, around the Day of the Dead holiday,

San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca

Until the mid-1960s, San Antonio Arrazola was the only village in Oaxaca producing authentic alebrijes from Mexico.

Manuel Jiménez was the main alebrije artisan, but eventually, the local alebrije vendors selling his art fell out of favor with him.

The copal wood suppliers and alebrije vendors, uhappy with Jiménez, started encouraging other nearby Oaxaca towns to take up the artform.

Eventually, other towns like San Martin Tilcajete and La Unión in the San Felipe Tejalápam Municipality, started to make alebrijes. 

Though it seems he wasn’t in the best of favor with everyone around him, Jiménez remains one of the most famous people from Oaxaca thanks to his alebrijes.

San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca

Hearing just how lucrative alebrijes had been in San Antonio Arrazola, artisans in the nearby pueblo of San Martín Tilcajete took up the craft.

Nowadays, San Martín Tilcajete is even more synonymous with Oaxaca alebrijes than San Antonio Arrazola, where they originated.

Alebrijes in other parts of Mexico

You will find alebrijes in Mexico for sale at local mercados (Oaxaca markets) and crafts fairs, and on display at museums.

Some of them will be authentic Oaxaca alebrijes from San Antonio Arrazola or San Martín Tilcajete, and some won’t be. It’s difficult (maybe impossible) to know which ones were authentically-produced, and which weren’t.

Especially with smaller alebrije figurines that leave little room for an artist’s signature, there’s really no way to tell — unless you buy them from one of the Oaxaca alebrije towns. 

How are Alebrijes made?

small colorful alebrijes statues, which are a hybrid animal

The first step for some, though not all artists, is making sketches or alebrijes drawings of what they want to carve.

Carving the figure comes next, followed by sanding it, and lastly, painting the alebrije in their characteristic bright colors and Zapotec patterns.

Some alebrijes are signed, though usually only the large sculptures, not the small alebrije figurines.

As with most art, pieces with an artist’s signature hold a higher value — but just who signs the alebrije is an interesting topic, as it takes several people to make one.

The person who signs the alebrije is usually the person most well known in the family who made it, or the workshop it was made in.

While one son may carve the alebrije, and another son may sand it, and the daughter may paint it, if the father is a famous artisan, he will sign it.

Production of Alebrijes in Oaxaca

colorful alebrije statue in mexico city, which is a hybrid animal

There’s definitely a division of labor when it comes to making alebrijes. Usually, the men and boys gather the copal wood, and carve it.

Sanding the alebrijes is monotonous and often considered the worst part of the process, so it’s usually relegated to children in the family. Women will then take over from here, and paint the alebrijes.

As some painters are more skilled and precise than others, the larger sculptures that will sell for more money are given to the best painters, while the small alebrije figures go to those with less artistic ability.

What materials are alebrijes made of?

small colorful alebrijes statues, which are a hybrid animal

Papier Mache

The first iteration of alebrije art was made from papier-mâché.

Alebrije creator Pedro Linares was a cartonería artist, so he mainly worked with paper as a medium, but did eventually make alebrijes out of wood so they would be sturdier. 

Copal Wood

Alebrijes are Oaxacan wood carvings, traditionally made with wood from the copal tree.

In his book, Crafting Tradition: The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings, author Michael Chibnik writes about the different types of copal wood. 

“Wood carvers in La Unión Tejalapam refer to two types of copal: male and female. The female (hembras) are better for carving because they are softer and have fewer knots, while the male (machos) are lighter in color…” which makes male copal wood easier to paint.

Why are alebrijes important?

Today, the colorful alebrijes are a part of Mexican pop culture. They have also made their way into international pop culture, thanks to the success of the movie Coco, which has two alebrije characters, Dante and Pepita.

Alebrije Parade Mexico City

colorful alebrije statue, which is a hybrid animal
The Plumas de Serpiente (Serpent Feathers) alebrije on display in Mexico City. (Photo: Alejandro Linares Garcia, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via WikiMedia Commons, Alebrijes Day of the Dead)

You can see alebrijes in many parts of Mexico, but none larger than those in the annual Parade of Alebrijes (AKA Mexico City Day of the Dead Parade).

It usually takes place the third Saturday in October, around the Day of the Dead holiday, though the date can vary.

The Parade of Alebrijes in Mexico City is an elaborate festival with floats, face painting, music in the streets, dancers in traditional dress, giant alebrije figures, and more.

It is one of the best things to do in Mexico City in October, and one of the city’s most fun celebrations.

Alebrijes Tattoos

If you really really really love alebrijes, they make for a great Mexican tattoo.

The colorful and intricate designs on alebrijes, as well as their fantastical nature appeal to the creativity of tattoo artists who have a lot of artistic liberty when making an alebrije tattoo.

Alebrijes de Oaxaca Soccer Team

While many know alebrijes as a colorful Mexican art from Oaxcaca, they are also the mascot for a soccer team.

The Alebrijes de Oaxaca Fútbol Club play in the second tier Mexican football league, and their home stadium is Estadio Tecnológico de Oaxaca in Oaxaca City.

What are some other types of Oaxaca art?

man making a rug on a loom in oaxaca mexico
A master weaver making Oaxacan rugs in the town of Teotitlán Del Valle, Oaxaca Mexico.

Oaxaca is known as the artisan capital of Mexico, and there are quite a few famous Oaxaca arts and handicrafts.

Besides the alebrijes of Oaxaca, there’s these other famous Oaxaca arts made in pueblos (small towns) throughout the state, like these:

  1. Oaxacan rugs from Teotitlán Del Valle
  2. Traditional weaving and textiles from Santo Tomás Jalieza
  3. Barro negro, or black clay pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec
  4. Oaxaca green pottery from Santa Maria Atzompa
  5. Bordado, or embroidery from San Antonino Castillo Velasco
  6. Metal arts from Ocotlán de Morelos

Each town in the state only makes one type of art, so you have to go from town to town.

When traveling to Oaxaca, many will take a day tour like this one to visit several Oaxacan art villages on the Oaxaca Ruta de Artesanías (Handicrafts Route) in a day.

Other Types of Mexican Folk Art

There’s also many other types of Mexico folk art. The art varies throughout different states, regions and towns in the country. Some of the most popular folk art from Mexico includes:

  1. Talavera pottery from Puebla state
  2. Chakira bead art and Huichol art from Jalisco state
  3. Hojalata tin art (AKA milagros) from Guanajuato state
  4. Silver art from Taxco in Guerrero state
  5. Maria or Lele dolls from Queretaro

Final Thoughts on the Mexican Alebrijes of Oaxaca

Sometimes called Mexican spirit animals, alebrijes hold a lot of meaning for some, and are nothing more than a colorful Mexican folk art for others. As with all art, each person an alebrije touches is moved by it in a different way.

When traveling to Oaxaca City, you must visit the Alebrije Towns of San Martín Tilcajete and San Antonio Arrazola to see them being handmade by local artisans.

For now, I hope this article answered all your questions about alebrijes, the famous Oaxacan wood carving art.

Oaxaca Travel Planning Guide

🚑 Should I buy Mexico travel insurance for Oaxaca?

100% YES! — With basic coverage averaging just $5-10USD per day, enjoy peace of mind with a plan from World Nomads, the biggest name in travel insurance. (Read more)

💧Can you drink the water in Oaxaca?

No — You’ll want to buy a Water-To-Go Bottle, which filters your drinking water so you don’t get sick from drinking water in Mexico, and helps keep you hydrated while traveling to Oaxaca. (Read more)

🚙💨 Is it safe to rent a car in Oaxaca?

Yes — Renting a car in Oaxaca is one of the best ways to see the state. I always rent with Discover Cars, which checks both international companies and local Oaxacan companies, so you get the best rates. (Read more)

📲 Will my phone work in Oaxaca?

Maybe — It depends on your company, so check with your provider. If you don’t have free Mexico service, buy a Telcel SIM Card. As Mexico’s largest carrier, Telcel has the best coverage of any Mexico SIM Cards. (Read more)

🏩 What’s the best way to book places to stay in Oaxaca?

For Oaxaca hotels, Booking is the best site. If you’re considering a Oaxaca Airbnb, also check VRBO, which is often cheaper than Airbnb. For the best Oaxaca hostels, use HostelWorld.

🧳 What do I pack for Oaxaca? Head to the Ultimate Mexico Packing List + FREE Checklist Download to get all the info you need on packing for Mexico.

✈️ What’s the best site to buy Oaxaca flights? For finding cheap Oaxaca flights, I recommend Skyscanner.

🎫 Do I need a visa for Oaxaca?

Likely Not — U.S., Canadian and most European Passport holders don’t need a visa for Mexico; but check here to see if you do need a Mexico travel visa. The majority of travelers will receive a 180-Day FMM Tourist Visa upon arrival.