The Ángeles – Mendoza taller arguably produces the highest quality alebrijes in the entire state. Jacobo recounts stories of the predecessor to alebrijes; rudimentary carvings dating to pre – Hispanic times, which were placed in a revered part of each Zapotec home, or small amulets which were worn around the neck. Each individual had his own animal protector, depending on date of birth in the 20 day Zapotec calendar.
The wood most often used to carve images of these mammals, fish, fowl and reptiles was, and continues to be, copal. Its bark was traditionally used to produce many of the pigments used for painting friezes on ruins such as Mitla. Since time immemorial its hardened sap or resin has been burned as incense for rituals, including religious rites. And so copal has been dubbed a sacred tree. But in modern Oaxaca it symbolizes sustainability.
Copal and Alebrije Carving in Oaxaca, Mexico
The word copal comes from the Nahuatl term copalli, applied to any resin producing plant which gives off an aroma when burned. The copal tree belongs to the genus Bursera. There are about 100 species ranging from Mexico down through the Americas. The copal used to carve alebrijes and produce resin is a softwood, medium sized tree reaching a height of about 12 meters.
Alebrijes are carved when the wood is still green and therefore more easily worked. Copal grows with significant bends and contortions, lending itself to the creation of the most whimsical of figures simply by using one’s imagination to determine what branch will be used to carve what creature. Some alebrijes are carved from one solid piece of wood, while others are assembled.
Sustainability and the Use of Copal
Once the figure has been carved and sanded, the artist is left with small wood chips and sawdust. But nothing goes to waste in the workshop of Jacobo and María. The alebrijes must be completely dry before the painting begins. During the drying process, cracks appear – a good thing. The small pieces of wood from the carving process, discarded in the course of the wood being cut with first a machete, then a series of chisels, and finally small finishing knives, are used to fill the cracks. The sawdust is mixed with commercial glue, and the paste is then used to ensure the wooden shims remain in place. Thereafter the paste is used as a coating over the areas which have had remedial work. Any remaining wood chips are used as fuel – kindling and firewood to make tortillas and other prepared foods on the grill or comal.
One is hard-pressed to encounter another workshop in any of the three main alebrije villages in Oaxaca which decorates its figures using paints made from fruit, vegetable, insect and mineral material. While María’s painting group also works with acrylics, its use of naturally produced colors is the specialty: pomegranate for yellows, pinks and greens; cochineal for reds and oranges; añil or indigo for blues; huitlacoche (corn smut) for ochre and zinc for lightening. Other natural substances are also combined, yielding a rainbow of colors.
The copal tree itself can be used to produce a vast range of colors. The inside of the bark of the “male” species, when dried, toasted and ground, yields a deep brown / maroon powder which when mixed with lime juice, baking soda (in pre – Hispanic times sea salt) and other natural substances, creates yet further colors and tones.
In order to ensure that these natural colors do not fade with exposure to the sun or absorb into the wood, before application they are combined with a mixture of 50% honey and 50% liquefied (with the application of fire) copal resin – the same resin which continues to be used ritually in Oaxaca at funeral gatherings and prayer services, church masses, and at other times of the year marking important dates, such as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
In some Mexican cultures, pursuant to local tradition inhalation of the resin or drinking it in a tea is believed to relieve respiratory problems. The smoke is also used to purify the individual, the home, and even as custom at the inauguration of a new business. The humo is also employed as aromatherapy by curanderos (native healers), and in ritual associated with the temazcal, a pre – Hispanic cleansing and curative steam bath akin to the Iroquois sweat lodge.
The same liquid resin is also utilized as lacquer. And in Ocotlán, a short drive from San Martín Tilcajete, it is employed by acclaimed knife maker Apolinar Águilar. Apolinar hand – forges knives, swords and cutlery using only recycled metals, with the aid of only a mallet and heat produced by his stone and mud hearth – a technique imported from 16th century Toledo, Spain. To engrave his work with a name, verse or drawing, he uses an ink he makes by liquefying the copal resin with other compounds.
Production of copal resin constitutes a distinct industry providing many with work. The trees are tapped by cutting a well from which the sap can easily be collected. Similar to tapping a maple, the copal tree continues to grow once tapped.
The copal matures and is ready to be cut for use as wood at about 30 years of growth, a relatively short period of time. But the tree is not simply cut down. Those involved in cutting and selling copal branches to the artisans ensure that the tree trunk remains sufficiently large and viable so that it continues to grow, for future cutting.
But since copal remains the wood of choice for carving alebrijes, and alebrijes continue to be popular tourist purchases, copal runs the danger of become a scarce natural resource.
Since 1994, the Rodolfo Morales foundation has donated saplings to the cause of ensuring a continuous supply of copal. Every year the townspeople and friends of San Martín Tilcajete participate in a reforestation project which centers upon the planting of 5,000 copal saplings and a further 5,000 mixedwood. The planting occurs during the summer rainy season, to take advantage of the natural irrigation at this time of year. Of course some trees do not survive extremely heavy and sustained rains, and others die during the dry season if watering is insufficient. But most saplings do take, so that eventually irrigating is not required to maintain healthy, fast growth.
The cycle of cultivating copal from sapling to cutting is remarkably similar to that of agave, used in the production of mezcal, another sustainable Oaxacan industry. For generations to come, alebrijes and copal, mezcal, as well as other local industries including production of rugs and hand blown glass, will continue to enhance Oaxaca’s reputation as a world ambassador of sustainability.
Alvin Starkman (M.A., LL.B.) is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today (http://www.mexicotoday.org). Alvin has written over 200 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca. He is a regular contributor to print publications such as Ventana Magazine and The Upper Canadian Antique Showcase. Alvin also consults to documentary film companies working in Oaxaca and is central valleys, works with Chef Pilar Cabrera and tour companies arranging Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) and assists his wife Arlene operating Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).