Sometime in the 1930s, a Mexico City artisan named Pedro Linares lay on his bed delirious and racked with fever. In his hallucinations, he felt surrounded by a series of terrifying monsters, who were made of parts from different animals in gaudy, clashing colors. Over and over, Linares heard the monsters whisper a single word: “alebrijes.”
No one is certain what alebrijes means, but some believe that it originates from the novenas, or prayers, the family whispered over Linares, fearing that he was already dead. After Linares survived, he took the tools of his trade — paper, paste, and paint — and tried to recreate the monsters from his dream.
While the story is a myth, it is retold over and over throughout Mexico. And, while Linares is credited with creating the alebrijes we see today, his work most likely evolved from the country’s traditional papier-mache figures that have been representing evil or the devil in Mexico for centuries.
Linares’s particular approach to devil figures, enhanced with animal heads, wings, claws, etc., became popular in Mexico City sometime in the mid-20th century. Since then, the art form has been reinvented in different styles and materials, and its popularity continues to spread throughout Mexico. Even Disney worked a version into the movie “Coco”, adding to the alebrijes’ mythology. This year, the government of Mexico City declared the figures part of its cultural heritage, as its only native handcrafted item.
At the beginning of the 21st century, artisans in Mexico City began making gigantic decorative pieces for community festivals and holidays. This prompted the city’s Museo de Arte Popular (Folk Art Museum) to sponsor a competition and exhibition of alebrijes, challenging the artisans to create meters-tall monsters that could be wheeled along the streets. The first Monumental Alebrijes Parade and Competition (Desfile y Concurso de Alebrijes Monumentales), staged in 2007, was an instant hit, and quickly become an annual tradition.
This year’s parade — which occurred on October 19, with an award ceremony a week later — launched a number of events that Mexico City holds in the weeks before Day of the Dead. It kicked off what has become one of the city’s main tourism periods, attracting more than 450,000 visitors each year. The 2019 parade featured more than 230 alebrijes, drawn from Mexico City and nine states.
Parade entrants compete for cash prizes, but it’s the visibility that has the biggest effect on the artisans, helping to promote Mexico’s papier-mache craft and raise demand for exports to the U.S. and Europe. The creations incorporate several types of construction and all kinds of recycled materials; a few makers avoid papier-mache altogether in favor of wood, plastics, and metals.
While most artisans create their parade entries entirely on their own, more than 40 percent are sponsored by various organizations. Although rules exist to keep political expression and commercialism out of the alebrijes parade, commercialism sometimes creeps in, usually through images of products or reworked logos. Some nonprofit sponsors incorporate the alebrijes tradition in their missions, using the work to teach skills to students or marginalized groups.
Over the years, entries have come in from as far as Tabasco, in southern Mexico. Mexico City artisan Alejandro Camacho Barrera, of La Lula Juguetes con Tradición workshop, says the organization’s first parade entry, in 2010, has led to regular commissions. Another artisan, Alfonso Morales, says the craft was “in agony” in his community, a rural part of the state of Morelos, before his family workshop created its first alebrije for the parade. Since then, he says, papier-mache craft and related traditions have made a comeback in the area as a viable way to make a living.
After the close of Day of the Dead festivities, the artisans’ giant creatures will remain on display on Avenida de la Reforma until November 17. Many will then be moved to other locations and displayed for as long as the papier mache holds up. Mexico City’s alebrijes may be an ephemeral craft, but this particular ephemera has clearly had a lasting effect on the city’s identity.
Leigh Thelmadatter writes a blog called “Creative Hands of Mexico,” and her first book, “Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta,” was published in 2019 by Schiffer. She lives and works in Mexico City.