Zapotec: artist

María del Carmen Mendoza is an artist of alebrijes. They are mythical or fantasy creatures, tied to ancient Zapotec beliefs. Together with her husband Jacobo Angeles they run a workshop in their home village of San Martín Tilcajete. This is a Zapotec village and there are about 170 workshops of alebrije here; it seems the whole village specialises in this surreal Mexican folk art. Here they provide grant to many students who paint the wooden sculptures. Jacobo is a carver (although they do employ a number of carvers) while Maria does the painting design. The carving is done from copal tree because it is sacred, soft and they can even get natural pigment from it which stabilizes other pigment colours. María designs painting motifs, based on ancient Zapotec iconography. The motifs have their meanings. A dot, for example, represents new life, feet represent the journey onwards and the snail the contribution to the community. I love the fact that María expresses her Zapotec heritage through ancient Zapotec designs. Albrijes express the ancient belief in energies in the body, how they guide us (and leave us after our death) and how we can manipulate these energies through training, to transform into our alter ego animal, or change shape. This was traditionally done in rituals by shamans, or can be done today in our dreams. This is a very complex belief, check out my post San Martín Tilcajete alebrijes for full details. For me it seems that she is passing the ancient beliefs and heritage onto people of our modern world through her special surreal art. What a subtle way to let others know about her Zapotec world.

Alebrije in María’s garden.

Alebrije in María’s garden.

Students at work, painting  alebrije .

Students at work, painting alebrije.

I met María in February 2019 when visiting Oaxaca and her village. Although there are other workshops in her village, hers is supposed to be the best known. Even the film makers from Pixar Animation Studio came here for inspiration and then they made the cartoon Coco. Estela Fabián Mendoza, the cook of the workshop house, was the prototype for the grandmother Imelda; Jacobo himself was the father of the little boy Miguel (Enrique Rivera, also known as papá), and the dog Dante is a copy of the real dog Dante from María’s house. In the film, Dante becomes the guardian spirit in the Land of the Dead and turns into alebrije (a dog with wings).

I loved the atmosphere in the house; it seemed they were all like one family; the working spirit was great. María herself was very modest, smiling throughout our encounter, kind to everybody around. I could tell that she was quietly proud of their achievement and the fact that they can employ so many people who otherwise would not get a chance to become artists. I wonder what is her alter ego, if she was to change her form. What alebrije would she be?

Esmeralda, the cook at María Workshop, and as Imelda.

Esmeralda, the cook at María Workshop, and as Imelda.

María’s dog Dante.

María’s dog Dante.


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