Copal is the tree used to carve the wooden figures we call alebrijes in Oaxaca. It is a disappearing resource. Thanks to Jacobo and Maria Angeles in San Martin Tilcajete, where many of the region’s alebrijes are made, there is a bioconservation project called Palo Que Habla to replant copal trees for the next generation of carvers. On land near their home and studio, a vivero (nursery) is planted with young copal trees, as well as other native Oaxaca seeds such as corn, beans, squash and garbanzo.
Palo Que Habla means wood that speaks.
It is open to the public and there is no cost to enter. It is designed as an education center and families are encouraged to bring their children to see how important sustainability and biodiversity is now and for future generations. Please call ahead to arrange your visit.
It takes 30 years for a copal tree to mature before it can be harvested. But that doesn’t stop many from cutting trees when they are 15 years old or younger. Only the white copal wood is used for alebrijes. It is carved when it is fresh and soft, then dries and ages for up to a year before it is painted. The need to sell can take priority over ecological issues here and in many places around the world.
Jacobo Angeles became president of the San Martin Tilcajete committee to establish a community effort to plant copal seedlings and nurture them. He served as leader of this effort for the first six years of the program. The village committee oversaw 40 hectares (almost 100 acres) of land. But, as the trees grew, people became impatient and didn’t want to wait for them to mature. Jacobo and Maria decided to start their own project 10 years ago.
Now, the copal tree resources in the Ocotlan Valley of Oaxaca are depleted and Jacobo says he and other carvers are sourcing their wood from Yautepec, Xochitstlan and Yanhuitlan in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, at least two-hours from the city. Angeles says that hundreds of pueblo artisans were cutting wood for alebrijes.
(By the way, it is the sap of the copal that is used for ceremonial incense in Oaxaca.)
Five thousand trees are planted three times a year in various locations, on a total of 140 hectares of land, or 346 acres. The biggest challenge, of course, is water. Young trees need tender care. Palo Que Habla nurserymen and women capture rain water and also use well water. Thirty years ago, they could depend on rain alone. Today, it is not enough.
The copal nursery project was started in 1994 when Maestro Rodolfo Morales saw that cutting copal was not sustainable without a plan to put new trees in place to replenish those that were being used for the folk art. Since then, the Rodolfo Morales foundation has donated saplings to the program to ensure a continuous supply of copal.
The Vivero/nursery project is expansive. It aims to create a pollinator garden for butterflies and bees, and will produce local honey from the hives. Lavender fields have been planted. Stately and sacred ceiba trees line the avenue bordering the seedling cultivation area. There is a space for resting and relaxation, as well as well-equipped toilets and a guest house.
I’m in awe of and admire the dedication of Jacobo and Maria Angeles to preserve their culture through commitment to agricultural sustainability via Palo Que Habla. More than this, their vision is to create a teaching and learning environment to sustain diverse regional craft traditions of Oaxaca and the Ocotlan valley.
A recent addition to the portfolio of studio craft is Mogote Ceramica. This is a high-fire clay workshop where functional and decorative pieces are made from local clay, native to San Martin Tilcajete. They are fired in gas kilns at 2246 degrees Fahrenheit and are lead-free. Potters from the region make beautiful glazed pieces that are reminiscent of pre-Hispanic and contemporary design. When I was there, I met visiting artists from Korea, Japan and Mexico City, some of whom are in residence.
The ceramics studio is across the street from the alebrijes workshop, beyond the parking area. Don’t miss it. Take a peek into the sales gallery, too, to see if there is anything there that appeals. My dad was a potter, so I have a special affinity for this craft. I left with eight pieces of pottery! Years ago, I stretched to buy alebrijes made by Jacobo and Maria. They are in North Carolina. They are beyond my capacity now!
Remember, you are welcome to look and admire and there is no charge to visit any of the workshops or the nursery. Enjoy!
Chris Hugo Recommends Ephraim Fuentes — Alebrijes, Animalitos and Carved Wood Figures
Ephraim Fuentes is a talented wood carver from San Martin Tilcajete. Chris Hugo, from Washington State, wrote me to recommend Ephraim and tell about the great experience he and his group had visiting the workshop. I asked Chris to send photos to share with you, and he says, “These may be foxes or something mythical from the dog kingdom. The “male” is about 24″ tall.” He also gave me permission to share his impressions of their recent Oaxaca visit (below).
“Our group of six loved Oaxaca. We attended two Guelaguetza performances in the Cerro del Fortin, spent a 12+ hour day with Susana Trilling at her cooking school (our final day), and saw as much of the area as we could in a shortened week. We rented a house in San Felipe, and although the accommodations were great, the steep road to the house was severely torn up to put sewer lines in — so we had to walk several blocks (sometimes in mud) to get to a bus / taxi street. At least it didn’t rain until our last night (after graduation from cooking class). Overall, we were very lucky to mostly avoid rain during the rainy season, both in Mexico City (3 days coming and going) and in Oaxaca.
“I’m 61 and have been visiting Mexico regularly since 1959 — next year will be my 50th anniversary! I’ve visited over 20 major cities from Juarez and Nogales to Acapulco and Cancun and have never had a bad experience (other than the normal travel illnesses) — although my brother nearly died of typhoid fever in Mexico in 1957. In the past couple of years, we’ve enjoyed similar great adventures with welcoming cultures in Guatemala and Panama.
“Although some elements of the greatly segregated economy of Oaxaca benefit by tourism revenues, it was special to be there when so few tourists were out and about. I don’t think we saw a handful of tourists among the thousands of locals at the Tlacolula market.
“Oaxaca street scapes remind us of a much bigger San Miguel de Allende. The colonial charm of both cities puts a good face to the “real” Mexico.
“Thanks for helping to orient new visitors to Oaxaca — since there are no
sunny beaches with jet skis and 24-hour beer parties, we can only hope that
“Ugly Americans” won’t ever find their way there.”
“P.S. The travel guides for Oaxaca suggest using second class buses to get to
the surrounding villages. The day we tried to get to Ocotlan, the bus seats
were sold out, yet we wasted an hour to find that out (although, we enjoyed
watching the chaotic loading, unloading, and reloading the bus as the
station personnel tried to figure out who could go and who could not —
chickens, bails of ropes, and all). We suggest taking a taxi on the outbound
trip to villages and then grabbing any bus heading back into Oaxaca. Time is
just too precious to fiddle around at the big station across from the
Abastos Market and then not be assured of travel. Best to just get a taxi.
That raises another subject, taxi rates. We found them to be all over the
board — we got a taxi back from San Martin Tilcajete for 40 pesos, yet paid
twice that to get from our rental house to the First Class bus station a few
miles away. Generally, we could get anywhere around town for 40 pesos and
out to nearby places like Monte Alban for 60=80. Like all buying in Mexico
towns, you have to be willing to pass on the first taxi if the driver
doesn’t take your offer. You probably have good experience with this, and it
is worth sharing with new visitors.
“Of note, our air travel was to Mexico City where my family has been friends
with the owners of a boutique hotel (Casa Gonzalez) since my second trip to
Mexico in 1963. Our travel party of three couples stayed at the Casa,
enjoyed a night out with our hosts, and spent a rushed two days seeing
Teotihuacan, the Zocalo / Templo Mayor, and the Museo Nat de Antropologia. We
took the ADO line First Class bus to Oaxaca and the ADO GL Luxury Class bus
back to Mexico City. We couldn’t distinguish between the two, although the
GL cost about 20% more. Although the schedules say the GL is 30 minutes
faster, for our trips it was actually longer. Maybe it was partly due to the
spontaneous stop for a security check of all passengers and luggage by
soldiers along the highway.”
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Travel & Tourism
Tagged bargaining for taxis, bus travel from Mexico to Oaxaca, Carved Figures, Casa Gonzalez Mexico City, Chris Hugo Washington State, copal wood carved figures, Ephraim Fuentes, Oaxaca economy, Oaxaca Mexico alebrijes, San Martin Tilcajete