Oaxaca Family Craftsman Workshop Works to Support an Entire Valley

Jacobo and María del Carmen Ángeles’ workshop is by far one of the best developed production and sales operations of any traditional craftsman. In fact, they could just be called San Martín Tilcajete, Inc..

The workshop in this small village in the central valleys of Oaxaca started out like most: Jacobo Ángeles Ojeda was born in the town of Tilcajete in 1973 and is known for making colorful wood carvings of animals called alebrijes (called a few times tones – see this article for the debate around this profession).

He and his wife María del Carmen Mendoza grew up in families dependent on subsistence farming, Ángeles’ father teaching him to sculpt copal wood. Over time, Ángeles has become one of the many alebrije artisans, especially for painting fine lines and designs based on Zapotec and other indigenous images. However, he attributes most of the drawings to his wife.

The couple found they could give up farming and focus on alebrije manufacturing. The demand grew so much that they started hiring other family members and neighbors to work in their store. By the time I first visited them in 2016, the family compound was buzzing with activity, sculptors in one area and painters in another, as well as dedicated areas to demonstrate the process of making the wayward figures. , including even the manufacture of paints for the alebrijes using local pigments.

the maestro still carves parts on occasion, which command higher prices. But the vast majority of production is carried out by employees, students / apprentices and other collaborators, supervised by family members, which is currently a major employer in the municipality, with generations of diverse families working for them.

Alebrije artist Jacobo Ángeles at work.
Maestro Jacobo Ángeles at work.

Although not directly by the maestros‘hands, the pieces are always of high quality as the family trains sculptors and painters and then lets them use their talents to make the most of the capricious nature of copal wood. The workshop produces some alebrijes with human faces, denying their connection to naguals (much like a spirit animal), but many depict jaguars, dogs, bears, owls, and other local creatures, often on the move.

The work of the Ángeles family has been recognized, with their alebrijes appearing in major museums in Mexico and the United States, including the Museo de Arte Popular de Mexico (which published a book showcasing their work) and the National Museum of American Indians at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2014, Jacobo Ángeles was invited by the Vatican to create a alebrije nativity and meet Pope Francis.

But the Ángeles family doesn’t just sit back on their laurels. When I was there in 2016, they were building additions to the resort buildings and talking about plans for expansion and diversification.

One thing that sets this family and business apart is their awareness of the critical importance of the local economy and the state to the continued success of their business. In particular, they understand that they have to develop tourism in San Martín Tilcajete and in the surrounding valley. It started out by offering tours and workshops to visitors, some in English.

After that, they started working to make San Martín a tourist destination in its own right, at least as a detour from the city of Oaxaca. This included opening three restaurants in the city, all based on local cuisine but with different interpretations. The staple foods for these restaurants are mostly supplied by their own farms or other local farms.

In 2020, Jacobo and María, seeking even more to publicize their workshop and their community, ingeniously connected with the Mercedes-Benz company, which provided them with an SUV to paint. alebrije-style and documented the entire process and the finished product online.

Young apprentice craftsman working on an armadillo figure at the Ángeles workshop.
A young apprentice craftsman works on an armadillo figure at the Ángeles workshop.

Oaxaca’s main attraction is its diverse cultures, and the Ángeles family sought ways to disseminate the cultures of the Ocotán Valley for its economic development. Their son Ricardo grew up doing alebrijes but continued to study art in Oaxaca and Mexico City. He translated these creatures (and the nagual tradition behind them) in mural projects, which aim to bring visitors to towns and city districts that they might not otherwise have wandered about. Her work can be seen on Instagram.

The family, however, realized that the manufacture of alebrijes, although successful now, is not enough. Thus, the Ángeles family has long trained extended family members and other locals in sculpture, which has led to a kind of learning program. They also offer ceramic and jewelry making classes and workshops, including a children’s class, inviting maestros of these trades to be the instructors.

The wide range of economic and cultural activities promoted by the family really deserves its future article. But it’s important to note that these companies employed around 300 people directly before the pandemic, including sculptors, painters, restorers, arborists, and marketing and sustainability professionals. That number is now 160, but the family is seeing a slow rebound in tourism and hope to bring employment back to pre-Covid levels soon.

Their business acumen got them through the pandemic better, in part because they already had an online presence. Although sales were still halved, online marketing has been a lifeline, relying heavily on their website and various Instagram accounts.

While they certainly look forward to getting back into business as much as possible as before the pandemic, the Ángeles family is definitely a pioneer in the online marketing of Oaxacan crafts.

Leigh Themadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and culture especially its crafts and art. She is the author of Mexican cardboard: paper, paste and fiesta (Schiffer 2019). His culture section appears regularly on Mexico Daily News.

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