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Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2007 issue.

Herding goats, which entails an enormous amount of doing nothing, is not one of your more stimulating activities. To relieve their inevitable bouts of bucolic boredom, goatherds have from time immemorial moonlighted as unpaid whittlers of wood.

But then around 50 years ago, the world of pro bono wood-whittling was changed forever when a Mixtec Indian named Manuel Jimenez began applying paint to his rustic carvings. Manuel's small painted wooden animals, though lacking in "sophistication," were irresistibly charming and jam-packed with personality. Before long, tourists were buying up everything Manuel could produce. Seeing Manuel "raking in the dough," some of his neighbors decided to try their hands at it, too. And so was born one of the great movements in the history of folk art.

Today, in the Zapotec Indian village of San Martin and the Mixtec village of Arrazola, over 200 artisans spend their days carving and painting the colorful wooden figures, which have collectively come to be known as alebrijes. As you can see, alebrijes have evolved considerably since Manuel began to paint his unassuming stiff-legged little animals. This iguana, for example, with his amazing zigzag tail (carved from one piece of wood), possesses a sinuous fluidity never found in Manuel's day.

But what makes alebrijes truly distinctive is the impossibly intricate painting. Using a remarkable variety of implements (tiny brushes, nails, pinheads, hypodermic needles and thorns), artisans adorn their carvings with flowers, leaves, stars, micro-dots, bubbles,
flames, half-moons, hearts and wavy lines. And though the men do all the carving, it is typically the women who do the painting; both the iguana and the turkey were created by husband-wife teams.

Oddly enough, the finished pieces are almost always signed with the man's name, even though the "signature" is painted by the woman. If this sounds familiar (the men getting all the credit while the women do more than half the work), it just goes to show that seemingly dissimilar cultures have more in common than we like to think.