The Significance Behind Alebrijes


In Disney’s recent film Coco, the world was introduced to a variety of different Hispanic cultural symbols, traditions and customs. In the film, Miguel is followed by his companion, Dante. Interestingly, Dante is transformed into an alebrije when they venture into the land of the dead. I was thrilled to see alebrijes throughout the film as I’m from Oaxaca, a place known for their alebrijes. However, I realized that the story of how alebrijes came to be and their significance might be unfamiliar to many.


(Photo by Manuel Betancourt on ReMezcal)


Alebrijes are popular and colorful Mexican folk art sculptures of creatures that originated from an idea conceived by Pedro Linares Lopez. Linares came up with the idea during a fever dream where he saw strange animals were made up of weird combinations; for example, a donkey with wings. Once Linares awoke, he began to recreate the animals out of paper and cardboard. Alebrijes became extremely popular after tourism in Mexico skyrocketed. They also became a symbol of identity reflecting the country’s past and launched a positive movement encouraging pride in one’s heritage. Coco is a perfect example of seeing representation on the screen and spreading knowledge of cultural symbols.


(Photo by Sarine Arslanian on LIFEGATE)


LIFEGATE explains that in Zapotec cosmology, we all have a tona - an animal that follows us throughout our lives. It is believed that our tona influences and shapes the very core of our personality as we naturally adopt and acquire the character of that specific animal we’ve been assigned at birth.


According to an article on ReMezcal, the Pixar filmmakers working on Coco were inspired by a workshop in San Martin Tilcajete in Oaxaca run by Jacobo Angeles and María del Carmen Mendoza. The filmmakers were fascinated by the mythology that connected these fantasy creatures with Zapotec beliefs about death and protection. This is how we know that the alebrijes in the film have a greater meaning than simple aesthetics.


(Courtesy of IMDB Photo Gallery)


In the context of the film, we can see the similarities between the characters and their spirit guides. I think the correlation is dismissed by the audience and is a subtle message that few picked up on. Miguel is energetic, optimistic, and loving just like Dante. Dante is commonly dismissed as a stray but he isn’t unloved or lost, he is simply waiting for those around him to open their minds and learn to be accepting. Mama Imelda is a strong, independent, and fierce just like Pepita. She is not afraid to stand her ground and do what needs to be done.


One of the most important messages I believed was put into the film was Ernesto De La Cruz’ relation to his specific alebrije. De La Cruz is surrounded by small Chihuahuas, a dog known for being more bark than bite. This accurately represents De La Cruz because, unlike Mama Imelda, he isn’t capable of standing up for himself and is not determined to do the work himself to become successful; instead he resorted to a cowardly act of betraying and murdering his friend.


The filmmakers truly took into considering the Zapotec beliefs and significance of alebrijes. It’s fascinating to see their attention to detail be expressed in such creative ways. It’s quite inspiring to see them understand and appreciate the culture of my family being portrayed in a respectful manner and in a way that was fun and entertaining. Although, Coco’s success can be measured in box office sales, I believe the cultural impact it has had in the Latinx community means more than sales. My heart has never been more full than seeing my cousin’s sing, dance, and see themselves in the film.