The Cloud People – Zapotec Culture Expressed Through Art

I had the honor to visit the taller (workshop) of Jacobo and María Ángeles, from San Martin Tilcajete a pueblo near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.

They are artists who carve and paint alebrijes, magical wooden creatures. To the artists, who spend so much time creating the pieces, the creatures have a spirit inside them.

The taller of Jacobo and María Ángeles is dedicated to keeping their Zapotec culture alive. The designs reflect the artists’ spiritual connection to their Zapotec roots. Zapotec culture dates back 2500 years. Zapotecs were warriors, farmers, builders of pyramids and artists. In the early 1500’s, the Zapotecs were conquered by Mexica or Aztec. Shortly there after, the Spanish invaded to further the oppression of the Zapotec people. However, the resilience and beauty of the Zapotec culture is visible today throughout the Valle de Oaxaca.

The Zapotec believed that bats or murcielago were the keepers of the Underworld.





According to Zapotec legends, some of their ancestors emerged from caves, and others came from trees or jaguars. Still others are believed to be descended from supernatural beings who lived in the clouds. That is why they are called “Be’ena’Za’a” – “The cloud people.”










The sacred dog of the Zapotecs, Xoloitzcuintli was hairless. “Xolo” symbolizes the importance of  family, positive leadership and spiritual power.El tlacuache – possum

photo by Jacobo and Mária Ángeles

Jacobo and María employ over a hundred artists and administrators. In addition, they have a school where they train interns that live in the community.

The Zapotec symbol for the caracol or snail represents the value of contributing to the community.  This symbol is used in Alebrije designs and it is the emblem for Jacobo and Mária’s workshop. Other animals honored in Alebrije designs are:
Ants  (hardworking)  and  fish  (respect).

Zapotecs believed that iguanas represented creativity and sensitivity.

Many of the carved creatures are based upon the sacred Zapotec calendar. This is the artist’s way of keeping their culture alive and honoring nature. Jacobo says, “Our identity is deep from our origins.”

Photo by Jacobo Ángeles

Most of the Alebrijes are carved from the sacred Copal tree. Before starting to work, they burn the resin of the Copal to help cleanse their energy and connect to their ancestors. Mária Ángeles is the woman on the right. The woman on the left has caracol designs on her arm.

All of the work is done by hand using primitive tools: machetes, knives, and chisels. Photo by Jacobo and Mária Ángeles

“Carvers need to study the woodblocks to find the hidden “nahual” or spirit, using their imagination and skill at using a machete. The “nahuals” are waiting patiently inside the trees for the artist to discover them by using their senses.”
Jacobo Ángeles

An unfinished jaguar that our guide, Elias, was working on. The entire body will be covered with Zapotec symbols. The jaguar is the protector and signifies leadership.

Our guide, Elias, has been painting alebrijes for over 25 years. He and other artists only use natural pigments: copal bark (black), cochineal bugs (red), the skin of the pomegranate (yellow), flowers and other materials.


Elias and other artists paint the designs without following a pattern, using their innate creativity.  Elias said that painting the Zapotec symbols all day long can be a meditative experience.

A large piece may take 1.5 years to complete from start to finish and 10 weeks to paint. Elias and a team of other artists worked together on this lion project.

Copal Tree
photo by Jacobo y Mária Ángeles.

Unfortunately, the Copal tree has been over-harvested. To honor this sacred tree, and ensure its survival, Jacobo and María’s community began a reforestation project over 15 years ago. They grow the plants in a nursery for two years and then plant 2,500 Copal seedlings in the mountains annually.

The row on the right are one year old cutting grafts. The row on the left are seedlings planted from Copal seed.

8 year old Copal Tree

The trees will be harvested after 40 years. At that time the trunk will be a meter in diameter.

Yearly planting project that involves the entire community. photo by Jacobo y Mária Ángeles.

photo by Jacobo y Mária Ángeles.

This entry was posted in Connecting to Nature, Photography/Art, Spanish. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Cloud People – Zapotec Culture Expressed Through Art

  1. Holly Einess says:

    Wow, their art is amazing—and so much more than art! Thank you for sharing this story!

  2. Nancy Lattery says:

    This is fantastic! Thank you so much Larry!

  3. Mary Hammill says:

    Beautiful art pieces and a story to tell. Thank you, Larry. You will never run out of information that has the ability to teach because you continue to learn.

  4. Cindy Eyden says:

    I love the way Jacobo y Maria (and community) work with Spirit and are dedicated to respecting and caring for the earth. Their art has such aliveness from within. Thanks for sharing this story Larry!

  5. ODonnell says:

    Beautiful and very creative artwork.

  6. Janine says:

    Amazing, Larry! Thank you for sharing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 32 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here