In 1936, the artist Pedro Linares Lopez fell into a delirium during a high fever in which he saw a group of fantastical creatures in a forest. There was an eagle-headed lion, a rooster with a bull’s horns and a donkey with butterfly wings – all vividly-coloured and striking, and all shouting the same word repeatedly. “Alebrijes! Alebrijes!” When Lopez recovered, he set to work recreating the hybrid creatures he saw using papier-mache and cardboard. He named his statuettes alebrijes. Lopez lived well into old age, and in the 1980s his alebrijes (which had caught the fancy of the Kahlo-Rivera household, among other tastemakers, when he had first made them) came to tourist attention. They began to be produced from copal wood, held sacred in Mexican culture, and alebrijes are now common souvenirs.
I heard of alibrejes in an interview by the TV journalist Jorge Ramos with an author who influenced me greatly, Sandra Cisneros. Both of them are American citizens of Mexican heritage, and Cisneros had a particularly interesting trajectory: she grew up in Chicago in a conservative working-class background, defied familial expectations by rejecting marriage and pursuing literature and travel, discovered that she was profoundly unhappy trying to fit into and study in the white western academic context, and pioneered a linguistic style that mingled languages and connotations, eschewing translation, trusting in the heart’s power to emote and be understood. Following her success, Cisneros tried her luck in Texas, a little closer to her cultural roots. Still not content, she finally moved to Mexico in middle age.
In the interview, Cisneros described both Ramos and herself as being alibrijes, winged and amphibious and capable of understanding and being in many places. It’s one more lovely way to name ourselves: we who don’t truly belong, who know ourselves best in the margins.
Here is me as an alebrijes right now: light-footed, carved of petrified wood; feline in so many ways; winged, sharp-stingered and solitary as a wasp; my halo held up by flimsy but proud horns. By the time you read this, I will be somewhere in my own heartlands, in a place I’d belonged to my whole life before I’d even set a paw in it. And to where I’ve kept returning, pursuing the truth to a point so deep it becomes fiction. And here is the alebrijes who’s been my obsession, the creature because of whom I first gave myself permission to come to these lagoons: a fish with the upper body of a woman, or a woman who is half-piscine. She doesn’t speak; she sings, and weeps. I have heard her. I have listened carefully.
Over my recent visits, I have found others like me: a new kind of diaspora, neither broken into amnesia nor uncomfortable with our discomfort. Perhaps what we have in common, us alebrijes, is that we know we are different. We know our own sharp edges. And we have learnt to thrive by using the friction of ambiguity as polish. Perhaps it’s a lifelong project, but surely it’s possible: to be made of so many contradictory fractions, but to always hold the knowledge that they re-assemble into wholeness.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.