Woodcarver in Oaxaca Transitions to Mezcal and Agave

San Martin Tilcajete is one of three villages in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca known for carving and painting fanciful figures popularly known as alebrijes; mythical dragons and other animals, pieces with cultural or religious imagery, and more. Typically the men carve the figures out of a soft wood, copal, and the women paint. But Efrain Fuentes Santiago and family are atypical. Since the second decade of this century, a great deal of Efrain’s work has been carving images of agave, the succulent used to distill mezcal, into hardwood. Rather than finishing them by painting, he leaves the wood natural. And most recently he has been fashioning different scenes representative of a series of stages in the production of mezcal.

The 1980s witnessed the rapid growth of the alebrije industry. Over time, virtually every family in San Martin Tilcajete began earning most if not all of its living carving and painting, for the tourist industry. The Fuentes Santiago family was no different. By the turn of the century while alebrije production increased, so did distillation of mezcal. And every year since about 2010, production of the agave distillate has risen meteorically. Along with the phenomenon has arrived mezcal tourism. That is, visitors to Oaxaca coming to the state capital of Oaxaca de Juárez trekking to nearby villages in and around the central valleys where the agave is primarily distilled. They come to learn about mezcal production, to start their own brands for export, to buy from their favorite distillers, and to film documentaries and photograph for exhibits.

Efrain noticed the change in the complexion of tourism. Piggybacked on top of Oaxaca’s draw for tourists wanting to experience its world renowned cuisine, visit its archaeological sites and craft villages, and soak up its colonial charm, he began carving representations of mezcal production and agave motifs, mainly out of cedar and walnut, rather than copal. While hardwoods are more difficult to whittle, Efrain sees it this way:

“Since a little boy I have really liked carving with walnut, cedar and to a lesser extent cypress, and leaving my creations natural rather than paint them. Each piece of wood I use, sourced from those kinds of trees, has a unique character, color and grain.”

Efrain learned from his father and grandfather. In fact his uncle, the late Isidoro Cruz, was the trailblazer of the alebrije tradition in the village. As a youth Isidoro gained notoriety as a carpenter making wagons, and perhaps more importantly ceremonial masks and amulets for village celebrations and rites of passage. Efrain reflects that spirit of innovation.

Efrain still earns most of his living making alebrijes, along with wife Silvia Gomez, and their four children aged 14 to 20. But increasingly there has been a market for unpainted pieces finished with only a light coating of varnish or shellac, showcasing different types of agave at various phases of development, and illustrating harvesting of agave and its transformation into mezcal.

I’ve known the family for about 15 years. Back then virtually none of Efrain’s artistry included agave. But over the past few years in particular, with the mezcal explosion, has come increased creativity. I saw a bench Efrain was completing in his workshop with an agave carved at each end. I asked if he could make me a solid wooden bar stool, with not just an agave, but with the flower stalk or quiote extending the entire length of the back panel. I drew what I wanted. After Efrain sourced a single piece of wood for the project, there it was. It now graces my bar area.

Efrain began carving boxes to hold a bottle of mezcal, and napkin holders, in each case with an agave fashioned into the wood. Most recently I asked him to carve a long plaque, the theme being different stages of the mezcal-making process: a jimador cutting agave in the field, a distiller or palenquero working the horse to crush the baked, sweet succulent, and an ancestral clay pot distillation operation.

Seeing those fine pieces of work inspired one of the owners of the Melate brand of agave distillate to have Efrain carve both an agave and Melate’s logo into a number of promotional wooden boxes. For a subsequent batch of boxes, Efrain was given carte blanche to carve as he wished. There’s that much confidence in his skill and ingenuity.

Efrain is occasionally asked to travel to the US to promote his craft, as well as to participate in museum exhibits. Those projects center upon advancing the more common alebrije artistry for the benefit of the family, the village, and Oaxacan folk art more generally. But Efrain’s true passion is his other work, which inspires him to think outside of the village box, rather atypical for San Martín Tilcajete.

While the children of Efrain Fuentes Santiago and Silvia Gomez are an integral part of the family’s carving and painting alebrije tradition, to the credit of their parents, all four remain in school to this day. This is somewhat unusual in Oaxacan craft villages. Whether they will leave the nest and pursue individual careers, or continue to work with wood throughout their adult lives, each will have benefited from both their formal education, and the advancement of the tradition inculcated by prior generations of their family. It is suggested that as long as mezcal’s star continues to rise, this family’s economic fortunes will follow suit, with carvings of agave and its distillate processes leading the way.

Alvin Starkman is able to facilitate the production of custom work from Efraín Fuentes Santiago so as to help the family during these difficult economic times in the wake of CODIV-19. Oaxaca relies on tourism for its economic health. Craftspeople like Efrain and Silvia are feeling the effects of the pandemic, and will likely continue to suffer economically through the end of 2022. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

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By Ramon Munoz