The Spirit Animals of Oaxaca

A focal point of Vista Leadership Institute is our weeklong retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Oaxacan culture inspires many of the themes we incorporate in the Institute, such as cultural competence and multi-sector collaboration. The activities during the week in Mexico will contribute to the Institute’s goals to build strong leaders with integrity and cultural awareness.

Oaxaca’s Unique Blend of Aztec and Mayan Cultures

The beautiful region maintains its Aztec and Mayan roots. This tie to history preserves native languages, traditions, artistic works, and beliefs rooted in nature and spirituality. One particular spiritual aspect of Oaxacan culture is the spirit animal.

Spirit animals are a part of many cultures. Each animal carries its own legends, deities, and values, some based on characteristics of the real animal, and some based on spiritual beliefs. For instance, the deer is connected with the deity Tlaloc, the Aztecan god of rain. The snake represents a connection between Earth and the Aztecan underworld, Mictlan. Iguanas symbolize pranks and joking, while owls provide wisdom.

In Oaxaca, one can determine the individual spirit animal by using the day and the month of birth, and the year of birth. After discovering an individual spirit animal, one can look for connections between the animal, its symbolic meaning, and one’s own personality and life.

Bringing the Spirit to Life with Alebrijes

Part of the rich culture of Oaxaca revolves around wood (or papier-maché) carvings of these spirit animals called “alebrijes.” Alebrijes originated in Mexico and are popular in galleries and festivals there. The world renowned Oaxacan carvers Jacobo and María Ángeles founded their studio in Ocotlán, Oaxaca. The studio creates intricate animals of many colors and species—sometimes even mixing the former and the latter.

Vista Leadership Institute participants receive descriptions of their spirit animals and their own alebrije. Through the exploration of spirit animals, we learn about Oaxacan culture, ourselves and our connection to the natural world.

Photo credits: Mary Stelletello, Taller Jacobo & María Ángeles

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