Yakima Valley Museum

Fiesta: Faces of Mexico
March 27-October 31, 1995

While we are alive, we cannot escape from masks or names. We are inseparable from our fictions--our features. We are condemned to invent a mask for ourselves and afterward to discover that the mask is our true face.

Octavio Paz, 1970. Posdata. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, p. 11.

Mexican Mask

Mexican Mask

Much of traditional Mexican culture was lost when the Spanish arrived with their law, religion, and lust for power and gold. All that wasn’t lost had to adapt and change. This is what human culture is best at. Cultural practices find new meaning and cultural products find new uses. Through selection and adaptation, tradition evolves and survives.

The dance rituals for which the masks in this exhibit were produced and used have a history as old as Mexican culture. At each point in history, and in each individual village, dance rituals take new forms. These dances and festivals continue in Mexico today, although they are surely different from those of 100 years ago ...or 500 years ago ...or 5,000.

The cultures of Mexico before the Spanish conquest had a complex understanding of the world around them. All humans, animals, natural forces, primary substances, and gods were part of a single unity and assumed changing forms and natures. Life and survival hinged upon rain, drought, fish and game, and the unpredictable hand of the gods. Early Mexican gods are not "good" and "evil" figures, but rather beings who reflect this unity–gods who assume human, animal, and fantastic form and whose behaviors are unpredictable. In human form, these figures are much like the gods of ancient Greece–fickle and fallable, victims of vanity, avarice, ambition, jealousy, and anger; their histories in myth are stories filled with struggle and conflict, emotion and drama.

The traditional dances and ceremonies for which these masks were originally used are stories of gods, animals, and natural forces. In Pre-Conquest times, these ceremonies focused primarily on the inseparability of animals and humans. Hardship, sacrifice, human ingenuity, and rebirth are major themes in the dances.

After Spanish conquest, Christian priests took advantage of these dances, recreating them as morality plays, teaching the principles of Christianity. A new emphasis on human-faced masks accompanied stories of Christian priests, African slaves, and religious and political conflict. The value of hard work is stressed and new concepts of "good" and "evil" appear, with Christian priests as major characters in the dances. As in Pre-Conquest times, though, these dances are often "mockeries," poking fun at the all-powerful forces.

The masks–and the stories which they help to tell–reflect the essential, yet changing, nature of Mexican life and survival. New peoples, situations, and forces are adapted to a colorful, imaginative, and expressive tradition by which individuals can become the world around them.

Mexican Mask
Mexican Mask

Mexican Mask


The process of mask-making is complex and varied, but, as a practical simplification, mask specialist Donald Cordry has divided mask-makers into three basic groups: professionals, amateurs, and santeros.

Professional mask-makers are well-trained and produce masks in the traditional styles, according to customary methods of manufacture. They have usually been apprenticed under older mask-makers and have been taught to preserve traditional forms. Occasionally, these mask-makers create their product under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs which enable them to gain direct inspiration from the spirit world.

Amateur mask makers may be apprentices to professional mask-makers or may be attempting to access the craft on their own. A lower technical quality of work and lack of adherence to traditional forms is the usual criteria for their title of "amateur." Many of these mask-makers produce products for the growing tourist trade.

Santeros, in keeping with a tradition as old as Christian colonialism in Mexico, are trained and supported by the Catholic Church. They make both Christian masks and church statues and sculpture. Their work tends to be of the highest technical quality and utilizes more ornate and decorative materials.

Mexican Mask

Mexican Mask The decline of traditional dance rituals combined with an increased demand for dance masks as both art and souvenir has resulted in many masks "on the market" of questionable origin, age, and value. Although these "tourist masks" lack the anthropological authenticity of having actually been used in dance rituals, many of these masks exhibit fine craftsmanship and a knowledge of historical types and styles. Because of this, coupled with the amazing diversity of masks, dances, and festivals from village to village throughout Mexico and throughout history, it is all but impossible to verify the authenticity of a mask type when its place of origin is unknown.

Mexican Mask Culture is forever changing. Often, significant aspects of a culture can slowly disappear over generations without anyone noticing the loss. Sometimes cultural objects are snatched from their homeland, separated from everything which gave them meaning and value. All too often, when a loss is realized or a mysterious object long separated from its origins is discovered, it is too late to put the pieces together and understand the nature of a past culture or the identity and function of its artifacts. The masks in this exhibit are no exception. The Yakima Valley Museum borrowed them from the Cheney Cowles Museum in Spokane, which had received them, directly or indirectly, from private collectors who appear to have purchased them as souvenirs. Except for four tags marked "Guerrero," we have no information as to the exact origins of these masks, their makers, the dances they were used for, or the characters which they represent. Because of this and the nature of Mexican culture with its unique local variations of tradition, it would be irresponsible to claim any definite connections between masks, villages, or specific dances. We have attempted to present these masks in groups, and with related information, so that the "larger picture" is clear, if not the specific details.

Tools Used in Mask-Making

Chiapas Machete, Saw, Compass, Gouge, Chisel, Polishers, Esophagus of Bull (Used to smooth paint).

Guerrero Machete, Knife, Gouge, Chisel, Saw, Adz, Sickle, Homemade tools.

Hidalgo Gouge, Chisel, Knife, Sandpaper.

Michoacán Handsaw, Rasp, Knife, Gouge, Plane, Sandpaper, Machete, Chisel, Brush (angarito)

Oaxaca Chisel, Knife, Gouge, Machete, Handsaw, Plane, Sandpaper, Barbequi (saw), Ax, Moso de Medra.

Puebla Hammer, Knife, Wooden mallet, Mold.

Querétaro Gouge

Zacatecas Knife, Adz, Gouge, Chisel, Improvised tools.

Mexican Mask


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