April 12, 2019
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Many of you know that I used to be in the theatre. I acted, did radio/voice-over work, directed and taught theatre for many moons in a previous life. In fact, I go all “apey” when an artist “becomes” someone or something else and then performs in the new façade. When a person puts on a mask, a miracle occurs. The wearer enters a new world where fantasies, rituals and dreams come to life. To me, whether it’s an actor on a stage or a masked performer at a religious festival, it’s the ultimate creative expression. Right up there with cartooning and karaoke singing! I love it.
So when our new house sitting friends, Sandy and Rob (BritsHousesitting.com), invited us to accompany them to the San Miguel Mask Museum, I was thrilled. Another house sitting couple, dear friends from our Xcalak sit, Manuel and Xochitl (www.wanderingfolks.com), just happened to be passing through San Miguel at that time and joined us for breakfast and then the tour.
Great food, great friends and, of course, touring a magical place that honors my very favorite artistic expression…well, it doesn’t get much better! We had a blast.
Xocitl & Manuel of Wandering Folks
So here’s a bit about our enlightening experience and what we learned about the wonderful world of Mexican masks and the indigenous people who created and don them.
First of all, to get to the museum, you really need to know exactly where you are going. Here in San Miguel, the cobblestone streets are narrow and a lot of them look the same. Also, we’ve found that the really cool places here are rarely marked with signage, and, such was the case with the Mask Museum. John was right (and I was wrong…I admit it) on the directions. I walked literally up and down the street looking for the place. As a side note, when visiting San Miguel de Allende, north, south, east and west mean nothing. It’s up and down that counts. SMA is built on a lot of hills, and some of them seem like mountains. Cuesta de San Jose (the street where the Museum sits) seemed like a Mt. Everest the day we visited. My Fitbit appreciated the workout. My legs didn’t.
When we entered, we were greeted by Bill Lavasseur and his wife, Heidi. Bill and Heidi had traveled Mexico and Europe with his career as an advertising executive, and then retired from their home in Maine to San Miguel in 1997. Heidi likes to say that Bill has a serious addiction when it comes to Mexican masks. She’s right. Over the past 30 years this man has procured over 600 of them.
After a brief historical introduction from Bill, we were allowed to enter the exhibition rooms that house a kingdom of colorful pieces of folk art that stare back at you. So cool. Here’s what we learned.
According to historical experts, masks have been used in Mexico since around 3000 B.C. Before the Spanish invasion, native holy men used masks to summon gods and for sacrifices. When Spaniards took over, the Catholic Church attempted to bring Catholicism to the native population and thus horns were added to the masks of the original gods to depict them as “devils.” In fact, because of the popularity of masks and their accompanying ceremonies, Spanish priests used them to act out stories from the Bible as a means to convert the population.
The masks were made by artisans who were ordinary people, farmers, carpenters and menial laborers. Though these talented artists didn’t identify their work with signatures, they did pass down their skills, and the rich tradition of the craft is still alive today. Originally mask bases were made of wood, papier-mâché, leather, wax and metal. They were adorned with horse and goat hair, straw, mirrors, yarn, braided straw, ribbons, and animal horns and teeth.
Today, most masks made in Mexico are for commercial rather than ritual purposes. A modern evolution of the Mexican mask is alive and well with wrestling’s “lucha libre” where contenders cover their faces with tight-fitting, colorful masks.
One of the coolest things about masks is that the performer wearing the mask does not have to be a professional actor or dancer. The mask itself transforms the performer into the character it depicts. Think Jim Carey in the movie Mask. Events using masks include small neighborhood parties to large city festivals centered around Catholic rituals like Christmas, Carnival, Holy Week, the Feast of the Cross, Day of the Dead, Corpus Christi and the feast days of the major saints.
For a participating dancer, his mask is a prized possession. Most masks are kept in pristine condition and are often cleaned or repainted as needed. Many communities house their masks in the local church when they are not being used. And often, when a mask is “retired” or destroyed, it is part of the Holy Week ritual. The masks are immersed in a local river or burned as an act of purification.
Just like in Greek and Roman theatre, women traditionally never participated in the ritualistic dances, so female characters were generally played by young men. Female masks generally emphasize piety and modesty, however some have garish, gaudy makeup. These are very unflattering. The “Las Viudas” (Widows) of Carnival and “La Borracha” (Drunk Woman) are exaggerated depictions of characters who are considered immoral.
Just about every animal native to Mexico has been depicted by a mask. Some dances focus on one specific species with a variety of artistic representations. Historically, animal masks were used in ceremonies to ensure successful hunts.
The serpent was popular for ceremonies both pre-Hispanic, as well as, after the Spanish conquest. Pre-Hispanic serpents were associated with water, lightning and rivers, where the Spanish influenced the serpent to be a satanic figure. The jaguar and ocelot are other popular mask depictions.
Throughout Mexican history, there is a solemn respect for the aged population of any community. Often age is a symbol of wisdom and respectability. The masks reflect this with dances and ceremonies performed to honor the elders of each community.
Until we visited the Mask Museum, I didn’t realize what an impact Africans had on Mexican history and culture. Once the Spanish conquered Mexico they imported African slaves and the slaves often acted as intermediaries between the Spanish lords and the native people. This experience was soon incorporated into dances and ceremonies with the performers called “negritos” (little black ones). These masks were often accompanied by elaborate, colorful African costumes and elegant headdresses. Most Africans brought to Mexico intermarried with the rest of the population, but the masks remain.
Frankly, a lot of the devil masks we saw at the museum were downright scary. I wouldn’t care to tour the place after dark. Satan is depicted sometimes with somewhat normal (un-creepy) human features to having serpents coming out of eyes and fang-like teeth. Yikes!
Often a devil character is part of Christmas pageants called pastorelas, where the satanic character tries to keep the shepherds from seeing the Baby Jesus. Other fantastic character masks represent supernatural characters.
Skull masks represent death, which to the indigenous Mexicans was not to be feared, but rather a part of life.
I loved this section of Bill’s mask collection. See if you can identify these popular and not so popular modern celebrities.
Brain gurus tell us there are three basic levels of awareness. First there are things that you know, and you know that you know them. This is like making cupcakes and making people laugh for me. Second, there are things that you don’t know, and you know that you don’t know them. This is like performing brain surgery and rocket science for me. And third, there are many things in this wonderful, vast world that you don’t even know that you don’t know them. This is like the history and modern day use of masks in Mexico for me. Wow! Traveling makes us aware of so many interesting things and cultures that we previously had no clue about.
Thank you Bill and Heidi for sharing your incredible passion with us. Now we “know” and are richer because of it. Bravo!
Bill & Heidi Lavasseur, San Miguel Mask Museum
“Travel opens your mind as few other things do. It is its own form of hypnotism, and I am forever under its spell.” ~ Libba Bray
Want to know more about the San Miguel Mask Museum? Here’s the scoop:
Cuesta de San Jose #32, Colonia Azteca, just a 10-15 minute walk from the Historic Center/El Jardin.
Visits are by appointment only. Must call ahead.
Another Face of Mexico Mask Museum catalog is beautifully printed in full color with over 100 photos plus descriptive text. It makes a perfect souvenir of your visit or an ideal gift.
The museum catalog can be purchased at the museum, or you can email them at email@example.com to request a copy. Or, call at tel: 415-154-4324, cell: 415-149-1563.
Purchase price is $75 USD. Add $13 USD if shipping and handling is required.