“I don’t make the masks. Barva Volcano throws them at me.” That’s what Carlos Salas, a pioneer of mask-making in Barva, in the mountains north of San José, used to say when asked how he crafted his art.
Salas, who passed away in 1998, first brought the tradition of mask making from the eastern province of Cartago to Barva, a small town on the slopes of the volcano of the same name, in the 1930s, but refused to reveal his secrets to anyone, according to local artisans who carry on the tradition today.
“Carlos would even hide while making his masks,” recalls Francisco Montero, who at 53 is now the oldest of about 15 mask makers, or mascareros, in Barva.“We used to wear them during the festivities and try to figure out how they were made.”
Mascareros in Barva have been working for weeks in preparation for this weekend’s Fifth National Mascarada Fair in the colonial town’s Central Park. Mascareros from Barva and around the country will be showing off their works today through Sunday, and every day at noon and 4 p.m. colorful, oversized masked figures will dance and entertain the crowds.
In Barva and many other rural towns in Costa Rica, the tradition is an important part of community festivals, or fiestas. The tradition has its roots in Europe, but is said to have originated in Cartago during the second half of the 19th century.
Accompanied by the music of the cimarrona (a musical group with percussion, wind and brass instruments), town inhabitants wearing the mascarada – the name for a set of at least 15 masks – parade through the streets, stopping occasionally to dance, chase observers and perhaps hit them with a dried-out cow’s bladder filled with water, resembling a water balloon.
The somewhat violent bladder tradition comes from a specific character called Viejo’e la Vejiga, or Old Man with a Bladder, who symbolically represented the crazy and violent member of the community. Over time, other traditional characters, such as the devil and the skull, began to use animal bladders filled with water to elicit fearful shrieks from observers.
Researchers say the bladder beating is a cultural way to force the children to toughen up, and also defines the traditional masculine and feminine roles.
The tradition has received negative press in recent years as it has gotten out of hand and sparked increasing violence among drunken festivalgoers, and it has been banned from most official celebrations.
Despite calls to end the bladder beating in Barva, however, the phenomenon continues among the younger crowds.
Mask maker Montero recalls his fear of the mascarada during his own childhood. “I started making masks to lose that fear,” explained Montero, a retired precision mechanic. “By the time I was 10, I was fearless and wearing the masks and scaring other people.”
Different artisans use different materials (papier mache is more traditional, fiberglass more recent), include different characters, and adhere more or less strictly to tradition.
“The mascarada should always be about the characters in town, and should change with time,” Montero said. His sets of masks have town personalities like the local policeman, the town drunk and a well-known member of Barva’s local government.
Mask maker Luis Fernando Vargas, known by his childhood nickname “Bombillo,” meaning light bulb, says that the traditional mascarada includes a giant and giantess, the devil, a skull representing Death, a black man and woman, an old man and woman, a witch, a policeman, la cegua (a woman with a face like a horse) and el cadejo (a scary dog that drags a chain) – two characters from Costa Rican legends – and three farm animals.
Alexandro Tosatti, an artist who studied the Barva mascarada tradition as part of his university studies, says it “functions as a social criticism to show the defects and the characteristics of a community. It also allows the creation of a community identity.”
Vargas, 47, spends his days as vice-principal at the DomingoGonzálezSchool in Santa Lucía de Barva, but his passion since age 7 has been the mascarada.
Vargas makes and sells masks in his free time. Though they are slow to make, they sell like hot cakes. In the past month, he has sold three devil masks made with real bull’s horns. He sells his masks for $60-300, depending on their complexity and the materials used.
For more information about mask making, or to purchase a mask, call Vargas at 260-6150 or 848-9092, or Montero at 237-5426 or 340-5164.
For information about the festivities this weekend, call Barva Mayor’s Assistant Paula Morales at 825-1986.