Julio Solís’ passion for mascaradas – those distinctive giant masks worn by entertainers at Costa Rican festivals – dates back most of his young life. His first masks were made out of pieces of cardboard, some paint and the effort of a 7-year-old. Today, he has mastered the use of fiberglass, combining the most traditional aspects of this Costa Rican artistry with a touch of what modern times have to offer. At a tiny counter at the back of his house, he has now made more than 80 masks, of which he has kept 15 that he uses to run his small business, Mascaradas Santana in Santa Ana, southwest of San José.
Solís is only 18 years old. This young mascarero, or mask maker, and his drive to run a successful mascarada business are the perfect example of how one of the oldest and most appreciated Costa Rican traditions is changing.
During the past decade, mascareros and mascaradas have made themselves more noticeable in the Costa Rican landscape, becoming more numerous at festivals and ferias. The types of masks being made are also changing. The giganta and gigante, the traditional giant figures depicting Costa Rican villagers, are still present, but other new and recognizable characters, such as famous singers and politicians, are appearing as well. And the face of the mascarero is also evolving, as young people and women learn the skills once reserved for older men.
Mascaradas Santana was present for the first time this year at the annual National Mascarada Festival, held in early April in Barva de Heredia, north of San José.
“For us it is a great experience to participate in this event. We get to see what the business looks like, but most importantly we get to share our experiences with other mascareros and look up to the ones who are very successful in what they do,” Solís says.
The young artisan and several of his friends, musicians and dancers ages 14 to 18, spend their weekends entertaining others with mascarada shows while making some pocket money. On weekdays, Solís takes trumpet lessons at the Escuela Municipal de Artes Integradas in Santa Ana and works on his masks at home, while his musician and dancer friends live the normal life of any high school student.
Solís, like most mascareros today, has traded the traditional papier-mâché masks for more modern ones made of fiberglass. The mold for the mask is still made out of potter’s clay; but instead of covering the mold with up to 25 layers of paper, today’s mascareros opt for a double layer of fiberglass covered with resin. The rest of the process is similar to the traditional technique: some sandpaper to finish off the details, and some paint to add color to either the traditional diablillos (devil masks) or a Michael Jackson copycat.
Los Chapetones, in Barva, is one of the best-known groups of mascareros in Costa Rica. A year ago, Los Chapetones decorated San José’s La Sabana Park with six huge masks for the inauguration of President Laura Chinchilla’s government. The masks were donated to the town of Barva, and recently served as decoration during the National Mascarada Festival.
“Being a mascarero is almost a part of being a good barveño (Barva native). Here, masks are traditionally made in most houses, but I’m lucky to do it for living,” says Miguel Moreira, owner of Los Chapetones.
Moreira also started the art of mask making as a child, as the apprentice of Carlos Salas, one of Barva’s most recognized artisans.
“I started doing masks as a hobby, though it was always a dream of mine to make this my profession,” Moreira says.
For many years, Moreira worked as a refrigeration technician, unable to live off his craftsmanship. However, with the rebirth of traditional mascaradas during the past 10 years, Moreira was able to start his own company.
“I feel blessed to be able to do what I truly love,” he says. Moreira was one of the veteran mascareros present at the Barva festival this year.
In 2007, the Culture Ministry’s Center for Cultural Heritage Research and Conservation asked anthropologist Giselle Chang to research and write about the history behind Costa Rica’s mascarada tradition. In the book “Máscaras, mascaradas y mascareros,” Chang explains that the recent increase of interest in this popular art is based on activities such as the festival in Barva, or the celebration of National Mascarada Day Oct. 31 in Cartago, east of the capital.
“If we keep a positive attitude toward change, mascaradas will continue being a part of the culture of the Costa Rican Central Valley,” Chang writes. And although the switch to fiberglass has been widely accepted, the Culture Ministry supports the making of traditional papier-mâché masks over the new technique.
However, the most important change is perhaps the business approach today’s mascareros are taking. Chang describes the phenomenon as “new craftsmanship” and explains that “the modern mask has become a commercial product.” In fact, Solís, Moreira and other mascareros know that the survival of their traditional work relies on a more commercial approach.
“Christmas is a busy time of the year, when people buy masks as presents for children,” Solís explains. And the business is still important during the rest of the year; both Santana and Los Chapetones travel around the country entertaining parties with their cimarronas (traditional bands) and masks, or are hired to make masks for birthdays, weddings and other events.
Solís and Moreira represent two different generations of mascareros, yet both defend the same values: respect for tradition and folklore with an open mind for new techniques and business niches. Chang describes this new added commercial value as an “alternative for the survival of the artisan” and the prolongation of a part of Costa Rican heritage.
Contact information: Mascaradas Santana, 8321-6875; Mascaradas Los Chapetones, 8817-8684. See photo report at ticotimes.net/Photo/Photo-Reports.