The University of Arizona
Masks of Mexico: Santos, Diablos y Más

Masks of Mexico: Santos, Diablos y Más

Mask of Mary

Mask of a devil

October 2005–November 2007

About the Exhibition:

The use of masks in Mexico dates from 3000 BC. Masks were used by priests to summon the power of deities and in the sacrifices of pre-Hispanic Mexico. With Spanish contact masks were used to educate neophytes on the Christian faith, and "shock and awe" the indigenous people through dramatic presentations such as the Battle of the Moors and the Christians. As the two cultures fused, the imprint of each was recorded in masks as well as in the dances they have been used for. The role of the mask has been a dynamic one representing the ever-changing belief systems unique to peoples and geographic regions through time.

In Mexico, masks are used as part of the tradition of the village festival, honoring saint's days and major Christian holidays. Participants fulfill religious vows by their involvement, while the dances educate as well as interpret and inform the community of shared values and concerns. They have been as part of elaborately scripted dance dramas involving music, song, fire and feasting, and could last for several days.

As traditional use of masks began to wane in the later half 20th century, a trend which had commenced in the early 1900s- the creating of masks for sale rather than for ceremonial use—waxed in even greater measure. Recognizing the mystery and beauty inherent in Mexican masks, many people began collecting this disappearing cultural legacy. Recent years have seen Mexican masks become popular folk art collectibles, and entire new mask types have been created to fill this market.

Trying on a jaguar mask in the exhibitionMasks in the folk art tradition combine human and animal features: jaguars, birds, bats and alligators can be identified within a humanized face. In other cases, birds, snakes and lizards emerge from the nose or eyebrows of a face. And, others still depict full animals figures attached to the face. In some, it is almost impossible to discern the animal from the human. Market demand has caused an explosion of different forms and styles to take place. Old themes are receiving new artistic treatment. And new mask types are arising from sources that have yet to be known.

As major collectors, expatriate Americans living in the heart of Mexico, Donald and Dorothy Cordry played a key role in the mid-20th century appreciation of masks as folk art collectibles and contributed to their rising popularity. With their omnivorous collecting, the Cordry’s actually influenced the creative direction of the mask market. Then Donald's book, Mexican Masks, published by the University of Texas Press in 1980, became a de facto collector’s guide, which further amplified the Cordrys’ influence. The content of this book is highly problematic, since Cordry in many instances passed on mask documentation supplied to him that does not bear up under scholarly scrutiny. The last 25 years have seen many mask researchers in both the US and Mexico working to rectify the many inaccuracies.

Masked wrestler: El Sol del OrienteEven today, masks remain pervasive and significant in Mexican culture. From the traditional religious ceremomies such as Dia De Los Muertos and All Soul ’s Day to the more secular realm of popular wrestling (Lucha Libre) in which heroes wear form-fitting masks covering the entire head and laced up the back.

Mexican masks retain the power to enchant viewers of all ages and all backgrounds. They elevate and inspire the imagination. They seem to take on a life of their own. As we learn more about them, they become a powerful connection to transformation and ritual, and reveal a whole universe of beliefs—indigenous beliefs, old world religious beliefs, contemporary beliefs and the profound mixture, through time, of all three.

Fantasy mask of mermaid

Take a virtual walk through the exhibition

Listen to / Download the Podcast Audio Tour

Teacher Resources (For Families Too!)

Outside Links:

New York Times - "Who's That Masked Man and Where Did He Learn to Wrestle Like That?"Opens in a new window (The New York Times requires registration to view archived articles.)

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Photos by Jannelle Weakly