TITLE: Xantolo Soldier Calavera Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: San Luís Potosí
ETHNICITY: Nahua; Tenek
DESCRIPTION: Mexican Soldier Calavera (Skull) Mask
MAKER: Candelario Manuel Santos (1996- , Tampamolón Corona)
CEREMONY: Day of the Dead (Xantolo)
AGE: 2022
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint

Day of the Dead is celebrated in many parts of Mexico. In San Luís Potosí, the celebration is called Xantolo and differs from region to region.  In the Huasteca region, some villages are primarily Nahua in ethnicity, and others are primarily Tenek. The population of the village of Tampamolón Corona is of mixed Tenek and Nahua ethnicity. Xantolo in the Nahua language is called Miijkailjuitl, and in Tenek is called Tsamnek ajib. It is celebrated with decorations of the graves of ancestors using flowers (primarily marigolds and coxcombs) and representations of the Catrina, an elaborate female skeleton figure. In Tampamolón, the celebration also includes masked dances (comparsas) to music.

The dance involves varied masked figures representing different aspects of life and death, including catrinas, devils, skulls (calaveras), clowns, pregnant women, prositutes, old men and women, and indigenous persons. It begins and ends as a danced parade with a period spent in the central plaza dancing as a group.

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TITLE: Xantolo Catrina Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: San Luís Potosí
ETHNICITY: Nahua
DESCRIPTION: Catrina (Female Skull) Mask
MAKER: Herman Chávez Guerrero (1963- , San Martín Chalchicuautla)
CEREMONY: Day of the Dead (Xantolo)
AGE: 2022
MAIN MATERIAL: pemoches wood (Erythrina americana)
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint; plastic flowers; plastic rhinestones; cotton cloth; plastic tuile screen; glue

Day of the Dead is celebrated in many parts of Mexico. In San Luís Potosí, the celebration is called Xantolo and differs from region to region.  In the Huasteca region, some villages are primarily Nahua in ethnicity, and others are primarily Tenek. The village of San Martín Chalchicuautla is mainly Nahua. Xantolo in the Nahua language is called Miijkailjuitl, and it is celebrated with decorations of the graves of ancestors using flowers (primarily marigolds and coxcombs) and representations of the Catrina, an elaborate female skeleton figure. In San Martín, the celebration also includes masked dances to the music of guitars and violin.

The dance is fairly elaborate, with an outer ring of viejos (old men), viejas (old women), and two paired characters known as El Cole and La Mamanina. The middle ring is populated with diablos (devils) with varied appearances, but primarily having long ears, horns, and a long tongue. There is also a character called El Caminito, who resembles a horseman riding a toy wooden horse (and possibly intended to represent St. James the Apostle). The inner ring has at least one Catrina representing death, and male and female “Comanches,” meant to represent North American indigenous warriors, who carry whips. They dance in a circle, and at some point the Cole may flirt with the Mamanina or a vieja, satirizing a drunken and lecherous old man to the amusement of onlookers. The dances are repeated throughout the day, and the dancers are thought to lend their bodies to dead ancestors to participate in the celebration.

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TITLE: Toreada Devil (Cyclops) Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: San Luís Potosí
ETHNICITY: Tenek
DESCRIPTION: Devil mask in the form of a cyclops
MAKER: Carlos Victor Larrage Gómez (1969- , Tanlajás)
CEREMONY: Toreada de los Diablos (Holy Week)
AGE: 2019
MAIN MATERIAL: pemoches wood (Erythrina americana)
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint

The Toreada de los Diablos (Bullfight of the Devils) of Tanlajás, San Luís Potosí, is a ritual performed that has been performed by the male inhabitants of the town during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) since at least the 1880s in its modern incarnation. The diablos wear a variety of Xantolo-type masks that, although they are supposed to represent “devils,” may also appear as skulls, monkeys, clowns, old men or women, or in any other form of (preferably ugly) character. The idea underlying the diversity of appearances is that the Devil, personification of evil, can take any form, and so a Christian must be constantly on guard. Historically, the devils policed the church to ensure nobody was drinking or otherwise violating social rules. During the ritual today, the devils attempt to whip the legs of the “toreador” (bullfighter) with rawhide whips called chirriones. The toreador defends himself with a short stick (about 60 cm) and his own agility. The toreador tries constantly to approach the devil to reduce the force of the whip and to tap the devil’s face with his stick. In the past, the ritual was even more violent, with the toreador attempting to break the mask with his stick, until he succeeded or was disabled by whip wounds. The purpose of breaking the mask was twofold, both to punish the devil and to reveal who was wearing the mask (with the result that the other devils would rally around him to hide his identity). Today, the stick blow to the mask is only symbolic, but the wounds sustained by the toreador in the course of the ritual are quite real and often severe. They are intended for the participant to share in Jesus’s suffering. In consequence, there is much beer drinking among them to help dull the pain.

On Easter Sunday, the final day of the Toreada, all the devils parade around the village with the Mono (monkey) astride a donkey. The Mono is not a monkey at all, but an anthropomorphic figure dressed as a devil (with mask, boots, a jumpsuit, overalls, boots, hat, and a whip), filled with gunpowder, fireworks, and sawdust. The devils parade with the monkey to announce the culmination of the Toreada in the evening. The Mono is symbolically hung before the final Toreada performance, and the devils read a “will” that was prepared beforehand with satiric, humorous content, poking fun of the pecadillos of the villagers. The Mono is then burned to signal the end of the ritual, with explosions and rockets, to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.

It is possible that the Toreada de los Diablos is a syncretic tradition coopted by the Catholic church, which may have begun as a war ritual of the Tenek people as they prepared to defend themselves against the neighboring Nahua. The imperialistic Catholic missionaries, as they often did in the New World, re-formulated the tradition into the mold of the Catholic world view, which simplifies the universe into a Manichean struggle of good (the toreadores) versus evil (the diablos).

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TITLE: Toreada Devil (Cyclops) Mask
TYPE: face mask; accessory
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: San Luís Potosí
ETHNICITY: Tenek
DESCRIPTION: Devil mask in the form of a cyclops
MAKER: Carlos Victor Larrage Gómez (1969- , Tanlajás)
CEREMONY: Toreada de los Diablos (Holy Week)
AGE: 2022
MAIN MATERIAL: pemoches wood (Erythrina americana)
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint

The Toreada de los Diablos (Bullfight of the Devils) of Tanlajás, San Luís Potosí, is a ritual performed that has been performed by the male inhabitants of the town during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) since at least the 1880s in its modern incarnation. The diablos wear a variety of Xantolo-type masks that, although they are supposed to represent “devils,” may also appear as skulls, monkeys, clowns, old men or women, or in any other form of (preferably ugly) character. The idea underlying the diversity of appearances is that the Devil, personification of evil, can take any form, and so a Christian must be constantly on guard. Historically, the devils policed the church to ensure nobody was drinking or otherwise violating social rules. During the ritual today, the devils attempt to whip the legs of the “toreador” (bullfighter) with rawhide whips called chirriones. The toreador defends himself with a short stick (about 60 cm) and his own agility. The stick here is made from wood of the Brazilian orchid tree (Bauhinia forficata). The toreador tries constantly to approach the devil to reduce the force of the whip and to tap the devil’s face with his stick. In the past, the ritual was even more violent, with the toreador attempting to break the mask with his stick, until he succeeded or was disabled by whip wounds. The purpose of breaking the mask was twofold, both to punish the devil and to reveal who was wearing the mask (with the result that the other devils would rally around him to hide his identity). Today, the stick blow to the mask is only symbolic, but the wounds sustained by the toreador in the course of the ritual are quite real and often severe. They are intended for the participant to share in Jesus’s suffering. In consequence, there is much beer drinking among them to help dull the pain.

On Easter Sunday, the final day of the Toreada, all the devils parade around the village with the Mono (monkey) astride a donkey. The Mono is not a monkey at all, but an anthropomorphic figure dressed as a devil (with mask, boots, a jumpsuit, overalls, boots, hat, and a whip), filled with gunpowder, fireworks, and sawdust. The devils parade with the monkey to announce the culmination of the Toreada in the evening. The Mono is symbolically hung before the final Toreada performance, and the devils read a “will” that was prepared beforehand with satiric, humorous content, poking fun of the pecadillos of the villagers. The Mono is then burned to signal the end of the ritual, with explosions and rockets, to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.

It is possible that the Toreada de los Diablos is a syncretic tradition coopted by the Catholic church, which may have begun as a war ritual of the Tenek people as they prepared to defend themselves against the neighboring Nahua. The imperialistic Catholic missionaries, as they often did in the New World, re-formulated the tradition into the mold of the Catholic world view, which simplifies the universe into a Manichean struggle of good (the toreadores) versus evil (the diablos).

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TITLE: Maonan Nuo Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: China
SUBREGION: Guangxi
ETHNICITY: Maonan
DESCRIPTION: Nuo Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Nuo Opera
FUNCTION: Celebration; Entertainment; Healing; Purification
AGE: 1930s
MAIN MATERIAL: poplar or willow wood
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint; animal hair; adhesive; cotton cloth strips

The Nuo opera in China may be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), possibly much earlier (some believe the Shang and Zhou Dynasties) and was popular in large parts of the empire, but especially along the southern borders, where it was a form of entertainment for the imperial troops. It evolved from a sacrificial rite performed by shamans into a more dramatic form, with both Buddhist and Taoist overtones. Nuo opera is based on historical stories and stories based on the Taoist religion and all roles (including female roles) are performed by men. It evolved into a popular form of entertainment and was eventually accompanied by an orchestra of Chinese instruments.  The Nuo opera never quite lost its shamanic connection, however, and also was used to exorcise evil spirits at the home of sick persons. The sacred connection is evident from a religious ceremony that always precedes the opening of a Nuo opera.  In addition, a wooden statue representing the originator of the opera is present at every performance, and nobody except the opera troupe may touch props used in the performance. Although the Chinese Communist Party attempted to suppress Nuo performances and eliminated it from most of the country, the opera continues to be performed in three southern provinces of China today (Guangxi, Guizhou, and Jiangxi).

The Maonan people form a relatively small ethnic group in China, confined largely to Guangxi province, and it is one of several ethnic groups that adopted Nuo opera deeply into its culture. This mask probably represents a senior government official.

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TITLE: Yaqui Pasko’ola Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: Sonora
ETHNICITY: Yaqui
DESCRIPTION: Mañor Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Pasko’ola
FUNCTION: celebration; entertainment; funeral; protection
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; string; horse hair; shoe string

The Yaqui and related Mayo people inhabit the desert in the Mexican state of Sonora and southern Arizona. Their religious beliefs are a syncretic version of traditional animist practices and Jesuitical Catholicism. The pasko’olas (in the Spanish, pascolas) were malignant spirits, or children of the Devil, whom God won in a game. For that reason, their masks frequently have crucifixes and they wear a belt with twelve bells, each representing an apostle. To symbolize their evil origins, the masks have ugly expressions and vermin such as lizards, snakes and scorpions painted on them. In addition, dancers wear cords and butterfly cocoons on their legs, representing snakes and their rattles. They also wear a flower on their head, to symbolize rebirth and spring. They frequently play the role of clowns, provoking laughter in the audience by mimicking animals, reversing gender roles, organizing mock hunts, and making jokes.

Pasko’olas are danced at every major religious festival, as well as at birthdays, weddings, and funeral celebrations. For example, in Vicam, pasko’olas have traditionally danced on Día de San Juan Bautista (June 24). Sometimes a group of pasko’olas will be accompanied by a deer dancer, who dances with a taxidermy deer head as a crest. Generally, only men are pasko’ola dancers, but women have sometimes been allowed to dance with the permission of the male dancers.

This mask was culturally used in pasko’ola ceremonies for many years.

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TITLE: Temne Bundu Mask
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Sierra Leone
ETHNICITY: Temne
DESCRIPTION: Bundu Society Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bundu Society
AGE: ca. 1960s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

The Temne people of Sierra Leone is unusual in having a female secret society with a masking tradition exclusively its own.  The Bundu Society uses a-Nowo crest masks during girls’ initiation rituals involving adulthood and genital mutilation. The mask represents the Temne conception of an ideal woman. The a-Nowo dancer wears the mask atop the head with a full body costume of dark raffia fiber attached, so that no part of the dancer is visible. A-Nowo masked dancers may also appear at important social events, such as visits of foreign dignitaries and funerals of important members of society. Men carve the mask but cannot participate in the ritual.

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TITLE: Charro Mask and Cape
TYPE: face mask; costume
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: Tlaxcala
ETHNICITY: Nahua
DESCRIPTION: Charro (Cowboy) Mask with Cape
MAKER (Mask): Constantino Torres Pérez (1956- , Papalotla, Tlaxcala)
MAKER (Cape): Francisca Lara Guerrero (1936- , Papalotla, Tlaxcala)
CEREMONY: Carnival
AGE (Mask): 2017
AGE (Cape): 2015
MAIN MATERIAL (Mask): wood
OTHER MATERIALS (Mask): resin; oil-based paint; glass eyes; cattle hair eyelashes; gold foil; cotton string; plastic beads; cotton straps
MATERIALS (Cape): cotton granité cloth; cotton skein yarn; cotton thread; sequins

Carnival in Tlaxcala, Mexico has traditions quite different from those in other parts of the country.  In the town of Papalotla, Tlaxcala, men dress in elaborate costumes with broad feathered hats and detailed capes to perform a dance called El Pedimento del Agua (The Petition for Water). The costume for the dance, probably originating as a Chichimeca rain dance, is elaborately symbolic. The feathers symbolize clouds, the band around the head the sky, a beribboned mirror behind the head (the rocetón) symbolizes the moon and stars with a rainbow, and the leg coverings symbolize the home, or protection. On the cape, the sequins symbolize rain and the cotton braids symbolize snow. The design includes roses, which evoke nature, and the Mexican eagle. In addition, the charro dancers carry a braided whip called a cuarta, traditionally made of ixtle fiber, which symbolizes both thunder (noise of the whip cracking) and the chirrionera, a coachwhip snake, which according to local myths represents a woman converted into a serpent by a curse.

The mask of the charro is similar to the catrín mask used in other parts of Tlaxcala and, like them, ridicules the gentrified Spanish colonizers, with beauty marks and a gold tooth.

In the dance, dancers are orgnized into two structures, an exterior and an interior. The exterior is composed entirely of charros. The inner structure revolves around a female figure, the Nana (a man dressed as a women, with a female mask), who is surrounded by young female dancers (doncellas) and male dancers in simpler suits known as vasarios.

This mask was danced by its maker from 2017 until 2020. The cape was hand sewn in 2015 and rented out by the Taller Silver Star to be danced in the Carnival of Papalotla until 2020.



A brief documentary about Carnival in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico.

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TITLE: Moor (Devil) Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: Veracruz
ETHNICITY: Nahua
DESCRIPTION: Moro (Moor) Mask in the form of a Diablo (Devil)
MAKER: Rafael Mesa Oliva (1978- , Naolinco de Victoria)
CEREMONY: Fiesta de San Mateo (Danza de los Pilatos)
AGE: 2022
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint; lacquer; plastic; silicon glue; string

The Danza de los Pilatos, also called La Danza de los Moros y Cristianos (Dance of the Moors and Christians), is an important celebration in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The dance reenacts the reconquest Spain from the Saracens by the European Christians. The dance arose from the teachings of missionaries as part of an effort to instill respect for and fear of the Spaniards in the indigenous peoples, and to convince them that the victory of Christianity over other faiths—by violence whenever necessary—was inevitable.

The dance is still performed widely in Mexico, including in Mexico State, Michoacán, Puebla, and Veracruz. Characters vary depending on locality, although they always include “Christians” or “Spaniards” and Moors. In Naolinco, Veracruz, the dance is performed on the holiday of the town patron saint, St. Matthew (Fiesta de San Mateo), celebrated on Sept. 20-21 every year.  There, Moors take many forms, including devils, pirates, clowns, or, as here, skeletons. This mask represents a Moor in the form of a devil chewing on a sinner. It was carved by the master craftsman, Rafael Mesa Oliva.

For more on masks from Veracruz, see Bryan J. Stevens, Mexican Masks and Puppets: Master Carvers of the Sierra de Puebla (Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Pub’g, 2012).


A brief video with highlights of the Danza de los Moros y Cristianos from Naolinco’s 2018 Fiesta de San Mateo.

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TITLE: Moor (Calavera) Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: Veracruz
ETHNICITY: Nahua
DESCRIPTION: Moro (Moor) Mask in the form of a Calavera con Serpientes (Skull with Snakes)
MAKER: Rafael Mesa Oliva (1978- , Naolinco de Victoria)
CEREMONY: Fiesta de San Mateo (Danza de los Pilatos)
AGE: 2022
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint; lacquer; plastic; silicon glue; string

The Danza de los Pilatos, also called La Danza de los Moros y Cristianos (Dance of the Moors and Christians), is an important celebration in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The dance reenacts the reconquest Spain from the Saracens by the European Christians. The dance arose from the teachings of missionaries as part of an effort to instill respect for and fear of the Spaniards in the indigenous peoples, and to convince them that the victory of Christianity over other faiths—by violence whenever necessary—was inevitable.

The dance is still performed widely in Mexico, including in Mexico State, Michoacán, Puebla, and Veracruz. Characters vary depending on locality, although they always include “Christians” or “Spaniards” and Moors. In Naolinco, Veracruz, the dance is performed on the holiday of the town patron saint, St. Matthew (Fiesta de San Mateo), celebrated on Sept. 20-21 every year.  There, Moors take many forms, including devils, pirates, clowns, or, as here, skeletons. This mask represents a Moor in the form of a skeleton (calavera), with frightful decorations on its face. It was carved by the master craftsman, Rafael Mesa Oliva.

For more on masks from Veracruz, see Bryan J. Stevens, Mexican Masks and Puppets: Master Carvers of the Sierra de Puebla (Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Pub’g, 2012).


A brief video with highlights of the Danza de los Moros y Cristianos from Naolinco’s 2018 Fiesta de San Mateo.

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