Masks in Mexican folk art are more than just decoration. Worn in folk dances around the country, the masks are an ever-present part of Mexican culture.
Indigenous people used them in rituals, colonial-era people used them in plays, and contemporary Mexicans wear them in dances.
Look behind the mask with us and discover the meaning and function of these fascinating pieces of Mexican history.
What Is Mexican Folk Art?
The first thing to note is that no one “Mexican” folk art exists. Mexico is awash in cultural variety from the different indigenous populations. And while the Spanish sought to remove any traces of pre-colonial religion and culture, it was more challenging than they thought.
Instead of tossing out their old beliefs for Catholicism, indigenous people created a blend of ideas. This blend is one of the things that makes Mexican folk art so unique.
Mexican folk art takes the form of ceramics, textiles, masks, tilework, murals, painting, and more. Folk art, for the most part, exists outside of the traditional European concept of fine art. In Mexico, folk art became part of the resistance to the Spanish conquest. Even in pieces made for use by the Spanish, artists embedded indigenous symbols as an act of resistance.
Like other forms of folk art, Mexican folk artists usually learn their craft outside the art establishment. To say they’re untrained is a Euro-centric way of thinking. Most Mexican folk artists come from families with a long history of crafting. Mask makers, for instance, pass their craft down through the generations.
What Are Mexican Folk Art Masks?
Masks are one of Mexican folk art’s most visible and vibrant examples. Indigenous cultures in Mexico created masks for use in religious ceremonies and dances. Thousands of years ago, priests of the Aztec Empire wore masks in rituals to embody their gods.
Warriors wore masks representing jaguars and eagles to gain their strength. And priests dressed the dead in death masks to hide their identities as they passed into the underworld.
Later, during the Spanish occupation of Mexico, masks became a function of religious subjugation. Catholic priests trying to win over native populations took the use of masks and twisted them for their own ends.
Masked characters featured in plays about morality and the conquest of the Moors in Spain. With their religions banned, indigenous peoples integrated their beliefs into the performances. Masked dances evolved around Holy Week, Day of the Dead, Carnival, and the Conquest of Mexico.
Dancers often used masks to make fun of their conquerors. Colonial overlords became the butt of jokes by their much more clever subjects. Once they figured it out, the Spanish oppressors banned masks for two hundred years.
But the Spanish couldn’t be everywhere in Mexico, so the masked dances lived on. In mountain villages and far-flung pueblos, animals, demons, devils, skulls, and Catholic/Indigenous mashups danced at festivals.
Today, Mexican folk art masks exist as part of the broader culture. Luchadores wear masks that hide their identities in wrestling matches. Dancers and festival-goers wear masks as they celebrate holy days and national holidays.
Masked characters are part of the cultural fabric of modern Mexico. And while you can find reproductions of traditional masks anywhere, the original objects are prized for their history.
What Are Mexican Folk Art Masks Made Of?
Mexican folk artists use a wide range of materials to make masks. Sadly we don’t have great examples of historical masks from the pre-colonial era, as those from this period often fell victim to priests and were burned or destroyed.
Wooden masks are much more common now. The most common wood used is from the tzompantli tree, a soft, white-wooded member of the legume family. The tree is native to Mexico and utilized only for important objects or objects used in rituals. Other woods include red cedar, ayacahuite (a pine varietal), poplar, mesquite, and avocado.
Why is Mexican Art So Colorful?
For thousands of years, artisans in Mexico made art full of color. Natural elements used in making dyes and paints are naturally abundant on the land. As a result, artists found ways to incorporate the colors around them into their work. Color also played a role in religious rituals.
Aztec priests painted sacrificial victims blue using natural pigments. Brilliant green quetzal feathers, poinsettias, and the explosion of color in spring all inform artists’ love of color. From pre-colonial mosaics to present-day Lucha libre masks, color is integral to the identity of Mexico.
Who Are Some Famous Mexican Folk Art Mask Artists?
Mexican folk art masks are now fine art objects collected in galleries, museums, and personal collections. Family dynasties of artisans pass down their tricks and trade secrets from generation to generation. These are some of the more well-known Mexican folk art mask makers.
Victoriano Salgado Morales
Victorian Salgado Morales was one of the most influential mask makers in Uruapan, Michoacán. Regional dancers wore his masks during festivals in the Magdalena neighborhood and at traditional Christmas pageants.
Although he passed in 2012, his sons carry on his craft using many of the same techniques. After carving the masks from wood, Morales’ sons use a process called maque. Martin, Gerardo, and Juan Carlos rub powdered pigments into the mask’s surface, then dry and polish it to a finished luster.
Juan Horta Castillo
Juan Horta Castillo used a machete and crude chisels to become one of Mexico’s premier mask makers. People in his hometown of Tocuaro still use his masks in the Pastorelas Dance each year.
Other masks of his appeared with Ballet Folklorico de Mexico on their worldwide tours. Before his death in 2006, he was a featured artist at several American colleges of art and design. His sons are all carvers carrying on the skill taught to them by their father.
Herminio Candelario Dolores
Dolores was well known for his animal masks used in the dance of the Morenos. In 1995, he received a grant from the government to establish a workshop. He passed his skills and tradecraft on to many young people, including his son Gorgonio Candelario Castro.
Castro carries on his father’s tradition of excellence in making masks for local dances in his area. Dolores and his son’s work protects the local customs and ensures that young people carry them on for future generations.
Where Can I See More Mexican Folk Art Masks?
Mexican folk art masks are typical in local markets around Mexico and the southwestern United States. The best examples, however, are more likely to be found in museums and art galleries.
The Mexican Museum
Located in San Francisco, The Mexican Museum holds a comprehensive permanent collection of Mexican folk art. The museum gives folk art a new shine by situating Mexican art in the heart of San Francisco’s Art District. Exhibitions of Mexican art span thousands of years of history. Construction on a new space is underway, but you can browse their collection online.
Folk Art Museum of Central Texas
This traveling museum in Austin, Texas, exhibits in city buildings around the area. They hold a small collection of Mexican folk masks and other folk art from around the world.
They’re searching for a permanent space, but for now, you can appreciate the detailed masks in their collection online. They have works from Juan Horta Castillo, among others, in their collection.
You can find masks everywhere in Mexico and many US border towns. Galeria Eugenio in Mexico City houses a massive collection of Mexican folk art masks unrivaled anywhere. Over a thousand masks line the walls, and the curator is the son of one of the most influential mask collectors in the country.
Outside Folk Art
At Outside Folk Art, we have some excellent examples of Mexican devil masks in our collection. And more are on the way! Celebrating folk and outsider artists, our goal is to give voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so follow us to discover the where and when.
An Incredible History Comes to Life
Mexican folk art masks are a fascinating piece of Mexican culture still used in celebrations today. Stretching back to the Aztec Empire, these pieces represent the spirit of Mexico. Check out the rich history these masks represent in person where you can. You won’t be sorry for the time spent finding and studying these powerful artifacts.
Do you know another excellent spot to see Mexican folk art masks in person? Let us know in the comments!