Exquisite masks in a “fierce neighborhood”

“Peñon de los Baños” refers both to a rocky hill and a barrio (neighborhood) in the east of Mexico City, bordering Terminal 1 of the city airport to the north.

Side of Carmen Plaza with the hill (yes, that is the airport radar tower) in the background

It is a “barrio bravo” (lit. fierce neighborhood), a term for area noted not only for being very poor, but also somewhat closed and hostile to outsiders. The area developed about a 100 or so years ago, but solidified as a zone when Mexico City’s growth exploded in the 20th century. Most of its residents have roots somewhere else, in particular in Puebla.

This Puebla link can be seen in a number of its traditions, in particular in the celebrations of Carnival and 5 de Mayo, one of the few places outside of the state of Puebla where the holiday is a big deal.

Carnival 2016

5 de mayo 2016

EduardoGarciaH006Eduardo Garcia Hernandez comes from a family long established in the area, and its a third generation “cartonero” or paper mache artist, a relatively common occupation in the eastern part of Mexico City. However, what makes the not-yet 30 Garcia stand out is the making of traditional wax masks for Carnival.

Neither his grandfather or father made wax masks; indeed, no one in the barrio made them. Although completely traditional, the masks had always been brought in from somewhere else, mostly the State of Mexico or Puebla. About eight years ago, this concerned Garcia, but talking to neighborhood elders yielded no information as to why this was the case.

EduardoGarciaH017About four years ago, he decided to try and make the masks. There was no one to learn from nor did he have any experience working with wax, so all learning was by trial-and-error. So much so that he gave up on the project for a time. He came back to it about two years ago with a new idea, and one that worked. It took fifteen days to use that idea to make the very first usable mask.

Despite the fact that Garcia simply could have developed a cartoneria version of the mask, he insisted on the wax version, stating that the wax has the important property of absorbing the “smell” of Carnival, principally the smoke of the gunpowder used extensively in theatrical rifles.

One of the molds used to make the masks, crafted by Garcia from cartoneria

Garcia’s techniques for making the masks are based on his knowledge of cartoneria, basically the layering of 5 kinds of wax with layers of fabric pieces. The molds he uses to create faces are made from cartoneria (an interesting switch as cartoneria is typically make with molds, rather than being used to make molds). The most important detail, a highly-stylized beard is made from ixtle (maguey plant fiber), which Garcia dyes and weaves himself. Other details such as eyebrows and hair can be made from this as well, with other details from mostly commercial materials.  Paint in applied in several ways: onto the fabric layers, onto an interior wax layer or onto the top layer of the masks. Often a combination of techniques are used, especially for the creation of eyes.

Encouraged by his family, Garcia debuted his masks in 2015 and today he has more demand than he can fill himself. All products so far have been for local Carnival dancers, as the first masks by the barrio for the barrio, with all having been used for Carnival or other festivals.

Currently, Garcia has about ten basic designs with variations on the colors and details, so no two are exactly alike. Most are traditional: imitating the Spanish of the colonial period, but he has worked to developed others, including devil masks based of Judas figures and even a mask which wears a European-style Carnival mask.

Female mask that wears a mask

Masks currently take about a week to make, and Garcia splits his time between mask making and cartoneria. So far, he is the only person producing the masks in Peñon de los Baños.

The masks stand out because they are so realistic-looking. While they look fragile, they are surprisingly resiliant.  Im ashamed to admit I dropped one, but it was not damaged. Garcia says they can withstand the occasional bang and the heat generated when dancers perform in the sun. But they cannot withstand a severe, intentional blow or to be in direct sunlight for an extended period of time.





All photographs by Alejandro Linares Garcia










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