45-year-old Alejandro Vera Guzman has dedicated his life to the local Mixtec culture of his hometown of Santiago Juxtlahuaca, principally through the making of masks.
He is a recognized “grand master” of his craft (really art), although he does not come from an artisan family.
His interest in making masks began with his interest in local folk dances when he was only a small boy. Traditional masks are carved from wood by local craftsmen, too expensive for a small boy to purchase, so initially he and his friends participated wearing lucha libre masks. When he was 12, he decided to start making his own masks, teaching himself using paper mache (cartonería). These masks were primarily for his own use but in a couple of years people began asking him to make masks for them. Little by little his reputation for mask making grew.
Although his father was a vendor and other siblings went onto professional studies, the family saw and supported Vera’s talent, allowing him to go to Mexico City to study wood sculpting for five years. While he did learn all the basics of wood sculpture, he heart was in mask-making and applied almost all of his effort here, develooping his own style.
The result is the making of traditional masks, but in an artistic way.
Vera has made over 5,000 masks over his lifetime so far. He uses principally Montezuma cypress and sometimes juniper, with the finished masks weighing between 1 to 1.5 kilos each. Vera is best known for the making of masks depicting the devil for a dance called Dance of the Devils performed in Juxtlahuaca each July, but also makes them for other traditional dances such as Los Rubios, Los Chilolos and El Macho. But his masks are quite distinct from those made by other artisans in the area, principally because of his artistic training. Most of his works do not have exagerated features (except for horns, which are those of real animals). The menance of the masks comes far more from facial expressions, how the image stares, smiles, etc then the depiction of blood or garish colors which are otherwise more common.
The Dance of the Devils is the most important traditional dance of Juxtlahuaca. It is derived from the Moors and Christians Dance (indeed a number of masks are meant to depict Mohammed), which is in honor of Saint James, the patron saint of the town. The Dance of the Devils has developed its own style and musical accompaniment. Traditionally the dance is only performed for this event, but today it is also performed when dancers of the town are invited to cultural events in Mexico, and has been performed all over Mexico.
Vera’s attitude about his craft is that of an artist, not someone trying to make a living. Several times during the interview, he returned to the idea that craftsmen should make only unique items: no two masks of his are ever exactly alike. To make items serially, he believes, takes away from the value of the work, as does making something simply because it will sell. He registers and names every piece he makes, and believes each work is a personal and cultural expression.
Since 1990, Vera’s work has been regularly recognized with national, state and local level awards and other recognitions. His work has been exhibited in museums such as ARIPO (Oaxaca Institute of Handcrafts), MEAPO (Oaxaca Museum of Popular Art), the Oaxacan state government palace museum, and in 2016 at the Popular Culture Museum in Mexico City. He has been honored for his work several times at the annual Guelaguetza Festival, and in 2012, he was included in the book Great Masters of Oaxacan Folk Art.
Vera’s work does not stop at masks. He sculpting talents produce other objects, most notably the making of religious images. In 2014, he and his family made a nearly life-size nativity scene (Oaxacan style of course) in wood as part of a gift from the state to the Vatican. Later that year, he and his family accompanied the work to Saint Peter’s Square to see it placed and even meet Pope Francis. Vera says he was so nervious that he forgot to kiss the pope’s hand.
Although he began by making masks for local dance particiption, today the vast majority of his works are sold to individual collectors and cultural institutions rather than in a general marketplace. He sells both “danced” and “undanced” masks, depending on buyers’ preference. A “danced” mask means that the mask had been used as part of a traditional festival, the mask’s original purpose. Some collectors prefer these believing that having had such a use gives them a kind of life. Undanced masks are generally a novel design specifically requested by a buyer.
One other thing that should be mentioned is that Vera is not only a craftsmen but a musician as well. He is a violinist with a local traditional musical group called Fandango Mixteca. This fits well with his passion for preserving and promoting traditional popular culture and the making of masks for dances. He has not only released albums of traditional local music, but also teaches local children to play the music as well.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.