Snakes on a mask: the Horta brothers

Tócuaro is a tiny community. You can walk from end-to-end in less than 5 minutes, but it is home to one of the Lake Patzcuaro region’s notable handcrafts, the making of wooden masks, especially those depicting devils. These masks are mostly tied to the largest annual event here, the “Pastorelas” which occurs in early February.  All must be made of wood (not plastic or other materials) and each mask is worn by only one dancer.

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Small mural of a devil mask on the delegation building in the center of Tócuaro

Tócuaro is an artisan town, with most families involved in wood working, mostly the making of rustic furniture. That woodworking did not include the making of masks. The first to make his own masks was a craftsman named Jose Ponce, but he made them mostly for his own use, not for sale. Until the latter 20th century, those from the town who needed a mask bought them from a nearby community callted Pichátaro or other communities around Lake Patzcuaro.

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Snake/devil mask at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

This changed with the Horta family, specifically Juan Horta Castilla. Horta originally made a living as a farmhand. He was very poor and did not have the money to buy a mask in Pichátaro. He went to another Lake area town, Quiroga, to find a woodworker who would teach him how to make masks. Like Ponce, he originally was interested only in making his own masks and maybe for family and friends. But the tourism of the area provided an alternative market for his work. Horta’s early masks were simple, without the elaborate designs, images and color schemes that often dominate masks made today. They were similar to masks made by other Lake Patzcuaro communities. However, as the Pastorela does not dictate exactly how the devils should be depicted through the masks, experimentation and creativity are permitted.

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Juan Horta home and workshop in Tócuaro

Horta’s talent allowed him to sell to markets beyond local dancers, first around Lake Patzcuaro, then to other parts of Michoacan, then to other parts of Mexico and even in the United States eventually.

He used local woods and natural paints including those made from soot and pigments used for the dyeing of cloth. The opportunity to sell in more upscale venues, such as the Casa de Artesanias in Morelia and later the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala prompted him to develop masks with finer features.  His travels, often sponored by government entities, not only allowed him to sell but also to work with and learn from other artisans.

Juan died on December 19, 2006, but not before a long history of success at handcraft competitions, including a prize for a mask he entered for the National Prize in Arts and Sciences in 1980.

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Orlando Horta demonstrating mask painting at the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala

Today, five of Horta’s sons (as well as a few other families) continue the work of making masks for both dancers’ and collectors’ markets. Three (Orlando, Hugo and Manuel) still work in the father’s old workshop, which still carries Juan’s name. The other live and work elsewhere in the small community.

Each brother has his own speciality and his own clients.  The oldest, Orlando, specializes in miniature masks. Hugo does medium-sized ieces and Modesto makes larger masks of high quality mostly for collectors. Juan Jose specializes in masks of women like mermaids with fine detail. Manuel is more of a generalist, and his masks are more rustic.

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Inside the Juan Horta workshop in Tócuaro

Depending on size, detail and quality of the finished product, masks can take from weeks to months to make, that that does not mean that a single mask is being made during all of that tiem. Much of the time involved includes the drying of the wood (before and/or after carving) and the drying of paint layers. Various local woods are still used in the making of masks, each selected depending on its qualities. One important wood is called copalillo, which is native to the area. It is lightweight, relatively easy to carve and resistant to warping. It can also grow in capricious forms, lending itself in particular to the making of devil’s masks which feature one or more raised snake figures over the basic form.

HortaWorkshopTocuaro028Carving of the wood is still done very similarly to what Juan Horta did, there have been some changes, in particular in painting. Until very recently, masks were painted with water-based paints then acrylics, but since many dances are performed during the rainy season, water damage to both paint and wood is a problem. For this reason, Horta’s sons have turned to the use of automobile paint, which not only gives a higher gloss, it protects the wood much better for much longer.

The Horta’s make many types of masks for most of the regional dances in central Michoacan, they are by far best known for the making of the snake-laden devil masks. The snake adornment varies from a simple raised design to elements that are added to the “face” and almost obscuring it completely. These masks can be made from one single piece of wood or may take advantage of the smaller twising branches of the copalillo tree. While the snakes have always been a traditional aspect of these masks, the truly fantastic designs are new, dating back only about 20 years or so and are primarily driven by the collectors and institutional markets.

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Although the fine, fantastic masks are a trademark, the three brothers in the original workshop still produce a wide variety of masks for various markets. While size and type of wood play a role, most of the price is determined by the amount of time and effort the mask requires. Intricate and highly-crafted mass go for $6,000 pesos and more, but their market is limited mostly to collectors and institutions, with only 2 or 3 of these made per year on average. Most of the production, about 50 to 80 masks per year, are still basic, traditional masks made for both dancers and tourists and sell for between 100 and 500 pesos. They also take on special orders, including masks that may have nothing to do with any traditional model, not only because it is a guaranteed sale, but also a challenge to their creative abilities.

Although the home and workshop in Tócuaro is open to the public, few make their way to this town, various km away from Lake Patzcuaro proper. Those masks not intended for local dancers are mostly sold through galleries, tourist shops and other resellers, not only in Michoacan, but also in important tourist areas such as Puerto Vallarta, San Miguel Allende,  and various in the United States.

Despite their reputation, the making of the masks does not provide sufficient income, and there is little other economic opportunity in the area. Two of the brothers regularly migrate illegally to the United States to do seasonal work, primarily in New England. Here they have also given workshops and classes about the masks and their use in local school and even give classes at the Margaritas Mexican restaurant in Weymouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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