Of masks and mayhem in coffee country

Xico is a Pueblo Mágico, nestled in the Sierra Madre Oriental of northern Veracruz. It is filled with cobblestone streets and colonial houses, and the occasional horse is not uncommon either. This is coffee growing country and it is possible to smell it and chili peppers roasting at the same time.

It was named a “magic town” in 2011, not only because of its architecture and mole, but also because it has conserved a number of important traditions. The most important of these by far are those associated with the town feast for its patron saint, Mary Magdalene, which is celebrated from July 18 to 25.  The main event of this event is the Xiqueñada, essentially a running of the bulls in this tiny town.

Credit:E-consulta Veracrz

Like so many other rural towns, masked dances remain popular for this and other feast days. They are so popular in Xico that there is even a museum dedicated to them. The difficulty in preserving these dances has to do with the making of the masks themselves. However, Tepo family patriarch David Tepo (featured photo) has done much to keep this alive.

Credit: Hector Peredo Nicolas

However, the family does not have a long history of doing this work. David himself was not born in an artisan family, but as a young boy loved a dance called Tocotines. When he got a little older, he became interested in the masking of masks for this and other dances.

Having no maestro to show him how, he simply began experimenting on his own. Over time, he worked out his own techniques. Eventually, he began to sell masks, and using the money to buy tools and other supplies. As he continued to work, his reputation grew. Eventually, he was able to sell all over Mexico and even abroad, especially to the United States.

It took a long time for him to be able to work at mask-making full time. Over his long life he has worked at many jobs to get by from cultivating coffee, laying bricks, sculpting and repairing religious images and more. Although he has been able to dedicate himself to the craft, he states it is “poor man’s work” as masks take time and there is a limit to what he can charge. However, he also says it is work with “much spirit” and at age 88, still hopes to continue working for years to come.

He sold his first masks for only about 25 pesos and his good wood masks can still be had for only 700. Don David makes masks of two types. The most traditional are those made of wood. The favored wood here is a very light, easy-to-carve wood known as queñite. Although he has made masks for all kinds of dances, the two most requested are those depicting the devil for the Dance of the Moors and those for the clowns that accompany all traditional dancers in Xico. The maestro also makes similar masks with a hard paper mache technique called cartonería. These are less traditional, but are an economic staple for the family as they can be made more cheaply and sold more readily.

Maestro David has lived and worked in this house for over 65 years.

Don David has earned a certain amount of fame and recognition for his work. He taught his sons who work at this and other handcrafts. He has also taught outside the family but says those students learn from him out of interest rather than to become professional craftsmen.

He has given workshops and talks in the area as well as the Universidad Veracruzana and has been interviewed Mexican and US media. His work can be found in the United States, Canada, Japan and China. But Tepo is a practical man, saying that “fame is nice, but also nice is money for me. If a client buys a mask from me, I feel good because he likes my work.”

David Tepo can be reached through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mascarasdavidtepo

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