Strong and determined dancers need strong and determined masks

Sometimes the making of a traditional handcraft item comes full circle. This is the case for Chicahuales masks in the barely- Norteño state of Aguascalientes.

The Chicahuales dance is a variant of the Moors and Christians dance that can be found all over Mexico, especially in central and southern Mexico. This dance was developed by evangelizing friars generally to repurpose indigenous dances to Christian themes. One reason that the Moors and Christians dances vary in Mexico is the different dances that were coopted for this purpose. In the case of the Chicahuales dance, it is likely derived from a war dance. The name is Nahuatl that means “strong and determined,” with the god Huitzilopochtli substituted by the King of the Chicahuales and his wife Toci replaced by the Old Woman of the Chicahuales or Saint Anne.

The dance is part of the identity of the state of Aguascalientes, but it is most famous in the municipality of Jesus Maria, just northwest of the state capital and 6 hours west-northwest of Mexico City.

This is the home of Gilberto Suarez Vazquez, who revived the tradition of making wooden masks for the various characters of the Chicahuales dance.

At age 15, Suarez began working in wood, participating in the municipality’s traditional industry of furniture making, following a number of uncles and other family members in this endeavor. For five years he made chairs, bed frames, headboards, tables and more.  However, one day the local arts center or Casa de Cultura, offered a class on wood sculpting. He and his brother, also a wood worker, decide to take the class despite the fact that no one in his family had done this before.

It was a short class and at the end, the two men wanted more instruction. However, the teacher assured them that they had what they needed and that they would get better with practice.

Chicahuales mask on the workshop wall

The two brothers established a workshop, and over time this workshop was able to produce and sell religious images such as images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints. However, being self-employed is difficult and Gilberto’s brother decided to move onto other things.

But Gilberto Suarez persisted and in total, he has about 20 years of sculpting wood. Some years ago, he had the idea of making wooden masks for the traditional Chicahuales dance in Jesus Maria. Like for most traditional dances in Mexico, wood is the traditional material, but it requires knowledge and time to sculpt. Because of cost, masks made of a hard paper mache called cartonería has almost replaced the wooden masks entirely, with only 1 or 2% in wood.

At first, Suarez doubted this would be a major item for his workshop. The dance is performed only once a year in Jesus Maria, at the end of July in honor of the Apostle James, the town’s patron saint.

In Jesus Maria, this celebration lasts 15 days. The Chicahuales dance is performed for five of those days, from July 25, marking the first day of the battle against the Moors. On the second the Old Woman appears in the dances. The other days celebrate the victory of Christian forces over the Moors. Day 3 has a running of the bulls and there are cockfights on the fourth day. One the last day, the Chicahuales and others go to Mass. Although there is a solemn religious reason for the dancing, it also has a mischievous side, which helps to keep it popular.

Because the dance goes on for five days, the mask needs to last for at least that long. One problem is that the end of July is in the rainy season. Although much cheaper to make and buy, cartonería masks do not hold up well to getting wet, either from the inside from sweat or from the outside when it rains. In many cases, these masks do not hold up to Day 5.

The dance has four principal characters. The King of the Chicahuales, the chief of the Moors, the Old Woman of the Chicahuales (Saint Anne) and the rest of the Chicahuales. The first three characters have distinctive masks to set them apart. At any Chicahuales dance, there are only one of each of these three characters, even if 300 dancers take part.

Despite the low expectations economically, Suarez made some masks anyway. But the reactions to his masks surprised him. They did sell, and over a short time led to invitations to participate in projects in Jesus Maria and other municipalities dedicated to preserving and promoting the Chicahuales.

Turns out that because of the limitations of the cartonería masks, dancers wanted wooden versions but had no idea how to get them. As his reputation spread, demand for masks came in from other parts of the state.  The wood masks have now had enough success that they have started to become collectors’ items. Gilberto has received orders from as far as Russia and Germany. Tourists have begun attending the festivities in Jesus Maria and buying masks as well.

At first, he made masks with cedar but has since changed over to willow, poplar and cypress, trees that can be found in the municipality. Cedar is easier to carve details into, but the other woods are more authentic.

Some of Suarez’s other work

Today, Suarez’s brother has returned to the workshop to help on occasion. Last year, the brothers began teaching young people in Jesus Maria how to make the masks. Suarez says it is not that hard, but it requires patience and a desire to make them. Initially they worked for one year with a group of seven students. However, it is not easy to attract students and at the moment, the only youth really interested in learning is Suarez’s oldest son.

Gilberto says “… and we will continue with this, because this dance, after you hear the first call, which is the explosion of fireworks and then a melancholy drum beat, this makes your body tremble, you get goose bumps because of the excitement because finally it is about to begin… this is what motivates me to make my masks.” For more information about this year’s Feria de los Chicahuales

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