Alcario Camea

When James Griffith was collecting Pascola masks that had been created by Rio Mayo carvers, back in 1965, he found it particularly easy to build a representative collection of masks by one of the local carvers, Alcario Camea, but he had marked difficulty when he attempted to buy danced masks by Silvestre Lopez. As I noted in last week’s post, masks carved by Sylvestre were perceived as superior to most of the others in terms of desirable design features. In contrast, Alcario’s masks were carefully carved, and perhaps brilliant in their eccentricity, but these idiosyncratic design features apparently went in and out of fashion, over time. One might imagine that these shifts in taste reflect some degree of secularization of the Pascola’s role, but I don’t believe that there is much of a published literature in this area. However, Tom Kolaz has been particularly interested in tracking these changing Pascola mask fashions on the Rio Mayo, and I look forward to a time when he will make his observations more widely available.

In April 1995, I briefly owned an excellent mask by Alcario, with typical features. I immediately traded it for another mask that I coveted. I was later able to photograph this mask  in 2011, after it had entered the collection of Jerry Collings. By now this mask has probably moved on to the collection of Gallery West, in Tucson Arizona. I have no photos of other masks by Alcario to offer you, apart from those in Griffith’s Masters Thesis of 1967, which you can access through the link that follows. Here is a photo of the mask that I briefly owned in 1995, to get us started. I had purchased that mask from Mark Bahti, of Tucson Arizona, who reported that his father, Tom Bahti had collected the mask several decades earlier. In other words, it probably dates to the same period as Jim Griffith’s research.

In the frontal view one sees a number of features that appear on almost every one of Alcario’s masks. These include:

1. the typical cross (which Griffith dubbed the “Alcario cross);

2. almond shaped eyes that are slanted downward at their outer corners;

3. oversized crescent shaped wedges under the eyes (almost as if a second mustache);

4. a broad drooping mustache between the bottom of the nose and the upper lip;

5. open teeth;

6. a ring of hair bundles around the face;

7. a slab-like nose with “ski-jump” contour and a blunt end.

8. and the use of boldly contrasting colors, noted Griffith.

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Sylvestre Lopez

In his Master’s Thesis of 1967, James Griffith told of his difficulty collecting masks by a very popular Rio Mayo carver, Sylvestre Lopez. Dancers were reluctant to sell masks that had been carved by Sylvestre, even if they owned other masks as well, because Sylvestre’s masks were invariably their favorites. In desperation, Griffith ordered two new masks from the carver, but it seemed that Sylvestre was too busy to fill this order in the period when the writer was in the area. In one instance Griffith was able to buy a danced mask by Sylvestre, but this was because the dancer had died and Griffith bought it from the widow; he was sold two others that had imperfections! He commented on the reasons Silvestre was so busy. Most importantly, Sylvestre was “also a Curandero, or healing expert, and often practices up in the Yaqui country at Vicam.” Silvestre had even obtained a Yaqui Pascola mask in Vicam. His curing services there were apparently in great demand. He performed in Rio Mayo fiestas as a Deer Singer, and in addition to supplying masks for the Pascola dancers, “he also makes rasps for the Deer Singers, and has made at least one head for the Deer Dancer” (pp. 101-102).

I have no mask in my collection by Sylvestre, but I can show two masks that I had photographed in 2011, when they were in the collection of Jerry Collings. Both had been attributed to Sylvestre at the time of original collection. I will start with this one, which was collected from Librido Leyva of El Zapote, Sonora at an unknown date. It was thought to have been carved in Borabampo, Sonora circa 1950.

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Three Rio Mayo Masks By The Floral Borders Carver

One by one, I have been introducing you to a group of Rio Mayo carvers whose masks I first encountered in 1988 or thereabouts. As has been my common experience, the masks of this carver came to me as the works of an anonymous artist. Over the passage of 30 years, I have usually been able to put a name to most of my mystery masks, but here is a trio whose maker has long eluded me. Recently my friend Tom Kolaz told me that he believes he has figured out this mystery, and I will leave it to him to tell us more when he eventually publishes on his Mayo research. For now I will name this artist by one of his border designs—the Floral Borders Carver. Apart from this feature his masks are absolutely generic, with typical Rio Mayo features.

I bought my first mask by this carver from Robin and Barbara Cleaver in 1988. They had obtained it from Roberto Ruiz, a man who often brought up masks from Sonora for various Indian arts dealers and collectors in Arizona and New Mexico. Arriving as usual with little provenance, this mask seemed very primitive to my eyes at that time, although now it seems so typical of the Rio Mayo area. This one does not have the intertwined floral border, but the next two masks share that feature.

In fact, this first mask has a very simple rim design, and there are red splotches of paint on the cheeks instead of more formal wedge designs.

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Brígido Valenzuela

Today we will examine the masks of another interesting Mayo master carver, Brígido Valenzuela of Guayparín, Sonora. In Jim Griffith’s Masters Thesis of 1967 he showed a photograph taken in 1965 of a Pascola mask by Brígado Valenzuela (809-34, figure 15); “This was his first attempt at mask making,” said Griffith, but he didn’t indicate its age. Here is a link to a photo of that mask on the Arizona State Museum Website.

In June, 1988 I purchased an anonymous Pascola Mask from Robin and Barbara Cleaver. When I compared it to another in a friend’s collection, I learned the name of the carver—Brígido Valenzuela. I liked this mask a lot, but I gave it up in a trade for another important mask. Here is an old (and harshly lit) flash photo of that mask.

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Marcelo Alamea

Last week we looked at masks that were probably carved by Plácido Alamea, rather than by his son Marcelo Alamea. This week I will show masks that were identified at the time of collection as the work of his son. It is possible that some of these were carved by Plácido. I bought the first of today’s masks on EBay™ in 2010 as an anonymous mask.  Comparing it with masks by Plácido and Marcelo in other collections, it seemed much more likely to be by the latter. My general impression is that the noses on Marcelo’s masks imitate those of his father, but they are often less delicately carved.

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Plácido Alamea

In his Masters Thesis of 1967 on Rio Mayo masks and carvers, James Griffith wrote about Plácido and Marcelo Alamea (pp. 105-107). Marcelo was Plácido’s son and both are deceased. In the Spring of 1965, when Griffith was working in the Rio Mayo region, Plácido was about 60 years old, and living in Jitombrumui, Sonora. He had danced as a Pascola, foot pain led him to retire, but he continued to play the violin at fiestas. “He also makes violins, harps, and masks, and has some reputation as a curandero,” wrote Griffith. Marcelo , who was living in Loma del Refugio, Sonora, was also a mask carver and a festival violinist. Griffith felt that father and son carved similar masks, as if there might be an Alamea family style. He described their masks as having “complex borders” and observed that ” six of the masks have horizontally flat faces with vertically convex cheeks.” When present those cheeks do provide one marker for masks carved by the Alameas, although some of their masks lack this feature.

Mexican Masks, by Donald Cordry, was published in 1980. In that book we find a photo of “Don Plácido” that was taken by Cordry in Antanguisa, Sonora in 1938 (plate 140, page 101); Placído was carving a mask and a completed mask was nearby. According to Leonardo Valdez, who had assembled a Museo (museum) collection of Mayo dance material in Etchojoa, Sonora, this Don Plácido was Plácido Alamea. Leonardo had one of Plácido’s harps on display in the Museo. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate Antanguisa. Griffith shows Jitombrumui on a map that indicates it lay 10 Km. to the west of Navojoa (and 10 km. west of Loma del Refugio, Marcelo’s village).

I visited Jim Griffith at his home near Tucson in 1990, and he kindly allowed me to photograph the masks he had collected during his research among the Mayo Indians of Sonora. At the time I wanted these photos as visual records of carver’s styles (a reference library), and I never sought his permission to publish those images. Since then Jim has donated those masks to the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, Arizona. At about the same time I obtained the book written by James Griffith and Felipe S. Molina, Old Men of the Fiesta:An Introduction to the Pascola Arts (1980), and I began visiting the Arizona State Museum’s Yaqui and Mayo collections. Through these experiences I discovered the masks of Plácido and Marcelo Alamea. Today I will focus on Plácido.

Here is one of the masks carved by Plácido Alamea that was collected by James Griffith during his research in 1965. What a beauty!

From the time that I first discovered Plácido’s classic mask style, I wanted one or more for my collection.  Ultimately one doesn’t get to collect what they want, but what they encounter. I wasn’t able to buy a mask by Plácido until 10 years later, when Tom Kolaz offered to sell me one. As you will later see, this is a very unusual and interesting mask. Then, in around 2005 I obtained a more classic example, which I will show you first. I bought this mask from the John C. Hill Indian Arts Gallery in Scottsdale Arizona, with no provenance. While this mask exemplifies Plácido’s style, I am uncertain whether it was carved by Plácido or Marcelo.

On first glance, you may have noticed that this mask exhibits many generic Rio Mayo Pascola design elements, such as the chevron shaped wedges that flank the nose, a forehead cross composed of four triangles with their points together, a mouth like those on masks by Pancho Parra and Bonifacio Balmea, and hair bundles that frame the face in a circle. These are all typically found on Alamea masks. An unusual detail is the chin cross, which matches the one on the forehead, and appears to be original to the mask. The rims of the eyes were carved in relief, another common feature of masks by the Alameas.

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Bonifacio Balmea Sauzemea

This week I am introducing you more fully to another excellent and prolific Rio Mayo maskmaker, Bonifacio Balmea Sauzemea, of Guayparín, municipio of Etchajoa, Sonora, who is sometimes erroneously referred to as Bonifacio Valenzuela. I had inadvertently included one of Bonifacio’s masks from another collection in my post of September 10, 2018, thinking that it was a mask carved by Pancho Parra. Bonifacio’s masks often resemble those of Pancho Parra, so much so that one commonly finds masks in major collections that were made by one of these carvers but misidentified as the work of the other. I will start with a trio of masks by this artist that I purchased from Tom Kolaz in 1998.

This one was said to date from the 1960s. It has what I call “almond shaped ” eyes, which are commonly seen on Bonifacio’s masks, but alternating with other eye designs, and all these options are to be found on the masks of other Rio Mayo carvers. The rims of these particular eyes are painted but not elevated (not carved in relief).

Bonifacio also chooses from a number of mouth designs. I will call this one a “pointed grin,” when comparing it to his other favorites. Mouths with either flat or curved upper lips and pointed ends are characteristic for this carver, and one could call them auxiliary identifiers, but they too are sufficiently generic that they don’t distinguish one carver from another.

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Mayo Masks from the Mexican State of Sonora: Francisco “Pancho” Parra II

Today we will examine four more beautiful old masks that were carved  by Francisco “Pancho” Parra. I photographed the first three in the collection of Jerry Collings in 2011, and he kindly gave me permission to publish them as I wished. It is my understanding that those three may have been later traded to the Gallery West in Tucson Arizona. The first of these was collected from Eduardo Valenzuela of El Rodeo, Sonora, who said it was made in about 1963.

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A Remarkable Rio Mayo Pascola Mask


I had planned to continue discussion of the masks of Francisco “Pancho” Parra today, but I realized that I was uncertain about certain details. I am postponing that post and substituting the one that was to follow.

I bought today’s attractive and highly unusual mask from my friend Tom Kolaz in 2014. His runner had found it in the Rio Mayo area of Sonora. At that time it was still being danced. The Moroyoqui family of Sonora had originally purchased it circa 1940, it had remained in that extended family until the time of purchase, and the carver was said to be Gerardo Arce, an individual whom the family identified as someone who had carved more than one mask. Gerardo is otherwise unknown to either Tom Kolaz or myself. There are two possibilities here; either Gerardo is a newly identified master carver of great talent, or the carver was actually someone else and the family’s report is in error. The problem, as you may recall from my earlier posts about Yaqui Pascola masks, is that these attributions by sellers frequently appear to be erroneous, when one compares a given mask to those of well recognized carvers. The shaping of the joint between the top of the nose and the forehead of this mask resembles the style of Pancho Parra, whose masks were the subject of my last two posts. However, the mask is otherwise different from those of Pancho in various respects, with some features that seem m/l generic in the Rio Mayo tradition, others found on older anonymous Mayo Pascola masks, and the unusual forehead that seems unique to this mask. To my eye this mask is a masterpiece.

In general, this mask is clearly in the Rio Mayo style, with an oval shape, moderately long hair bundles for the brows and beard, almond shaped eyes, decorative painted design elements that flank the nose, and a slightly open mouth. It may or may not have originally had a tongue. This tongue is a separate wooden element that has been inserted between the teeth and secured with a nail, a traditional variation found on a few other Mayo Pascola masks.

The artistry of the carving and decoration make one think of one of the premier Yaqui carvers of the mid-20th century, Manuel Centella Escalante. Having said this, one must add that the forehead cross and the rim design look nothing like his work. One would be more tempted to think that a Mayo carver saw a Centella mask and was inspired to copy some aspects of his style. Continue Reading

Mayo Masks from the Mexican State of Sonora: Francisco “Pancho” Parra

Another carver included in Jim Griffith’s study (see last week’s post) was “Francisco Parras,” although the author did not include any photos of masks by that artist. One more often sees this man’s name rendered as “Pancho” Parra. He was an excellent and prolific mascarero for many years, and his Pascola masks are heavily represented in several important collections. Pancho has lived in various towns in Sonora, including  Salitrál, a rancho in the Municipio of Alamos, El Retiro, El Rodeo, and Wirachaka. I bought my first mask by Pancho from Robin and Barbara Cleaver in 1988. It had been brought up from Sonora by Roberto Ruiz with little provenance. I owned it for years before discovering the name of the carver by comparing it to masks in some of those other collections. I just discovered that I probably have a second Pancho Parra mask, having long thought it was by someone else. Had I the opportunity, I would have bought many more masks by this carver, because I really admire his artistry. Fortunately I have permission to include many photos of additional examples from another collection.

Rio Mayo Pascola masks usually lack the carved and/or painted white triangles under the eyes that we find on Yaqui Pascola masks. Instead we often see designs flanking the nose, oval in this instance. The red lips on this mask were apparently painted with nail polish.

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