Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Michoacán

From time to time I have used a mask found on EBay™ as the starting point for a post, to illustrate that one can find amazing or interesting masks in unexpected places. Such finds are not without peril; one requires luck, knowledge and experience to sort out the Mexican masks offered on EBay, as these tend to be a mixed lot, with many reproductions that have been falsely aged, along with just an occasional gem. Nevertheless, I have occasionally bought something there due to curiosity alone, in the absence of any sure knowledge, to later wonder whether I have been either lucky or unlucky in this purchase. In fact this is often how one learns about such things, by taking risks and then engaging in a process of research and evaluation to assess the “damage.” Today I will discuss a trio of interesting masks that curiosity alone prompted me to purchase on EBay in 2006. In preparing this post I have developed greater insight about them, particularly due to the recent appearance of Mexican fiesta videos on YouTube™ that broaden one’s knowledge.

In order to set the stage for the trio of EBay masks, I will start with a mask and headdress (or cap) from Naranja, Michoacán. It was labeled as a Fariseo (pharisee) mask for use during Semana Santa (Holy Week/ Easter). According to an exceedingly useful book, Purépecha Masks: 2002 Catalogue, this can also be called a Judas mask. A duplicate in the Catalogue was carved by Eufemio Maya Zavala (of Naranja, Michoacan).  In other communities we find a range of similar terms for the masks used during Holy Week—such as Judios (Jews) in San Luis Potosí and Fariseos in Yaqui and Mayo performances. The Fariseos in the latter communities are also said to be the “Soldiers of Rome,” and there are still other communities in Mexico where this sort of language dominates during Holy Week—for example Robenos (Romans) and  Centurions.


When I acquired this mask in 1989 it was in excellent condition. Much later it began to shed fine sawdust, indicating that an infestation with boring insects had reactivated. The insects tunneled extensively within the walls of the mask, and although they did not cause significant external damage, the surface of the mask was weakened in spots, So, for example, the tip of the nose became fragile. I treated the infestation with freezing and thawing, which seemed to stabilize the mask. The openings for the eyes are covered with glass on the inside edge, and behind the glass painted paper supplies the images of irises.

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Wooden Masks for the Tastoanes Dance

Last week I introduced the Tastoanes dance and showed traditional leather Tastoanes masks. Today I will share wooden masks for this dance from the Mexican states of Jalisco and Zacatecas. The main point of this week’s post and the last is to demonstrate the wide variation in the styles of masks used for this dance. They can be made of leather or wood. Some of them have horns, as if they are diablo masks; unlike diablos, they have attached wigs and they are not necessarily painted black. One in today’s post even has a cross painted on the face. On the other hand, a leather mask in last week’s post was painted black, had horns, and could probably have danced as a diablo or in the Tastoanes dance.

I will begin with a wooden Tastoanes mask that was found in 1989 in Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It has an attached wig, of sisal.


The wooden face of this mask is 10 inches tall, 6 inches wide (but 22 inches between the tips of the horns), and 9 inches deep, not counting the leather tongue or the headdress/wig.


This Tastoane mask is decorated with snakes and bugs.

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The Tastoanes Dance

In my recent series of posts about La Danza de los Santiagueros I demonstrated how the Indians of Mexico had managed to insert hidden meanings into public dance performances. As James Scott explained in his book, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (Yale University Press, 1990, 1-16), it is common for the less powerful in any society to search for ways to safely complain about felt mistreatment by the more powerful; one solution has been to present the grievance in a disguised form. He calls such a disguised complaint a “hidden transcript.”  One of the best documented examples of a Mexican dance drama with a hidden transcript is La Danza de los Tastoanes. Although it is usually rare to find detailed explanations of Mexican Indian dances in English, one can learn a great deal about the Tastoanes dance from the books and articles listed at the end of this post.

In light of what I have just written, here is a riddle—”When does a Mexican mask not represent what it appears to be?” The short answer—”frequently.” A slightly more precise answer is— “when it cloaks a hidden transcript.” In la Danza de los Tastoanes the same dancers wear the same masks in a two act performance, yet they probably portray two different groups of characters, one in each act.

Here is a link to a YouTube™ video of the Tastoanes dance:

And here is another link, this one about how these leather Tastoane masks are made in Jocotán, Jalisco.

In this post I will begin with two traditional Tastoanes masks from San Juan Ocotán (Ocotán and Jocotán are neighboring villages), a town in the Municipio (county) of Zapopan, Jalisco, that I obtained from Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazon in 1997 . These are made from leather with attached wooden features and wigs of animal hair. Here is the first of these masks.


This Tastoane mask has the face of a dog. The mask is made of leather, and a carved wooden element provides the dog’s nose and open mouth. This is the standard method for the construction of such masks in villages near Guadalajara such as Jocotán and Ocotán. The hair appears to be horse tail.


Pan Bimbo™ (Bimbo Bread) is a popular brand of mass produced bread in Mexico. On the right side of this mask the dancer has personalized his mask with a small copy of the logo for that bakery, a comic figure wearing a baker’s hat. At the top one sees another such comic element, a pair of footprints.

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Dance Helmets Worn by Santiago in the Santiagueros Dance

Now that I have told you so much about La Danza de los Santiagueros, this would seem a good time to discuss the helmets worn by Santiago in this dance. They are varied, attractive, and interesting.

In previous posts you may recall dance photos of Santiago. Let’s review those photos, because they will orient us to some of the helmets to follow. Here is the photo of Santiago dancing at Cauahtapanaloyan, Puebla in December 2008. He is wearing a woven straw hat, but what I want to point out is the characteristic decorative design of bristles and paper flowers arranged in an arc over the crown of of the hat. This is one of the standard variations for Santiago’s helmet. Also note the painted lines on the bottom edge of the brim; these probably represent the rays of the sun, as is also the likely symbolism of the colored bristles. In focusing on this wonderful Santiago figure, I failed to notice that I was also tracking the retreating form of Carlos Moreno Vásquez.


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