Masks With Realistic Features For The Xantolo Performance In The Huasteca

In their book Máscaras (1981, pages 86 and 87), Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazón wrote of the masks worn in the Danza de los Xantolos—”The masks are of two different types… The more elaborate masks are characterized by their anthropomorphic realism and fine workmanship.” Today I will discuss those Viejo or Xantolo masks that are attractive and realistic in design.

Dinah Gaston, a Canadian, moved to Mexico in the 1990s in search of adventure and folk art. Roaming in the Huasteca, she was offered a group of masks in this anthropomorphic style. I found them particularly interesting because they appeared to be by the same hand as those in last week’s post, although they are Viejos from the Xantolos performance, and not Juanegros. I purchased this group—one male and four female masks—in 2002.

Actually Dinah’s life has many dimensions (see link that follows).

Here is the male mask. He mainly differs from last week’s group because he is younger looking and lacks obvious stigmatizing features.


This mask depicts a handsome gentleman.


This mask is 6½ inches tall, 5½ inches wide, and 3½ inches deep. There are two holes on each side at the level of the sideburns; their purpose is unknown. Do they simply provide another place to attach the strap or a stand? All but the last mask have these holes, while last week’s masks lack these holes.


Evidence of wear on this mask is mild.

When I bought these masks from Dinah, they came with no record of the dance or town. Looking at dance photos in Day of the Dead in Mexico: Through the Eyes of the Soul:Puebla, Tlaxcala, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, by Mary Andrade (2002, pages 14 and 15), I noticed that masks that look like this one and those that follow are typical of the Viejo and Vieja masks for the Xantolo dances in the area of Huautla, Hidalgo. The similar mask on page 14 is made of paper maché, but has exactly the same form and features.

Here is a YouTube™ video of a Xantolo performance in the town of Vicente Guerrero, Municipio (county) of Huautla, Hidalgo that demonstrates similar masks, although most of those in the video are made of plastic. The masks in today’s post must be from an earlier time; they represent a carving tradition that is now passing.

If we compare this male mask to the female masks that follow, there are obvious similarities in the painting of the eyes, eyebrows, and rosy cheeks. The masks in today’s post were apparently all made by the same carver.

Here is the first of the four female masks. In contemporary Xantolo performances, the dancer wearing this mask might be dressed as a student, a housewife, or a nurse.


This is a mask of a particularly beautiful woman. She has a pensive expression.


This mask is 6½ inches tall, 5½ inches wide, and 3½ inches deep. It too has those holes on the sides.


There is obvious staining from use.

The next mask depicts an equally attractive woman who is smiling.


Most of these masks were deliberately designed to appear attractive; they have delicate features and a pleasant expression.


This mask is 7 inches tall, 5 inches wide, and 3 inches deep. Again one sees those unexplained holes.


Her teeth are cut through to the back like those of the Juan Negro mask that I showed in a recent post, another mask that was found in the Huasteca by Dinah Gaston. This mask also shows solid evidence of use.

I like the contrast between the last mask and the next.


This mask was deliberately designed to be unattractive, with a hooked nose, gap teeth, and a pointed chin.


This mask is 7¾ inches tall, 5 inches wide, and 3½ inches deep. This mask also has those holes on the sides.


Another well worn back.

Here is another YouTube video. This one mixes characters wearing attractive, less than attractive, and grotesque masks. Most video clips of contemporary Xantolo dancers show such a combination. In this sequence, a Diablo presents a bunch of orange flowers to one of the female characters. Those flowers, cempoalxochitl, are said to be beloved by the dead, so they appear everywhere during the celebration of Xantolo. For example, petals from these flowers are strewn on the ground to designate paths for the dead to follow as they seek out the places where they used to live, and arches decorated with these flowers welcome the visiting souls to enter. We would call such flowers Marigolds.

The last mask in this group is the most mysterious. She seems spectral, as if designed to depict a dead person mingling with the living.


It is unusual to see a Mexican mask that has such a somber or blank expression. If she were dancing with the Juanegros suitors, her presence would certainly affect one’s perception of the dance. She is sufficiently strange that I doubt that I would have purchased her if she had not been so obviously part of this group.


This mask is wider and shorter than most of the others— 6½ inches tall, 6 inches wide, and 3 inches deep. It lacks those holes on the sides, but there are unexplained holes on top.


This mask has a clear pattern of differential staining , consistent with several year’s of use.

Next week I will continue my discussion of Xantolo masks from the Huasteca.


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