Different Hands: Curpite Masks By Other Carvers

Janet Brody Esser studied the masks and dances of this region of Michoacán during the period from 1970 to 1975. Her doctoral dissertation on this research, Winter Ceremonial Masks of the Tarascan Sierra, Michoacan, Mexico, was published by University Microfilms in 1978 in two volumes. A book based on this research followed in 1984—Máscaras Ceremoniales de los Tarascos de la Sierra de Michoacán, published by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, in Mexico City. The advantage of the latter book is that it includes many of the same photos as those in the PhD thesis, but because these are printed rather than photocopied, they are better images. In these volumes Esser described a variety of related traditions, which reflected local customs and individual carvers. The masks in today’s post will illustrate some aspects of this variety. One focus of Esser’s research was on the masks of the Viejos, or Curpites (Esser 1978, pp. 60-134; 1984, pp. 57-121).

When Dinah Gaston visited Zacán, Michoacán in the 1990s. she met an elderly carver there, Alejandro Sanchez Mercado Senior. She purchased masks that were made by Señor Sanchez Mercado for the Curpites dance and subsequently danced. Later she sold those masks to me, one by one over a period of six years. They are of interest because they look fairly different from those of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro. At some point she bought several much older Tarépiti masks that had been repainted as Negritos/Blackmen, and I bought one of those. In the Máscaras Purepechas Catálogo 2002 survey there are masks by Alfredo Sánchez Mercado of Zacán, who may be the son of Alejandro.

Here is the trio of masks that were purchased directly from the carver, Alejandro Sanchez Mercado Senior, by Dinah Gaston. I took this photo to demonstrate the disparity in their sizes. Maringuilla (on the viewer’s left) is so small in comparison to the Curpite (on the viewer’s right).

Here is Tarépiti, or Grandfather. Note how different he looks, compared to the comparable masks from Nuevo San Juan. I bought this mask from Dinah Gaston in 2006. She had held him in her personal collection for years, out of affection for this elderly carver.

Look how wrinkled and somber this mask is.

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More Curpites Masks In The Style of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro

This week I will show you some additional examples of the masks worn by Tarépiti, Maringuilla, and the Curpites in the area of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, Michoacán, also called San Juan Nuevo. I will begin with a beautiful old mask of Tarépiti, who is also known as Grandfather and San José, and which was collected in Michoacán by Sergio Roman Rodríguez  of Mexico City in the 1990s. It is obviously in the style of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro.

The headdress is missing but there are obvious holes around the forehead for the attachment of a headdress.

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El Danza de los Viejos or Curpites

Today’s subjects are masks from the area of  Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, Michoacán that can be used in two distinctly different dances. On Christmas Eve, immediately following the Midnight Mass,  they are worn during the performance in the church of the Danza de los Viejos (the “Old Ones”), and such performances continue the next day.  Then on January 7th and 8th they are used in the Dance of the Curpites. In nearby towns it is the well known Viejito (Little Old Men) masks that sometimes play these dual roles, but always with the Viejitos or Little Old Men name. In an attempt to keep things clear, I will refer to Curpite masks when I mean masks that can dance as Viejos or Curpites.

Here is a typical Curpite mask in the style similar to that found in Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, which I purchased on EBay™ in 2005. It came without provenance, however, it resembles a mask in one of Janet Brody Esser’s books—Máscaras Ceremoniales de los Tarascos de la Sierra de Michoacán (1984, page 61, Figura 6). That mask was carved by Luis Contreras of Neuvo San Juan Parangaricutiro in 1974.

Here is that EBay mask. It is handsome and very well carved. There is an attached wig, of horsetail mounted on the crown of an old hat, and this is decorated with tinsel, ribbons and a square mirror, all typical features of a Viejo or Curpite mask.

A Curpite mask always has a male face. In Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro and some other villages, the Curpite mask will have a mustache. In this case, and probably often, the Curpite mask will have a mustache carved in relief. The mustache on this mask is particularly beautiful.

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A Few More Pastorela Masks from Michoacán and Guanajuato

The Pastorela performance had its origin in medieval Europe, having been introduced by the Roman Catholic church as a teaching and conversion device. It portrays a very simple Christian message—”Beware of the devil, who is constantly tempting you to sin.” In this play there is at least one Hermitaño figure, a religious hermit. In the European tradition of Christian mysticism, some ascetics withdrew from society to better focus on their desire to commune with God. A very famous European mystic was Saint Francis of Assisi. The Hermitaño figure appears to have been modeled on such mystics. However, the hermit of the Shepherd’s Play is also a comic figure, alternately joking and serious.

Another character from the European Pastorela tradition was Bato, the foolish shepherd. In this drama, Bato seemed to personify ordinary humans who are susceptible to temptation, prone to sin, and therefore perceived by the Church as at risk for eternal damnation. In North American and Mexican versions of the Pastorela, this character is called “Bartolo.” In the drama, the devils are constantly tempting Bartolo, he appears to be gullible, and the Hermitaño is constantly advising Bartolo to resist the devils’ wiles. Angels and archangels also participate as necessary, to limit the devils’ power. As I noted in earlier posts, these characters have been expanded, so that one finds entire corps of Hermitaños, squadrons of shepherds, shepherdesses, or “ranchers,” and choirs of Angelitos.

Today I will include two more Hermitaño masks and then three that were worn by the Bartolo character.

Here is the first Hermitaño. I got this mask from John Kania and Joe Ferrin, of Santa Fe, in 1998. It is from Panindícuaro, Michoacán, the principal city of a municipio of the same name, which is about 50 miles west of Morelia.

This is a finely crafted mask, with almost all features carved in relief. It appears to be the work of a santero (a carver of saints), and must be fairly old, perhaps from the middle of the 20th century or earlier. The wood has split and cracked.

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Pastorela Masks From Lagos de Moreno in the Mexican State of Jalisco

Lagos de Moreno is a colonial city in the northeast corner of the Mexican state of Jalisco. It lies near the border between Jalisco and Guanajuato. So these masks and those from the last month or so all reflect a regional Pastorela tradition. Of course today’s masks also reveal how such a tradition can have a variety of expressions, from one town to the next and from one carver to another. I do not know the name of the carver of today’s masks, but he certainly has a distinctive and impressive style; I would call him a great master. There are some additional Diablo masks by this hand in the book by Bill LeVasseur—A Catalogue of Another Face of Mexico Mask Museum—a devil on page 116 with the face of an unknown creature and a wonderful ape-faced devil on page 121. Today’s masks, three Diablos and an Hermitaño, were collected in Lagos de Moreno by Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazon, and I believe that they probably collected Bill’s devils there at around the same time, or perhaps he found them there himself. I purchased this set of masks from them in July of 1998. The first is a typical mask of a human faced devil, and it probably represents Satan.

Magenta colored velvet has been applied over the eyebrows, above the upper lip, and over the chin. There is also a cloth tongue. There are goat horns and pointed leather ears.

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More Pastorela Diablos From the Mexican State of Guanajuato

Today we will examine four more of these larger Pastorela Diablo masks that were collected in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.

The first mask,  which I purchased from Robin and Barbara Cleaver in 1999, was simply identified as an impressive Pastorela mask from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. It does pack quite a punch, doesn’t it?

This mask does not have the usual openings for vision, instead the dancer looks out through the large open mouth.

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Pastorela Diablos Found in the Mexican State of Guanajuato

Today we will examine three large masks that were either found in Guanajuato or they were attributed to that state. As you will see, some could actually be from Michoacán.

The first of these was collected in Guanajuato by Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazón, and I purchased this mask from them in July, 2001. However I now see that it looks very similar in style and design details to the pair of masks by Emiliano Fernández, of Angahuan, Michoacán that we saw in my post of August 7, 2017.

For example, it has the same style of eyes, ears, spotted green open-mouthed snakes, mouth, and back design.

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Pastorela Diablos from other areas of Michoacán III

The first of today’s Pastorela Diablo masks, from Puruandiro, Michoacán is exceedingly large and ornately decorated. It also demonstrates a feature that was once more common on Michoacán Diablo masks—the presence of a ball between the devil’s teeth. I purchased this mask from Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazon in 2003. In sharp contrast, the next mask is very small. I bought this on EBay™, also in 2003. It came with little provenance, but it was said to be from Michoacán. In Barbara Mauldin’s book, Tigers, Devils, and the Dance of Life: Masks of Mexico (page 87, right), there are two smaller Diablos from Michoacán that have this general appearance, one said to date to the 1930s and the other to the 1940s, and both were from the collection of Alexander Girard. Here are today’s first two masks together to illustrate the contrast in size.

The very large Diablo has five snakes—three in a row crawling down the nose and two more curling over the eyes. All five are garishly painted.

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Pastorela Diablos from other areas of Michoacán II

This week we will examine several more older masks from the Mexican state of Michoacán. These three are all from Tarascan Indian towns.

Such impressive older Diablo masks are not so easy to find, and a year went by between the time I bought the first one and then the second. I had never realized until I sat down to write this post that, although the first appears to be older than the second, they are by the same carver. I will begin with one that I bought from Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazón in July, 1997. I wrote down that Emiliano Fernández was the carver and neglected to note the name of his town. Then when I saw how obvious it was that he had also carved the second mask, I finally learned the name of the town—Angahuan, in the Municipio of Uruapan.

Angahuan is a short distance from a nearby smouldering volcano, Paracutín.


Here is this old and wonderful Diablo carved by Emiliano Fernández. I have no information about its age but I believe that it dates to 1960 or earlier. It could easily be much older than that. The wooden horn is an obvious replacement. I call your attention to the delicate and artful carving, for example that of the eyes and vision openings. This is the work of a great master, but he worked at a time when such artists had only limited exposure to the larger world.

In this example the two snakes are crossed rather than intertwined. Note that one can see carved eyes on the snake to the viewer’s left.

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Pastorela Diablos from other areas of Michoacán

Many older Pastorela Diablo masks from other areas of Michoacán are larger than those we have examined thus far. Furthermore, the Pastorela Diablos from Guanajuato are also generally larger, more or less on the same scale. Some of these larger Diablo masks are characterized by prominent intertwined snakes that are wrapped around the entire face of the mask. Over the next few weeks I will show a number of these larger masks from Michoacán and Guanajuato, at least three each week.

The first mask was collected in San Nicolás Obispo, a town in the Municipio of Morelia.  Morelia, the county seat of that municipio, is a Spanish colonial city in northern Michoacán. All three of today’s masks come from this northern area, where there are few Tarascan Indians and the inhabitants are mostly Mestizos. The Pastorela performance was introduced by missionaries from Spain, supported by Spanish settlers, and adopted by the Tarascan Indians. It is paradoxical that such Spanish traditions are sometimes maintained most strongly by Mexican Indians, while the Pastorela has remained popular in Michoacán’s Mestizo communities as well. Unfortunately I have not found video recordings of the Pastorela in these northern towns.

I purchased this mask from the Cavin-Morris Gallery (in Manhattan) in 1995. I feel certain that it was carved in the mid-20th century, and probably collected in the field circa 1970. A pair of rather large snakes loop around the face. Vision openings for the dancer are tucked unobtrusively between the oversized carved and painted eyes. One of the snakes does double duty as the devil’s nose.

The tongue on this mask is a separate wooden element that is nailed to the lower jaw.

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