Most popular maskThe Man behind the Wooden Masks
A Colima artist carries on a family tradition

by Susan Dearing


Gorgonio Candelario Castro's family has been making hand-crafted wooden masks for 3 generations, and any sons of Gorgonio will continue the tradition.

Gorgonio is a Nahua Indian. The Nahua are descendents of the Aztecs and direct heirs to their language and culture. Many Nahua areas, such as Suchitlan, Colima, where Gorgonio lives, maintain strong roots to the pre-Hispanic cultures. Suchitlan is at the base of Colima's active volcano, "Volcan de Fuego."

Gorgonio's family will continue making masks as long as there are descendents to make them--all because of a special miracle.

Tribal deityAlmost a hundred years ago, Gorgonio's grandfather, Don Basilio, had a child who was very sick. He was not expected to survive the day. Don Basilio took the infant to the local church in Suchitlan and began to pray for his stricken son. He made a promise to God that if his son lived, he would continue the tradition of making masks for generations to come. Family legend has it that the boy made a miraculous recovery, and the men have been making masks ever since.

Owl or "bujo"Among the Nahuas, mask makers are special citizens. The masks themselves have a distinctive purpose and are used in several celebrations. The Nahua have existed for more than 2,000 years, and are peaceful people--farmers and craftsmen--who respect the land and its creatures.

In generations past, the honored mask makers would chew peyote in a sacramental ritual prior to plying their trade. The visions that resulted from the hallucinogen became the basis for the mask designs, and the masks would be carved and painted in the days the "mascarero" was under the influence of the psychotropic drug.

Ram maskMale tigerThe language, Nahuatl, is unique, but is spoken by many different tribes throughout North America. It is taught at the University of Colima, and in many small pueblos of indigenous peoples, is preferred as the spoken dialect. In Nahua writing and poetry, a recurrent theme includes the land, and plant and animal life.

One of the biggest celebrations in Suchitlan is the "Fiesta de los Animales," or "Fiesta of the Animals." This revelry is in conjunction with the "Blessing of the Animals," (usually on or around October 4) in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. Participants wear masks representing all the animals of the land.  Animals of all types, from family pets to farm animals, are brought to the church to be blessed.

Antelope mask with gourd rattle and seed pod swordDuring these events, dances, such as "La Danza de los Morenos,"  ("Dance of the Colored People") are performed, with background music* from man-made instruments. This dance depicts pairs of animals, who dance in front of the Roman solders guarding the tomb of Jesus, to distract them from the resurrection. The masks are made in pairs of both male and female animals, representing Noah's animals on the Ark.

Ritual danceAnother time that masks are used is at the "Fiesta of Santa Cruz" on May 3. Crosses made of flowers are placed in the streets and a masked procession lead by "Jesus of Nazareth" goes to the church.

Suchitlan is well known for its celebration of the "Fiesta of the Three Kings." On January 6, a cable is stretched from a post to the church tower, and attached to it a large star made of reeds and paper. Adults all portray the Three Kings and their followers. Surrounded by the townspeople, they gather beneath the star, which is moved forward to the accompaniment of stories and songs. The play lasts for two hours while the kings follow the mysterious star--performing this drama as the missionaries from long ago taught it to them.

Papa Herminio-sorry no enlargementMarch 19 is the day of an agricultural festival, "Los Paspaques de Suchitlan." It is an indigenous Nahua celebration centered on all forms of corn: tortillas, tostadas, pozole, atole, etc.

Gorgonio learned the craft of mask-making from his father, Herminio, who has won awards for his work at the national level. His grandfather, Don Basilio, not only made masks, but he taught native dances to Suchitlan residents, and, through his love of tradition, kept indigenous dances from becoming a lost art.

Gorgonio and the stages of mask-makingIt takes about a week to make one mask from start to finish. First a tree must be cut down, then cut again into sections of about 2 feet in height. It is a special tree called the "colorina," that is hard enough to be durable, yet soft enough to be carved.

The sections are halved, then boiled. The boiling gets the sap out, which protects the wood from insect infestation. The design is sketched in pencil, then roughed out with dull knives and crude hand chisels.

Carving a tigerThe serious carving begins using ancient hand-made tools of various widths and sizes for gouging, chipping, shaving and cutting. Finally, the wood is finely sanded, exterior and interior, and filled where necessary with a mixture of wood shavings and gesso. (These masks are worn for hours so they must be smooth and comfortable inside as well as outside.)

Painting the base coatFinally, they are ready for painting, and a base coat is applied and allowed to dry overnight. The paint used is oil-based, so adequate drying time is a must. Other layers of paint are applied, one on top of another, and all must be dried overnight. Finally, a coat of lacquer is applied for protection. Masks are painted in various colors and designs. Rarely, are any two alike. The family makes more than 100 different types of masks, each with a unique purpose.

ZebraGorgonio is 35 years old and has lived in Suchitlan all his life. Of his work he says, "I like working in wood very much, and through my work, I enjoy meeting many people from different countries."

Since the mask maker of the village must devote all of his time to his craft, in decades past the villagers provided him and his family with food and shelter. Gorgonio used to live in a wood and tarpaper shack with a dirt floor and no electricity, but through his mask sales to tourists, he has constructed a 2 room cement house. As he sells masks, he buys a little more cement and brick, and gradually, he'll have a better home for his family. 

Though poor by our standards, he lives a life rich in culture and tradition, in a community where he is held in the highest esteem. 

Old ManYou may help Gorgonio by purchasing any mask featured in this article, or you may ask him to make any other animal, or King, for the "Fiesta of the 3 Kings," by contacting Susan Dearing.

Suchitlan, Colima, one of three Nahua enclaves in the state, is located 40 minutes north of the state capital, Colima City, and sits at the base of the Volcan de Fuego, or Fire Volcano, which is currently very active. Because of its higher altitude, it is lush and tropical, and nearly always cool.

The only restaurant, "Los Portales," which serves excellent Mexican cuisine, has coffee trees growing in its courtyard, and is decorated with wooden masks made by Gorgonio and his father. Local coffee growers have won awards for their product in competitions all over the world, the most recent being in France.

Another special day is June 24, where a very unusual game is played. It is somewhat like football, except that the players toss headless chickens to one another and then race to a goal! This pueblo is also famous for its municipal band, which is actually a folk group that travels throughout the region performing for various events.

* The background music for this story commemorates the sun, and is part of the rich tradition of Suchitlan. It is performed by musicians with man-made instruments. Flutes made from bamboo, horns made from conch shells, and wooden drums covered with animal skin are featured in this composition passed down for centuries.

The masks are featured at the Maria Cumbé Boutique and Bazaar, Km. 13 Blvd. Miguel de la Madrid, Salagua (next door to Flores Estela). Other artisans  of the state also have exhibits at the store, and there are several different styles of masks for the collector.

For Susan Dearing's tourist guidebook on Manzanillo and the state of Colima, click here.