Field Journal of Dr. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta

Searching for faces behind the Río Mayo Masks

April 13-16, 2006

by Dr. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta

 “Big Jim” Griffith donated his collection of masks from northwest Mexcio in 2005 to the Arizona State Museum. This initiated a cataloguing project that I began in January 2006 under the direction of Diane Dittemore, curator of ethnological collections. While working with the masks, the idea emerged to make a web exhibit of the collection. To illustrate the full context of the pascola mask—more than an inanimate object on a museum shelf—and to record the masks in action, a visit to the Mayo region was planned. Thus, on Thursday, April 13, 2006, a small group traveled to the Mayo communities of southern Sonora for a few days. Our objective was twofold: to visit and record the use of pascola masks in the Easter ceremonies, and to speak with actual mascareros, or mask makers.

Before we set foot in the Mayo region, I printed a preliminary catalogue that included images of most pascola and pharisee (in Mayo, capakóbam; in Yoeme, chapayékam or capayékam) masks in the Griffith collection, data on the Mayo communities that Griffith visited in the early 1960s, and names of mascareros and of different types of woods used to make the masks. Several copies were made and brought along to distribute to local museums, institutions, or Mayo mascareros.

Diane Dittemore, Emiliano Gallaga, Davison Koenig, Gillian Newell, Kate Sarther, Bryan Stevens, and Jannelle Weakly joined this memorable field trip. A day-by-day description of this trip follows here.

Thursday, April 13:

We left Tucson as planned a little after 8 am in a rented Kia minivan. Our first stop was at Milepost 21 on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border. There we obtained visas and photocopies of the car papers, which we would need at the “Only Sonora” stop further down the road at Empalme. Around midday, we stopped in Hermosillo for lunch. Finding most restaurants closed for the Easter holidays, we settled for Sanborn’s, a Mexican chain restaurant locally known as the Chilango Embassy (nickname for people from Mexico City). After lunch we headed further south, took care of the “Only Sonora” pass, and continued onwards.

At the Yoeme (Yaqui) community of Vicam Pueblo, Sonora, we took advantage of the first available opportunity to observe the Easter celebrations. While not allowed to take photographs, we observed for a little less than an hour some of the festivities from a respectful distance. The ceremony took place in an open area behind the actual village, near the railroad tracks. When we arrived to the small church a dozen capakóbam were resting against its side. Meanwhile, in a ramada about 200 m in front of the church, we saw the community’s children eating the traditional wuacavaki or soup. Located 50 meters to the left of the ramada stood the wuacavaki pot that was dipped into constantly. The served bowls were then carefully passed down along a line of about 60 elders, capakóbam, and soldados (soldiers). Every time a plate changed hands, the receiving person would bless the plate before passing it along further toward the children in the ramada. A clear gender division was apparent in the ramada: the boys ate around the small tables, while the girls ate on the floor. Female elders sang religious songs all the while. Once all the children from the community finished eating, the celebration continued with a procession. Girls dressed in white and carrying paper flowers marched toward the church flanked by several lines of soldados and capakóbam (in a ranked order). Villagers told us that the procession would lead them through the entire village. Because of time constraints, we decided to leave before the procession would continue to the village. Bryan Stevens mentioned that the capakóbam were similar to those he had seen at Old Pascua in Tucson in the shape of white-faces, Indian chief, old miner (49’er?), centurian, etc. More novel figures, such as Homer Simpson, Big Bird, or Ninja Turtle, which one might see in Old Pascua, however, were not present.

Later that afternoon, we arrived to the town of Navojoa and checked into the hotel. After dinner, we passed through pueblo viejo (old town) in the hopes of finding some festivities. Easter celebrations still take place in the oldest part of Navojoa, although apparently not that evening. We did not find any Mayos celebrating and decided against partaking in the mestizo fair that was in full swing, complete with bells, lights, and loud music.

Friday, April 14:

In the morning we set out to the community of Etchojoa, Sonora (near the town of Huatabampo) to meet with Leonardo Valdez, director and owner of the Casa Museo Leonardo Valdez Esquer. A former FONART (Fondo Nacional de las Artes) employee, he buys and sells crafts now and maintains an ethnographic community museum. At Leonardo’s, we met Bill Lavasseur, owner of Casa de la Cuesta Bed & Breakfast and a mask gallery in San Miguel de Allende. (See Banderas News article for more about Bill Lavasseur and the masks he collects.) Leonardo toured us around his museum, apologizing that other galleries of artifacts including Spanish Colonial art were not accessible due to fumigation activities. Davison was thrilled to see lucha libre (literally, “free fighting”—modern-day masked wrestling) images on two Judeo masks on the wall. Bryan was glad to finally meet Bill, a fellow mask collector.

Here, we exchanged information with Leonardo about pascola masks, mascareros, community names, and which Mayo communities to visit during the Easter celebrations. Several catalogues were given to him for the museum and for distribution among Mayo mascareros. The room dedicated to the Mayos featured an entire wall of capakóba masks. Most carried the wooden face plate and goatskin helmet. Another wall displayed numerous large old banners that had been used in Mayo processions in the area. On the opposite wall Plácido Alamea’s harp hung mounted high to the left. Many modern pascola masks, probably made by Francisco Gamez and José Jojuve, among others, hung to the right and above a large cupboard. They were mounted so high up that it was difficult to see them clearly. Nonetheless, the polychrome small triangle rim designs that have been documented at Tres Cruces were definitely present on these pascola masks. On the fourth wall, a cabinet stood containing a number of Yoeme pascola masks. Made by a contemporary carver in Vicam—Ruben Hernandez—the masks appeared to be “undanced” (not to have been worn). In the middle of the museum floor, a mannequin of a pascola dancer was wearing a nicely carved mask by Francisco Gamez, while holding an elaborate inlaid sena’asom, or disk rattle, by the same carver. Sitting next to the pascola, another mannequin held a drum and a Yoeme cane flute, one in each hand. A set of photographs were taken of the Mayo room at the museum before departing.

We continued onwards to the Mayo community of San José de Masiaca, about 50 to 60 km away from Huatabampo, Sonora, towards Los Mochis, Sinaloa. In this community we encountered several capakóbam, who sat resting at the church patio. On a nearby porch, we noticed a local craft maker, Benjamin Zazueta Valenzuela, displaying several capakóba masks for sale and started a conversation with him. While showing us his work shop, he told us he works mainly leather and occasionally wood. We took pictures of his workshop and of some pieces in process. He and his brother make drums and rudimentary capakóba masks to sell to tourists. He also introduced us briefly to his two nephews, who were capakóbam this year. Although they were resting at his workshop this day, the next day we were able to visit with those nephews during a break in the Sabado de Gloria activities and had the opportunity to wear their belts. The belts produce sound by shaking the suspended brass shell casings that now replace the earlier carrizo. He said he made such belts on order for $80 apiece. Clearly no prohibition exists here among the community against the manufacture and sale of capakóbam masks; quite the opposite is true among the Yoeme. When we asked Benjamin, he confirmed this observation, but also noted with sadness that the local people participated with less sincerity and seriousness each year.

Because it was still early, Benjamin offered to take us to two local mascareros: Arnulfo Yocupicio and Hector Francisco Gamez Piña. At the residence of Arnulfo Yocupicio we saw and took pictures of several masks (mostly animals) he had made and several small wooden sculptures of pascolas, capakóbam, and maaso (deer) dancers he and his wife had carved. At the time of our visit, only one black human-faced mask remained for sale. The mask had a painted forehead cross, but remained undanced. A number of dog pascola masks were also presented for sale. Noting the absence of the cross, Arnulfo replied to us: “that kind of mask doesn’t have a cross” (indicating this style was not likely to be used by a dancer and was thus made for sale). He showed us his work place behind his house. Seated under a tree, he demonstrated his skills quickly making a small pascola mask from a small piece of raiz de alamo (cottonwood root). This wood proved to be readily carved with only a penknife. At our request, he signed the masks we had purchased with a wood-burning pen. Bryan Stevens bought an embroidered illustration of a maaso dancer made by Arnulfo’s wife; she signed it on the back. This is now in the collection of Richard Felger. Jannelle, our photographer, recorded the entire process.

At our next stop, we met Francisco Gamez, the carver whom Tom Kolaz had requested we take a picture. Welcomed into his studio, he told us that he had no masks left for sale; the Easter celebrations had cleaned him out. Jannelle took photos of him and his studio nonetheless. Showing us around, Francisco pulled out a can of glass chips and explained he used these as inlays for forehead crosses. Although during our trip we saw a number of Gamez masks being worn by pascolas, none were so festooned. Gamez also produced a quantity of metal chips taken from a cymbal, which had been supplied for his use by Barney Burns. He uses the metal to make sena’asom. Davison had indeed observed that the sena’asom made by Gamez in the Casa Museo bore a piece of inlaid brass with the legend Zilgian. On his workbench, Gamez had a box of brass triangles also meant for inlay. He demonstrated that he had indeed cut these from a discarded orchestra cymbal.

Bryan Stevens observed “that the masks of Francisco Gamez that are available in Tucson are uniformly modest, compared to the masks that he is capable of carving, and does indeed carve on order for Mayo pascolas. The Tucson masks have been carved for Barney Burns, to a particular price point, and undoubtedly Gamez receives a little more for those more highly developed masks that he sells locally.”

ASM catalogues were given to both mascareros.

After these visits we returned to Masiaca to observe and record the konti, or procession, around the town. The konti started at the church front. Two hooded and darkly-dressed Pilatos on horseback, escorted each by two capakóbam, moved back and forth in front of the procession. Behind the Pilatos, the community elders followed with the small children, or angelitos (little angels), dressed in white and carrying paper flowers. There were also musicians. The procession was flanked, on both sides, by a line of capakóbam to keep the procession separate from the onlookers. The procession followed a well-established path around the town, while stopping to pray every so often after a short distance in front of a small altar along the way. At the same time, the capakóbam would do everything possible to disrupt the ceremony. The procession finished at the church.

We returned to Navojoa late that afternoon and had dinner.

Saturday, April 15:

We drove to Masiaca before noon to observe the rest of the Sabado de Gloria activities. Principally, we aimed to see the fulfillment of the capakóba manda (promise) and the transformation from capakóbam into human beings through baptism. Shortly after we arrived, we witnessed capakóbam running back and forth from inside the church to a ramada located in front of the church. The ramada had been built the night prior. Inside the ramada several musicians sat playing their instruments. At noon, all capakóbam ran out of the church escorted by their godparents to the ramada where a priest gave the capakóbam their blessing and “baptism” with holy water. After the baptism, their masks and wooden swords were removed, collected, and in a pile burned at the site of the church. Later on, at the ramada in front of the church, three pascolas danced. Towards the back of the ramada, three musicians sat on a bench playing fiddles and a harp, while a drum player sat on the floor. To our disappointment, the pascolas danced for less than 30 minutes.

Upon return to Benjamin’s house after the festivities, Benjamin offered to take us to Teachive, a neighboring town, where its residents have initiated a weaving revival. We visited Celilda Murayoki, a productive weaver, first. She showed as a variety of striped wool blankets and many bags. She explained that the weavings are special because the weavers die their yarn with natural dyes available locally (blue=añil, red=colorin tree, yellow=wild flower, brown and white=natural color of cotton). Seeing the commotion, Celilda’s neighbor came over in the hope of selling wire baskets that resembled those made by the O’odham. Down the road, we met Balbina Zazueto, a female mask maker. She learned to carve from her father-in-law, Nicholas Buitimea, under the auspices of an unlikely agent—a Peace Corps type contingent from Japan. David Yetman had loaned us one of her masks for inclusion in the Masks of Mexico exhibit. Jannelle photographed her with a yellow tiger mask, which was later purchased by Diane for the Arizona State Museum. Roughly carved, her masks follow a rather crude design and often lack vision slits. Although she claims that some of her masks have been used by dancers, most appeared to us to have been made for sale. Jannelle photographed a pile of torote prieto logs, the wood Balbina and many other carvers use for the masks. Just before departing, Balbina showed us silver cocoons that she had collected to make tenevoim(leg rattles); Bryan Stevens bought them all for $10. Balbina mentioned that due to the severe drought few cocoons are to be found in their immediate vicinity. They must go further up into the Sierra to find them.

Complete with weavings from Celilda as well as masks and cocoons from Balbina, we returned Benjamin to Masiaca and traveled to Etchojoa to see the ceremonies there. Upon arrival to the community plaza, we were happy to see several capakóbam still dressed and performing near a small cement structure on a corner of the plaza. Walking to where the capakóbam gathered, we noticed a square metal-framed fence inside the cement structure that was surrounded by people. Moving closer, we saw that inside the fence at least five pascola dancers and several capakóbam took turns dancing and performing. Upon seeing us, the captain of ceremony did not simply permit us to enter, but welcomed us. Showing great hospitality, he invited us to sit on a small bench inside the fence to have a good place to observe without being hassled too much by the capakóbam. Inside, we observed one or two pascola dancers taking turns to dance, while several capakóbam tried to interject their performance by making fun of them or of each other. We also witnessed how a capakóbam managed to stack up several peso coins, which onlookers had tossed into the dirt, with his toes. Noticing an outstanding pascola mask, we asked the dancers who the carver was. They answered that the maker was José Jojuve—the same carver we had identified from one of the pascola masks at the Casa Museo. We learned that this mask most likely came from the community of Tres Cruces (three crosses) that had their own celebrations. They added that José was also a pascola dancer and could probably be found dancing in his community.

Enthused, we set out to the community of Tres Cruces, where according to the Etchojoa dancers we could also expect the Easter celebrations to be more traditional. We spent the remaining late afternoon and early evening of the Sabado de Gloria at this community. We arrived at an open space behind the town located next to the farming fields and found a large celebration in progress with many capakóbam and several pascola dancers. As we got out of the car, several capakóbam played jokes on us, as is customary. We were warmly received here too, however, and room was volunteered under the ramada for Jannelle and Davison to document the dancing and for the rest of us to watch. A capilla stood on the SE corner of the plaza, while the community had built the ramada on the SW corner. We noticed a large wooden cross standing south of the ramada together with the red flag of the community. To the west and north sides of the plaza, we saw several small ramadas where food was sold and that featured a nicely-made adobe cooking area. Here, we encountered around 20 capakóbam and six to seven pascolas. Two maaso dancers were present also, Carlos Gocoboeri Molina and the son of Efrain Jesus Gasterum Felix;we were told that the little one was only 10 years old! At the ramada, a trio of musicians sat on all four sides; to the north and south musicians sat with a harp and two violins for the pascolas and to the east and west musicians were ready to play the water drum, and raspador for the maaso dancers. They alternated playing, while the pascolas and the maaso dancers took turns dancing on alternating sides. The adult maaso was extremely vigorous; it was exhilarating to watch him dance. He was accompanied by a 10-year old boy who is training to become a deer dancer. The father and mother sat with the boy next to the musicians. At some point while the maaso danced, someone placed a sealed can of Tecate beer in the middle of the dance area. The maaso knelt on both knees and while holding his deer head up took the can’s pop-top with his teeth. He opened the can partway, lifted it to a horizontal position, and drank it down without spilling one drop. While drinking, he kept his two rattles going and danced slowly. Once he finished, he tossed the empty can over the crowd with a simple flick of his head. Then, another person put out a can of coke. He hooked the tab with his left antler and delivered it to his pupil. After the adult maaso dancer finished, the young maaso performed to the entire community’s delight. He did a great job attacking the capakóbam, keeping these unwanted jokers outside of the dance area. Someone then tossed a bill in front of the little maaso’s feet. He picked it up with his mouth and delivered it to his mother. He will surely become a great maaso dancer soon. The community commented that a little after the boy began to talk, he told his parents he decided to become a maaso dancer. His father explained to us the boy had dreamed about it. Not being dancers or mask carvers themselves, the parents supported the child’s decision and arranged to have him trained by this skilled adult maaso dancer. The pascolas were equally impressive and a joy to watch. One in particular stood out, Jesus G. Buitemea, for the many different maneuvers he would perform, such as dragging one toe across the ground to make his leg rattles (tenevoim) sound, or by brushing his toes up and down the other ankle. We spent a lot of time recording the dancing and talking with the different community members before returning to Navajoa to eat.

After dinner around 10:30 pm, we returned to Tres Cruces as we had been told they would have a castillo (castle) and a torito (little bull)—two traditionally Mexican types of fireworks. Upon arrival, we noticed that more capakóbam and pascolas were dancing and performing to a larger crowd of onlookers. At the ramada, we found and had the opportunity to talk to José Jojuve, the pascola dancer and carver from Pueblo Viejo in Etchojoa we hoped to meet. He told us he was carving pascola masks now with snakes in relief. Unfortunately, he had no masks to sell. He added that if we wanted to buy one of his masks, we needed to go through Leonardo. So it appeared that Leonardo has the local scene more or less sewn up. We asked José if he had heard of a carver named Benito Murayoki of Guayparín. He replied that he had never heard of that person, but knew of a carver by that name from Embarcadero! We were about to ask whether he had seen that carver’s work when José said spontaneously— “I learned how to carve masks from him.”

After watching for a while, we took a stroll around the plaza. We watched as the castillo was put up and noticed that the capilla was now open. Inside, community elders were praying in front of an altar with the Virgen of Guadalupe that stood centrally located in the back of the capilla decorated with flowers, candles, and community flags. The capilla was otherwise empty; there were no benches or chairs inside. The pascolas continued to take turns dancing in the nearby ramada, so we stood between the castillo and the ramada. We counted about nine to ten pascola dancers and at least 35 to 40 capakóbam. Around 11:00 pm, in preparation for the burning of the castillo, the elders came out of the capilla together and walked to the castillo. They gave it their blessing and returned to the capilla to pray. Made of carrizo (reeds), the castillo stood at least 20 to 25 meters high and consisted of at least three main levels. It was an amazing sight when the fireworks went off from top to bottom of the elaborate castillo; arms folded out and discs spun around ablaze. Once the castillo had finished, the torito arrived to the plaza. Carried by its front legs, the torito moved across the plaza as the fireworks hissed and spat fire. All this time, we watched the capakóbam making fun of themselves, the crowd, and the fireworks. Especially during the castillo they entertained the crowd making as if they were trying to catch the sparks raining down from above. Once the fireworks ended, the elders lined up in front of the capilla with at least six of the traditional community flags (two red, two white, and two light-blue in color). Opposite from them, the pascola dancers lined up with the oldest pascola dancer at their center in front of the others. Together the elders and the pascolas prayed and expressed their gratitude for another good year. The elders blessed the pascolas and together they walked in procession to the large wooden cross in front of the ramada. The elders lined up between the ramada and the wooden cross waving the flags left to right. The pascolas walked single-file around the cross several times and back and forth between the cross and the elders. All this time they prayed, sang, and sounded their sena’asom (rattles). After this part of the ceremony, the pascolas and maaso dancers returned to dance in turns at the ramada. The elders retreated to the capilla. Unfortunately, we could not visually record these events that evening. Around midnight, we returned to Navojoa. We were told that they would continue dancing until the next morning when they would finish around noon by burning the capakóbam masks and wooden swords in the middle of the plaza.

During the trip we learned that at least the capakóbam masks for Masiaca ceremonies are further decorated in a sequence over the course of the Lenten season. Details escaped us, but the general idea is as follows:

  • On the first Friday of Lent, the capakóbam masks are left entirely plain; they lack features and have no holes for the eyes
  • Over the following Fridays, the masks are gradually elaborated. Eventually, by the time of the Crucifixion, the masks are covered with so many brightly colored paper flowers that the masks appear to be only a mass of flowers; one cannot even see the other features.
  • Before the Sabado de Gloria, the flowers are removed and collected to be converted into ammunition that will be used against the capakóbam when they charge the church.

Among the Yoeme, it is customary to collect all the capayékam masks and swords after the Gloria and to burn all on the spot. In Mayo communities this is done differently. We were told that in the Mayo communities near the Río Mayo, such as Etchojoa and Tres Cruces, the capakóbam retained their masks until Easter Sunday when they burn these items at noon near the church or capilla. In the Mayo communities away from the river, such as Masiaca, the capakóba attire is burned the afternoon of Sabado de Gloria.

In addition, Bryan Stevens made an important observation that is shared by several ethnographers in the area. He writes: “I would like to comment here on the extraordinary neatness of this village, and apparently of Mayo villages in general. The streets and paths are all carefully defined by stones that have been painted white. The house floors and courtyards have all been carefully swept. There is no garbage visible along the sides of the village streets, no coke cans, no wrappers, no cigarette packs. There is obviously an extreme standard for neatness and cleanliness in these rural towns.”

Sunday, April 16:

We returned to Tucson.

After the field trip, we concluded that the objectives we had set for this trip were fulfilled and probably surpassed: we recorded several Mayo Easter ceremonies; met with a number of Mayo mask makers; recorded their work areas, materials, and mask-making processes; and collected vital information and images to develop the projected webpage of the Griffith collection at the ASM.