Sunday, January 17, 2010


an subsequent post (titled, Driving on New Years Day)) I mentioned learning that the “black men” were to dance on January 1 in the puebla of Sevina. On January 3 we returned to Sevina to see a concurso of dance happening in late afternoon. We had not seen the black men before, although we had seen them a previous year but only from from a distance so knew nothing of their masks. That year we had seen a number of dancers on the way to the home of a carguero, dressed in dark suits (what we now know to be “catrin” outfits, that is citifed clothing) but what were the masks? Were they negritios? This was my expectation. What a surprise when I walked up a hill to the carguero’s house this year having seen a crowd gathering and hearing band music. The dancers were all in their dark suits, but the masks! They were conquistadores. The masks of the conquerors of Mexico. These masks show a very pale skin, bright blue eyes and a substantial golden beard. Their hats were spectacular, looking somewhat like a traditional marching band hat but with flower decorations and many silver adornments. Later I was able to talk to the mask maker of this town and learned two things: first, the conquistadores were the ones who took baby Jesus from the manger in the church on December 26 and returned it to the carguero of the image. This job is reserved for the most honored dancers and in many communities this is the negrito. The history of the negrito in Tarascan communities is very interesting and well documented by Janet Esser (1988). So why were these black men not negritos? I am a little unclear of this, but the mask maker claimed that in the early days the mask maker either could not carve black masks or they were not very well done. His speciality was the mask of the conqueror and commonsense determined that this would be the mask used. Although very good negrito masks are now carved by the chief carver, the masks of the conquistadores are still the more honorable masks.

The dance competition began around 5:00 pm and while the conquistadores were present the centre of attention was on approximately 80 other dancers with a wide variety of masks, many of them of feos (or the uglies). These dancers came on throughout the night in small groups with the only rule seeming to be that no one could speak. They had to rely on their acting ability to try and get into the character of the mask. One came to appreciate the talent needed to really communicate, over a long period of time, the personality implied by the mask the person ws wearing. Towards the end of the evening there was more of a performance and participation in the judging from the rather large audience gathered around the basketball court and on adjoining rooftops.

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