You might see them in museums and souvenir shops around the country: brightly colored, meticulously carved wooden masks with fierce and sometimes even frightening expressions. These are traditional Boruca masks, and are a symbol for the small indigenous group in southern Costa Rica.
Mask carving is a Boruca tradition that goes back to colonial times. The indigenous masks are still used in the Festival de Los Diablitos (Festival of the Little Devils), in which participants carve their own masks and then discard them when the festival is over.
Remembering their fierce resistance to Spanish colonization, the Boruca perform the Danza de los Diablitos at the end of every year, from about Dec. 30 to Jan. 2.
A carved bull’s head, representing the Spaniards, is the only mask that is kept from year to year. Representing the Boruca, the other masks are hand-carved in devil-like human forms, with grotesquely distorted features and generally sporting horns.
Patricia Fernández, in her book “Hilando el Pasado y Tallando el Presente: Tradiciones Artesanales Borucas” (“Weaving the Past and Carving the Present: Boruca Artistic Traditions”), writes, “The mask, with or without color, is an essential element, because without the masks there would be no devils, and without devils there would be no Boruca.”
The original masks were made of balsa wood, sometimes unpainted, sometimes decorated with natural dyes, feathers and animal hides. Selected members of the community made their masks in secret, and they were discarded after the Danza de los Diablitos.
The masks showed zoomorphic images, mixing Boruca facial features with jaguars, hogs, bats, devils, mules and other animals. The teeth, eyes and horns are principal features on the masks.
Today, as a result of the National Training Institute’s (INA’s) efforts, the masks are more colorful, and some are made of cedar. INA officials taught painting and color schemes to the Boruca to help them make their masks more attractive to the increasing number of tourists interested in purchasing them and are one more popular souvenirs from Costa Rica.
One of Costa Rica’s few remaining indigenous groups, the Boruca are from the country’s Southern Zone, where they have lived since before Columbus’ arrival. The two main Boruca communities, Boruca and Curré, have a combined population of approximately 2,100 people.
While agriculture was the Boruca’s traditional means of subsistence, today, the sale of handcrafted wares supplements many families’ incomes.
While INA has played a role in the growing prominence of Boruca masks, members of the tribe have been making handicrafts for centuries. The indigenous group began making commercial masks in an effort to improve their economic situation.
“Crafts, which revive traditional technique, have helped them define their identity in relation to other cultural groups and it has allowed them to remain in their ancestral territories,” Fernández writes.
As carving and craftsmanship have gained importance in the Boruca communities, elder members of the indigenous group share their secrets with younger members in the community, thus preserving a great tradition and bringing in extra income for participating families.
Ismael González helped make sure these traditions are preserved. His work as a community leader earned him the National Prize for Popular Culture in 2002.
Before González became involved in mask making, the tradition was declining. Participants in the Danza de los Diablitos often used mass-produced Halloween-style paper masks.
Through workshops and individual counseling, González helped young Boruca learn about the artistic and cultural aspects of mask making, and in the process has helped revive and preserve the group’s traditions. The result, writes journalist Ronald Mills, is a mask of “proportional uniformity and quality… that is extraordinary from any point of view.”
He continues: “Making indigenous masks is… an important means for preserving the traits of indigenous traditions; as such, it to a degree preserves the indigenous spirit and social integrity by leading a mythical level of consciousness.
The mask is an important tool in achieving this; in the case of the Boruca, perhaps the most important.” Selections of Boruca masks are available for sale in San José at the Gold Museum’s gift shop and Galería Namu.