He takes an avocado tree trunk two feet wide and splits it in half. His measure: his chubby fingers, index to pinky, each one inch wide. Using the rounded side of the trunk, he marks his mask: forehead to eyes, four fingers; eyes to nose, three fingers. Chiseling to achieve curved surfaces, the nose emerges first; then the eyes sink in and the eyebrows provide a frame. Within 45 minutes, a face emerges.
This is Felipe Horta, a mask-maker from the village of Tócuaro, in the south-central region of Michoacán, Mexico. His is a region where each village is known for its own craft — wooden furniture in Cuanajo, copper crafts in Santa Clara del Cobre and clay sculptures in Ocumicho.
Tócuaro specializes in mask-making — and as a result, so does Horta. For years tourists have traveled to Mexico to visit village to village, but increasingly the drug wars have discouraged tourism. Now more than ever, craftsmen like Horta must take their craft on the road.
“People are scared to visit,” says Lisa Geduldig, Horta’s representative. Although tourism is declining, neither that fact nor the drug wars have affected the energy of the village, Horta says.
But it has affected Horta’s business. “He’s needing to travel more,” says Geduldig. Last week, Horta made what has become an annual trip to the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts for the Day of the Dead. Throughout the year, friends and informal agents set up gigs for Horta to tour in Arizona and Montana. He’s also traveling more to Mexico City and Guadalajara. Tourists will still make their way to the capital and larger tourist destinations, but they tend to avoid the villages, he says.
Horta’s representative in Arizona, Brian Barabe, calls the drug wars rumors. “I wouldn’t not go to Chicago just because I heard there was a murder,” he says. “American tourists have to understand they are not targets of the cartels.”
Until that happens, however, Horta must travel. But before he goes anywhere, he perfects his craft at home. It was there, in his village of about 2,000, that he learned mask-making by watching his father. By the age of 12 he was creating his own pieces; now, at 50, he has been making masks for 38 years.
“I always have a desire to produce a good piece,” Horta says as he works at the Mission Cultural Center. It’s something he’s passed on to his children. Even though three of his four children have moved away, they still gather to make masks together. His friend Benilda Taft-Kiewek from San Francisco says, “The masks are more than an object of beauty. They are [perpetuated] into our tradition.”
To achieve that beauty, concentration is the name of the game. Without it, Horta will cut himself, and his tan, dry hands can take up to a week to recover.
Different celebrations call for different masks, and Horta caters to all. That includes human-looking masks with hair for the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Old Men), devil masks for Pastorela dances at Christmas (shepard dances of the nativity) and animal masks for Carnaval, the masquerade festival.
Horta spends a minimum of one to two hours on simple human masks and up to a month on more complex devil masks. After the celebrations are over, the masks are generally hung on walls as decoration — a two-for-one piece of art.
“This is my work,” says Horta, his thick salt and pepper hair falling over his forehead. “I live for this.”
As time passes at the cultural center event, Horta buffs a devil mask. Tiny wood scraps fall on his black denim and on the wooden floor. When customers look at his masks, he notices quickly. He tries on various masks and poses with clawed hands. Or he proudly holds a prized mask in front of his chest.
The prices range from $25 for a small mask the size of one’s hand to $500 for a large mask with intricate details. The average is from $85 to $125. “People balk at the prices,” says Geduldig, “but they don’t understand it’s a month of work.”
It helps that customers are buying the crafts directly from the person who creates them. “There’s no middleman,” says Geduldig. “Felipe gets all the money.”
Geduldig continues to work with Horta for no pay. She met him on a visit to his village 12 years ago. She saw a woman sweeping outside Horta’s home and workspace; the woman happened to be his wife. Before Geduldig knew it, she was having lunch with Horta the next day. They’ve been good friends ever since. “It’s random how life is,” she says.
At the cultural center, other artists are presenting their altars, but it’s clear that the masks are a favorite. “None of them are exactly the same,” says Mia McCarthy, 8, from Cole Valley. “People make masks, but not exactly like that.”
It’s true. “There is something that speaks to me,” says Ginny Bala, a customer from Petaluma who has purchased a devil mask encircled by a snake and secured by two horns. “This mask is funny, it has a wobbly eye and it’s made of natural wood.”
As she takes out her payment — several $20 bills — Horta signs the mask with a clearly legible signature. He adds the name of his village and the date.
Then he picks up an old newspaper from the floor, carefully places the mask on the newspaper and folds each corner to the center. He gives Bala extra pointy teeth to place in the devil’s mouth, and demonstrates how they should be placed. Then the mask goes in a Borders bag and into her hands. “I’m so happy,” she says, lifting the bag to her heart.
Other people take pictures on their smartphones for an immediate update to Facebook, while the younger folks can’t stop staring. “The ones that are humans don’t look like humans,” says Elinor Hough, 9, from Cole Valley. “But they’re supposed to be like them.”
To most people the masks represent playfulness. “We hide behind our own masks,” says Taft-Kiewek. “It’s like those men in the Castro who dress like women.”