Healing Powers Of Mexican Masks
Mexicans are wearing masks again. Blue ones. Although these contemporary, surgical masks are meant to guard against the swine flu outbreak, masks have been a part of Mexican culture since 3000 B.C. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, before the Spanish Conquest of 1521, masks were used by priests to channel the power of their pagan gods.
Mexicans are wearing masks again. Blue ones.
Although these contemporary, surgical masks are meant to guard against the swine flu outbreak, masks have been a part of Mexican culture since 3000 B.C. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, before the Spanish Conquest of 1521, masks were used by priests to channel the power of their pagan gods.
Over the centuries, mask-wearing became ceremonial. Its influence ran from cultural rituals (Day of the Dead, Carnaval) and Christian dances (Our Lady of Guadalupe, San Sebastian, Moors and Christians, Pastorela) to historical dances (Battle of Cinco de Mayo, The Conquest) and those that are harvest-related (First Fruits, rain-petitioning).
The ingenuity and beauty of some Mexican masks combine human and animal features. Birds, alligators and various beasts can be identified within a humanized face mask. Snakes and lizards sometimes emerge from a human nose as an abstract expression of the unity between humans and animals. Some masks depict full animal figures, like a tiger, attached to a human face making it impossible to discern the animal from the human.
Masks of war, such as those of jaguars and tigers, signify courage and bravery. Once positioned over a real face, they imbue the wearer with noble qualities. They also hide and protect the wearer from enemies, such as a nasty pig virus. The almost universal acceptance of cultural themes and beliefs linked to masks reveal much about overall Mexican character.
Enter the sky-blue surgical mask. If television and Internet images are a clue, Mexicans everywhere are wearing this latest face mask, which I think contains old themes like “healing” and “survival.”
After all, doctors say the new mask protects people only if someone sneezes right at them. It appears the mask is more psychological than anything, given that the pore sizes of most masks are too large to keep viruses from going through. No matter. Arising from flu tragedy in Mexico might be a new artistic treatment of a modern mask.
In traditional Mexican mask-making, the color blue signifies water and purity. Red stands for bloodshed and evil, while green alludes to crops and black to death. In Mexico today, I’ve not seen pictured a single red or black surgical mask.
The surgical mask may not protect against death or catching swine flu as much as a vaccine (in development as we go to print), or washing hands, using alcohol-based hand cleaners, or foregoing handshakes and kisses. But it helps.
We know the new swine flu virus can be transmitted between humans, but we don’t know how easily. Almost certainly it is transmitted by sneezing and coughing and by skin-to-skin contact (like shaking hands, kissing) with an infected person.
While scientists remain puzzled as to why the infection currently appears to be worse in Mexico than in the United States, the new blue mask seems to lend a mystical if not pragmatic power to the wearer, that of survival.
The masks of Mexico have always been a record of its people, cultures, and religions. From pre-Conquest and Spanish colonization to Catholicism, wars and modern times, masks have been used to teach history and values.
The calavera (skull) masks used during Day of the Dead ceremonies taught that death is a natural part of the life cycle and should not be feared. Viejos (Old Men) often reflect a humorous rather than depressing view of old age. Duality masks show a single face divided vertically and depicting a side of good (angel) and evil (devil), male and female, life (human) and death (skeleton). Human-animal duality masks reflect on the mystic unity between people and animals.
In the modern world of Mexican sports, lucha libre masks add terror and fearlessness to the arsenal of a Mexican wrestler. It appears that the paper-thin surgical mask does the same for wearers in their battle against airborne swine germs.
As a Mexican American who lived in Mexico for a short period, I find it refreshing in an artificial sense to see that Mexican masks still retain the power to protect against evil, to transform the wearer into something to be reckoned with, and to teach lessons about bravery, survival and, well, hygiene.
The beauty and mystery inherent in Mexican masks of old is unquestionable. Museums, art galleries and collectors crave Mexican masks as folk art collectibles. It remains to be seen the long-term cultural effect of the blue surgical mask in Mexico.
For now, I’m satisfied just to let it keep its wearers from harm’s way.
(John Rosales is a journalist who resides in Washington, D.C. .E-mail care of [email protected])