Wood Carving and Musical Instruments
Spanish and native Mexican traditions have blended to produce a multitude of masks—some strange, some lovely, some scary, some endearing, all interesting. The tradition flourishes in the strongly indigenous southern Pacific states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, where campesinos gear up all year for the village festivals—especially Semana Santa, early December (Virgin of Guadalupe), and the festival of the local patron, whether it be San José, San Pedro, San Pablo, Santa María, Santa Barbara, or one of a host of others. Every local fair has its favored dances, such as the Dance of the Conquest, the Christians and Moors, the Old Men, or the Tiger, in which masked villagers act out age-old allegories of fidelity, sacrifice, faith, struggle, sin, and redemption.
Although masks are made of many materials—from stone and ebony to coconut husks and paper—wood, where available, is the medium of choice. For the entire year, mask-makers cut, carve, sand, and paint to ensure that each participant will be properly disguised for the festival.
The popularity of masks has led to an entire made-for-tourist mask industry of mass-produced duplicates, many cleverly antiqued. Examine the goods carefully; if the price is high, don’t buy unless you’re convinced it’s a real antique.
Tourist demand has made zany wooden animals, or alebrijes (ah-lay-BREE-hays), a Oaxaca growth industry. Virtually every family in the Valley of Oaxaca villages of Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete runs a factory studio. There, piles of soft copal wood, which men carve and women finish and intricately paint, become whimsical giraffes, dogs, cats, iguanas, gargoyles, dragons, and most of the possible permutations in between. The farther from the source you get, the higher the alebrije price becomes; what costs $5 in Arrazola will probably run about $10 in Puerto Vallarta and $30 in the United States or Canada.
Also commonly available wooden items are the charming colorfully painted fish carved mainly in the Pacific coastal state of Guerrero, and the burnished, dark hardwood animal and fish sculptures of desert ironwood from the state of Sonora.
Most of Mexico’s guitars are made in Paracho, Michoacán (southeast of Lake Chapala, 50 miles north of Uruapan). There, scores of cottage factories turn out guitars, violins, mandolins, viruelas, ukuleles, and a dozen more variations every day. They vary widely in quality, so look carefully before you buy. Make sure that the wood is well cured and dry; damp, unripe wood instruments are more susceptible to warping and cracking.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition