Each year on August 24th in the mountain town of Barva de Heredia, the young and old alike take to the streets in handmade artistic masks to celebrate the town’s patron Saint Bartholomew. Bands called cimarronas play loud traditional music, and townspeople run around chasing one another with air-filled cow bladders tied to a string.
No, I’m not kidding. This really happens every year, rain or shine.
While no one seems to know exactly where the bladder-swinging tradition comes from, but we do know that the parade of the masks – called “mascaradas” in Spanish – was a concept originally brought over to the Americas from Spain (I’ll write more on how these are made in a Halloween-themed blog).
The mascaradas custom first began in Cartago, but it quickly exploded in Barva de Heredia where it is now most prevalent. It’s also very popular in Escazu and other places in and around the Central Valley. Mask designs range from “La Gigantesca” (a giant woman), to clowns, devils, smurfs, grim reapers and skull & crossbones. Other themes include movie stars with exaggerated features, public and political figures, or allegorical characters from popular children’s stories and cartoons (think Snow White and Buzz Lightyear).
Barva resident Luis Fernando Vargas, who has been making masks since the tender age of 7, explained that there are at least 15 “masquereros” (mask-makers) in Barva alone. He knows of about 50 total throughout San Jose. Each has their own unique style and technique.
Fortunately, Costa Rican Ministry of Culture has shown heightened interest in preserving this unique tradition over the past few years. They’ve commissioned Vargas to give workshops each Saturday from 8am-12pm at the Museo de Cultura Popular en Barva de Heredia. All materials are bought and paid for by the government, and anyone is welcome to join.
In addition to busting out the masks on the Day of Saint. Bart, the town of Barva also organizes mascaradas for their “Dia Nacional de la Mascarada” each year on October 31st – which goes quite well with Halloween. (If you ask a masquerero, they’ll tell you this holiday is supposed to replace Halloween entirely). There is another parade the last week in March, and another for “El Simposio,” which is an exhibition in the park where sculptors and mask-makers can show off their art to the public.