Costa Rica doesn’t officially celebrate Halloween (although bars and restaurants countrywide would wholeheartedly disagree with that statement). Instead, the Costa Rican Ministry of Culture created a national mandate declaring October 31st the “Dia Nacional de la Mascarada,” or the traditional day dedicated to traditional masks and mask makers.
“Mascaras” are beautiful handmade masks that have been around for as long as anyone can remember. To find out how to make them, I interviewed masquerera Betzabeth Moya Brenes, who is a dental technician by day and master mask maker by night.
“The máscara is simply the object itself: the mask standing alone,” she said. “But when you are in a big group and people put them on and the masks begin to dance, they transform from máscaras into mascaradas.”
Betzabeth is one of few female mask makers in a largely male-dominated field, and she’s spent the past 6 years creating typical Costa Rican masks in her spare time. She learned by watching a guest make one at a fair while she was in college, and then she figured out the rest of the process on her own. These masks are extremely time consuming to make, so she’s typically only able to make about 3 per year.
The National Day of the Traditional Costa Rican Masks may fall on October 31st, but it is a very different celebration than Halloween. “Halloween is about commercialism, on a global scale,” Betzabeth said. “The Day of the Traditional Mascarada is about preserving Costa Rican culture and traditions.”
You can check out her work here on her Facebook page.
According to Betzabeth, there are 4 basic types of masks:
Careta — 1-sided mask that only covers the front of your face
De Casco — 3D mask that covers your entire head
Gigantescas — masks that sit atop structures making the person wearing them very tall, like giants
Enanos — Dwarf masks that cover person from head to waist, turning them into a dwarf.
How to make a Typical Costa Rican Paper Mascara
Every masquerero, or mask maker, has his/her own tricks to the trade. Each has their own style and technique, but this is the basic process for making a paper mask:
Mud (for shaping) or a corner of a cardboard box
Step 1: Go to the mountains and find arcia, or Costa Rican mud.
Step 2: Use the mud to shape your mask with your thumbs (or start with a corner of a cardboard box as the main shape for a smaller, one-sided mask).
Step 3: Shred the newspapers and combine with the glue to make paper mache
Step 4: Cover the mold with the paper mache
Step 5: When it dries, remove the paper mache mask from the mold
Step 6: Add details
Step 7: Apply paint
How to make a Fiberglass Costa Rican Mascara
If you want to make a newer, more modern mask you can also incorporate fiberglass. This process make the masks last longer – they are better able to resist water and to take a beating. When damaged, fiberglass masks are also much easier to repair than paper ones.
Mud for shaping
Step 1: Make the mold with mud, using your hands and thumbs
Step 2: Add at least 3 layers of fiberglass and let it dry in the sun
Step 3: When dry, add at least 3 layers of masilla (wall plaster)
Step 4: When that is dry, remove the mud mold and wash out the mask really well
Step 5: Now it’s time for sanding. File down the mask slowly. In favorable (dry) weather, it can take around 20 hours – but completed little by little over the course of about 15 days. You can’t do it all at once.
Step 6: Now you paint it and add the details. Add creative accents for hair, eyes and eyelashes
Step 7: Paint! Mask makers use all sorts of different tools for painting including sponges, compressors, spray paint and of course paintbrushes.
That’s it! Now go out, get creative and make your own.
First and last photos by: Genna Marie Robustelli of Tamarindo Family Photos
Subsequent photos and masks made by: Betzabeth Moya Brenes