Wood Carving and Musical Instruments
Spanish and Native Oaxacan traditions have blended to produce a multitude of masks—some strange, some lovely, some scary, some endearing, all interesting. The tradition flourishes in Oaxaca and the strongly indigenous neighboring states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Chiapas. Here campesinos gear up all year for the village festivals—especially Semana Santa (Easter week), early December (Virgin of Guadalupe), and that of the local patron, whether it be San José, San Pablo, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Santa María, 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 artisans craft Oaxaca masks of many materials—from stone and ebony to coconut husks and paper—wood, where available, is the medium of choice. For the entire year, workers carve, sand, and paint to ensure that each participant will be properly disguised for the festival. Although Oaxaca’s larger municipalities usually have their cadres of mask makers, towns in the coastal Mixteca region, notably Santa María Huazolotitlán and Pinotepa Don Luis, are among Oaxaca’s busiest authentic mask sources.
The popularity of masks has resulted in an entire made-for-tourist mask industry, which has led to 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 called alebrijes (ah-lay-BREE-hays) a Oaxaca growth industry. Virtually every family in certain Valley of Oaxaca villages—notably Arrazola and San Martín Tilcajete—runs a factory studio. There, piles of copal wood, which men carve and women finish and intricately paint, become whimsical giraffes, dogs, cats, iguanas, gargoyles, and dragons, including 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 Oaxaca City and $30 in the United States, Canada, or Europe.
Virtually all of Mexico’s guitars are made in Paracho, Michoacán (southeast of Lake Chapala), north of Uruapan. There, scores of cottage factories turn out guitars, violins, mandolins, ukuleles, and a dozen more variations every day. Products 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 Oaxaca, 5th edition