Bolivia carnival mask-makers grapple with modernity

Fri Feb 20, 2009 1:34pm EST
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By Diego Ore

ORURO, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivian Fernando Flores has been making dazzling masks for the Oruro carnival for most of his life, and so did three generations of the Flores family before him. But the age-old tradition could be dying.

His paint-drenched masks depicting demons with protruding eyes, twisted horns and pointy ears will catch the eyes of revelers when the carnival of Oruro, a mining town 150 miles south of La Paz, kicks off on Saturday.

Every year, thousands of tourists cram the cobblestone streets of Oruro, some 12,100 feet high in the Andes, to enjoy a pulsating street festival featuring hundreds of dancers clad in bizarre costumes and masks.

"A mask has to be horribly beautiful," said Flores, whose family started making masks in the early 1900s and whose father, German Flores, is Bolivia's best-known mask artist.

Fernando, who has been making masks since he was a child, says that nowadays most mask artisans follow commercial fads rather than tradition.

"Now we're only five people making masks according to an age-old tradition (in Oruro). The others make masks with the logo of (hard rock band) Iron Maiden and demons from comics," said Flores in his shop, amid dozens of masks.

Dancers are also to blame, said Flores, because some dress up as the troubled pop star Michael Jackson or Hell Boy, a comic and film hero, instead of as traditional carnival characters like the bear or the angel.

Flores specializes in devil masks, which can be up to three feet (nearly 1 meter) in height and are worn by dancers of the Diablada, a fast-paced parade of angels and demons that depicts the fight between good and evil.   Continued...