February 20, 2009 / 6:35 PM / 10 years ago

Bolivia carnival mask-makers grapple with modernity

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.

The devil masks used to be made with plaster and weighed over 20 pounds, but these days the structure is made with lighter fiberglass painted in psychedelic tones, while the nose, ears and horns are made with tin or cardboard.

Some craftsmen use light bulbs for the bulging eyes and glitter to add some extra color to their whimsical creations.

The biggest masks require up to two weeks of work and sell for $250, a fortune in South America’s poorest country.

Mask-maker Felicidad Valencia also believes artisans should respect tradition rather than follow new commercial successes.

“If there is an evolution (in mask design), it must be in line with traditions and history,” said Valencia.

Additional reporting by David Mercado in Oruro; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Kieran Murray

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