When we pull up to his Escazú home, Gerardo Montoya hits play.
Parade sounds fill this sleepy neighborhood in the hills overlooking Costa Rica’s capital city. Crashing cymbals and snare drums punch off time as we walk down the driveway towards a garage workshop where our host awaits, dancing among the monsters he’s created, many of them large enough to swallow a man whole.
He cuts the music and announces:
“Meet my second family!”
There is el Chupacabra the blood sucking goat killer, just chilling next to Martina the spunky abuela. There are grinning diablos crowding long-nosed brujas, witches in cahoots with their equally hideous boyfriends, the brujos. There’s the hot pink-cheeked Rosita, a fat Spanish madam who spends most of her time with the hairless, tirelessly ambitious el Calvo. There’s la Segua, half beautiful woman, half dead horse. Her hobbies include hanging around water and scaring the pants back on unfaithful husbands. There’s Pancho the humble rancher, El Chino the racial stereotype and in the back there is Gerardo, a mask modeled after its maker, the likeness uncanny.
The “real” Gerardo Montoya beams as he explains the family history. His grandfather was Pedro Arias, one of the most famous mid-century Costa Rican mask-makers or mascareros, who defined an aesthetic style still used all over the country to make these paper mâché “payasos,” beloved guests at every popular festival or celebration, prone to spontaneous dancing and the chasing of children.
Montoya founded this workshop about 20 years ago, after hard times drove the family to sell its farmland in Escazú. Property values promptly sky-rocketed. Montoya has said within three years the German investor who bought that two hectare property was offered more than triple the amount he paid. This kind of story is typical of the rapid transformation taking place in this increasingly affluent cantón, 8 kilometers from central San José.
To get to the mask workshop, we first pass “new” Escazú’s towering condominiums, its gleaming skyscrapers and a colossal shopping mall. We don’t stop at Hooter’s, nor at the liquor store with an LED sign called La Bruja. We ascend narrow residential streets lined with locked gates, shiny cars and for sale signs featuring swimming pools. Near the end we pass an historic Catholic Church, a mural dedicated to cattle ranching and a 100-year-old adobe house where legend has it a real witch once lived. Finally, we climb the steepest grade yet, toward the cloud forests of Pico Blanca. Half-way up we arrive at Montoya’s home and workshop, 200 meters past the water treatment plant where he now works as a technician.
That’s his day job, but “…This is happiness for me,” he says, motioning to the masks.
“To sell a mask would be like selling a son.”
Though, he does have seven of them. (Sons, that is.) Two have learned to make the traditional masks, using clay to create molds that are then covered in strips of newspaper soaked in yucca gum, left to dry, mounted on wooden or metal frames and painted. It´s a month-long process before they are ready. Montoya doesn’t sell the masks, instead renting them to municipalities for popular festivals, which abound in Costa Rica. Famous for exemplifying the Central Valley style, Montoya’s masks were even used during the 1998 presidential inauguration of Miguel Angel Rodríguez.
At our tour Pedro Montoya, one of the seven sons, disappears under the skirt of a giganta, her gaudily made-up face and blonde hair a parody of a colonial Spanish dueña. He begins to dance like there’s nothing at all precarious about this situation, flirting shamelessly with our driver and facilities manager, Ricardo.
Next we assume some strange forms ourselves.
Upon reflection, wearing that mask and dancing like a maniac in Montoya’s driveway reminds me of learning Spanish through immersion. The giddiness and the sweat. The sense that whatever I want to convey is distorted by what I can convey. Feeling foolish and realizing that is actually kind of fun. The exaggerated gestures and lack of subtlety. The smiles and the laughter. The art of not taking oneself too seriously.
-Emily Jo Cureton