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Making Faces with Oaxacan Mask Crafter Jesus Avila

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Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real with writer Pedro Arroyo and curator Catherine Trujillo as they explore the rich and diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County incorporating personal narratives, photography, art, infographics, and sound. This week, Oaxaca native and Los Osos resident Jesus Avila, offers a glimpse into his woodworking studio where he carves and designs wooden masks used in traditional Oaxacan dances.

On a chilly and damp Central Coast evening, Jesus Avila Trujillo is fast at work on a wood mask to showcase at the annual Guelaguetza festival held in Santa Maria. Avila and other indigenous Oaxacans will gather in this Central Coast town soon to celebrate "Guelaguetza," an event organized to celebrate the dances, music, food, dress and arts from the eight regions of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Many Oaxaquenos, like Avila, form the backbone of the region's agricultural labor force, harvesting the grapes and strawberries in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. The U.S. Census data counted 7,195 Hispanic American Indians calling the Central Coast home, a number that continues to grow. As their community expands, so does Oaxaqueno culture, which appears in the fanciful mask-work of Avila.

Although Avila has lived on the Central Coast for nearly 25 years, he was born in San Sebastian Tecomaxtlahuaca, a mountainous town of just over 2,200 residents in the Lower Mixtec region of Oaxaca, home to a multitude of indigenous languages and a place rich in cultural traditions some dating back to Pre-Columbian times.

Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word indicating an offering, but for indigenous communities in Oaxaca, guelaguetza was also the term used to describe the pre-Columbian ceremonies and celebrations held each year to propitiate the gods in return for sufficient rain and a bountiful harvest, especially Xilonen, the Goddess of Tender Corn.

Avila works out of an unassuming outdoor wood shop in Los Osos, a quiet coastal town. In his wood shop, he creates masks of playful diablos (devils) and rubios -- fair-skinned men -- iconic characters native to Tecomaxtlahuaca. Avila, despite the distance from his native home of Oaxaca, continues to practice many of the traditions, he learned as a young man.

His tools include a router, bandsaw, chisels, paints, and brushes. He is surrounded by hundreds of succulents, orchids and flowers raised by Avila and his wife. Although Avila relies on some modern tools for his work, the mask making process he practices has essentially remained the same for the last 100 years. He is one of three mask makers and wood carvers in his family. The tradition was handed down from his father and both Avila and his brother, Miguel engage in the craft. Avila's brother, Miguel who spends his time between Tecomaxtlahuaca and Fresno is an accomplished mask maker who also carves religious icons. "My brother is the only left in Tecomaxtlahuaca who carves masks and religious images," Avila mentions. "He carved a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann of Eaton for the church in Los Osos," he says. "My brother carved it in Tecomaxtlahuaca and drove the carving all the way to Los Osos by truck," he concludes with a smile.    

For these recent carvings Avila used several pieces of discarded tree trunks.  "A neighbor gave me this piece of redwood and I carved this mask from it," he said while pointing to unfinished diablo (devil) mask on a nearby table.  Avila has an assortment of goat horns and has yet to determine which horns he will use to adorn the diablo's head. When complete the diablo will be fierce yet playful. Several finished diablo masks lie on a table next to a woodcarvings of Jesus and Mary and a papier-mache donkey. "I prefer working with Mexican redwood or mahogany. It is sturdier," he adds.   

Avila shifts his attention to another recently carved mask of a rubio, with a traditional gesso used as far back as the renaissance.  The gesso is made by mixing blanco de espana, a fine powdered chalk made from calcium carbonate, and an adhesive made from the skins of rabbits to make the substance.  

The painstaking process begins with Avila soaking the rabbit skin glue in the form of pellets overnight and once softened, he cooks the pellets just before reaching boiling point. Once cooled, the pellets dissolve and turn into a smooth gelatin paste. When the rabbit glue is mixed with the blanco de espana, the end result is a durable, brilliant white and smooth surface. With a little sanding, the gesso is remarkably smooth and ready for the paint.    

Using this gesso material has several advantages. The gesso is fast drying and a very durable adhesive. In addition, the gesso Avila makes is hygroscopic. The gesso will adjust to the moisture in the air along with the wood for durability.  

Avila grabs another mask and begins to blend oil paints to make a dark brown color, the signature color of the rubio mask. As he applies the paint, he reaches for a thick piece of what appears to be a cheese cloth resting in a bowl of water, but it is actually a piece of cow bladder and he begins to rub the paint onto the surface of the mask. "I usually use a goat bladder," he confides as he continues polishing the mask. "But since I did not have one, a friend gave me this one from a cow." According to Avila, polishing the mask with the goat bladder gives the mask a shiny finish.  The end result is a beautiful dark brown and highly polished rubio mask.

La Danza de Los Rubios

Besides carving, Avila also leads an informal dance troupe which performs a dance native to Tecomaxtlahuaca called  "La Danza de Los Rubios," (The Dance of the Fair Skinned Ones), a traditional dance he learned as a young man and is performed in regions nearby to remember those who herded cattle from Oaxaca to the State of Veracruz and Puebla. "Cattlemen would stop to rest, dance and drink agua ardiente (homemade liquor made from sugar cane) to pass the time," Avila stated.  The dance also chronicles the herders' attempts to find a few young bulls that get lost along the journey.

"In Oaxaca, we also danced during Saint Peter's feast day and during Carnaval," he said. "I danced for four days in this year's Carnaval and then returned to California." Avila, like many other transnational Oaxaquenos moves from Oaxaca to California and back, inhabiting multiple cultural spaces with relative ease. He is an OaxaCaliforniano. "We are going to rehearse in Santa Maria in a few days in preparation for Guelaguetza," Avila shares and offers an invitation to attend the rehearsal.

A few days later Avila and a few young men and women are gathered in a garage of a quiet suburban home in Santa Maria rehearsing La Danza de Los Rubios. Avila, the most experienced dancer of the group, plays the role of the Caporal or foreman of the cattle herders. Dressed in full regalia, with tan goat-skinned chaps, silver spurs, a whip and rubio mask, Avila guides the young men and women through various steps of the dance. Avila who is now fully drenched in sweat, has been rehearsing with the young for about an hour and shows no signs of slowing down.  He directs, college student Engels Bautista, who plays the role of Alvarado to search for the missing bulls and the ensemble of three men and four women begin a ceremonial search for missing bulls through fictional canyons and hillsides. They move about the crowded garage in circles, at times dancing together and then apart raising their arms in the air while violin and jarana music plays in the, background.  Another of the adult dancers and teacher is Domingo Vargas, 34, also a Tecomaxtlahuaca native and a friend of Avila's. "I have been dancing since I was 15 years old," he says. "My father danced, so do my brothers and I do as well."  

Engels Bautista, 22, was born in San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca and recently joined Avila as way to connect with his culture. In the fall, the young man will begin classes at San Jose State University focusing on global studies. His sister Gemma, 20, who is also part of the group, plays the role of the Maria Cotita, the wife of the caporal, will attend UC Santa Cruz.  "We are the by-products of globalization," Gemma says while taking a break from dancing. "We might as well try to understand the process to make a difference in our community." Besides dancing, the Bautista siblings represent the emerging face of the Oaxaqueno community on the Central Coast. These young activists are members of CE'ENI (Colectivo Educativo Estudiantil de Naciones Indigenas), a student collective of Allan Hancock Community College. The students organize to support activities such as commissioning a mural for the Santa Maria Guelaguetza Festival and fundraising for the California DREAM Act.

As the rehearsal continues, the knocking of the spurs and foot tapping draws interest of a neighbor. The elderly man turns away shrugging his shoulders in disapproval of the violin noise and excitement. A young Mixteco observing from the sidelines says that reaction is common. "I get people calling out to me to leave the past behind, that I am in America now and I need to act like an American." Staring down at his shoes, he continues. "Being here is a gray space. I am still a Oaxacan. Jesus helped me get back into my culture that I was being pressured to leave behind. These customs attract a community and we all come together to help our people make our way here."

Near the end rehearsal, one of the young Mixtecos arrives to the garage with the 2 by 3 1/2 foot high handcrafted bull made from cowhide and wood. It is the little bull the rubio dancers need to find at the end of the dance. The young bull was on loan to a local Ballet Folklórico group and Avila quickly notices that a set of eyes were added to the bull by someone from the Ballet Folklórico group. "That bull does not have eyes, " he says while the crowd bursts into laughter.  
As the group of young dancers prepare to leave for home, their excitement and joy of the dancer palpable as is their admiration and respect for Avila.
Avila probably never intended to become a leader within this emerging community but through dancing, mask making, and mentorship, he has given the young and old in the Oaxaqueno community on the Central Coast another reason to be proud.

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