BORUCA, Puntarenas – Lolly Fernández sits quietly with her grandson in her living room at night. He watches television, and although the sound is not working, he has rigged up a small device he can hold near his ear to listen. Fernández pays more attention to her work.
Swiss Army knife in hand, she carves out a sketch of flower and animal motifs into a calabash gourd, or jícara. She has split the gourd in half and will carve both halves. When finished, she will use the gourd to represent a turtle shell and will later add a head and flippers, carved out of balsa wood. Sometimes her son paints the head and flippers in colorful patterns, enhancing the beauty of the finished piece.
Fernández was born and raised in Boruca, an indigenous community of approximately 2,000 inhabitants in the mountains near the Southern Zone town of Buenos Aires. She has been making gourd turtles for more than 10 years. One of her pieces is on display in the National Museum in San José.
In the last year and a half, Fernández has begun to diversify and is now using her enormous creativity to create other animal figures: monkeys, deer, tapirs and owls. She uses the ellipsoidal shape of the whole jícara for bodies, and carves arms, legs and faces out of balsa wood.
She has also taken a course in xylography, the art of making engravings on wood for printing. Fernández carves a relief into wood – usually scenes from nature, inspired by the birds, animals, flowers and trees of Costa Rica – and then uses it to cast a print onto rice paper. She repeats the process twice to get two different colors that contrast against the white of the paper. The final product is stunning.
Across the road from Fernández lives 42-year-old Leila Gonzales, also born and raised in Boruca. Like her ancestors before her, Gonzales uses the pre-Columbian backstrap loom to weave bags of varying sizes, as well as wallets and hatbands. Her work is outstanding for her selection of color combinations. Boruca women are known as weavers, and some have preserved time-honored formulas for making dyes out of plants and vegetables to create their weavings.
As artisans, the Boruca are also well-known for their distinctive masks, generally carved out of balsa. Although it has traditionally been the men who carve and the women who paint, an increasing number of women are now carving. The masks represent the devil, the devil protecting nature, and natural scenes resplendent with birds, snakes, animals and flowers. Sometimes they are made of cedar, in which case they are not painted. Balsa masks may be painted or plain.
One of the most outstanding painters in Boruca is Nidia Fernández, a 36-year-old grandmother of four. Fernández has been painting masks for more than 12 years. Until recently, she worked closely with her brother, Jorge, who carved the masks that she would paint. Her brother was also a significant figure in the community’s annual year-end Fiesta de los Diablitos activities. Jorge died in February in a tragic accident at sea. As a result, Fernández says this year’s festival will be extremely difficult for her. However, she is now working with other carvers and has been busy painting masks in anticipation of the fiesta. In addition to the full-size masks, she paints small representational masks, popular with tourists in search of more portable treasures from Boruca.
Dance of the Little Devils
In a tradition with deep historical and cultural roots, the people of Boruca commemorate the end of the year and bring in the new with the Fiesta de los Diablitos, also called the Juego de los Diablitos (Dance of the Little Devils). The event takes place Dec. 30 to Jan. 2 each year.
The fiesta officially begins at midnight on Dec. 30 with the call of the conch shell sounded by the diablo mayor, the elder devil, and the clamor of church bells ringing out the death of the year. The diablitos, or little devils, who have gathered at a clearing above the village, come charging down the hill, ready to begin their dance with the toro or bull, the spiritual representation of the Spanish conquistadors. The diablitos wear elaborate handmade masks and cover their clothing with jute burlap sometimes enhanced with banana leaves. The toro figure sports a burlap armature with a mask of a bull’s head.
The first night, the dance continues into the early hours of the morning. A drummer and flautist set the pace, and the quantity of chicha (a homemade fermented beverage made from corn) imbibed seems to set the intensity. The diablitos sleep little the first night, and the next day they again begin dancing, drinking and visiting at just about every home in the village.
The dance is characterized by the interaction between the bull and the diablitos. Initially, the diablitos taunt and challenge the bull, but the bull gradually becomes more challenging and dominant. The bull is eventually successful in “killing” the devils, but he then goes into hiding and the devils resurrect themselves. They go on a hunt for the bull, and when they find him they build a huge fire and burn his costume. The diablitos enthusiastically jump across the fire to celebrate their success, their symbolic survival, and the end of the fiesta.
A visit to Boruca at fiesta time is an opportunity to witness this old tradition, see where and how the Boruca live, and buy some beautiful handicrafts to take home. The idyllic mountain town can be reached from the Inter-American Highway South by car (ideally, though not necessarily, with four-wheel drive) or by bus from the town of Buenos Aires, about 20 kilometers to the north.