San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Masquerade parades through Plaza de la Cultura

The “máscaras” are made of papier-mâché and often stand 10 feet in the air. Their faces are funny, scary, friendly, and malformed – but never ordinary. The “gigante” mask isn’t so much a mask as a giant body puppet. Operators strap into the oversized outfit, use a tiny window to breathe, and dance like there’s no tomorrow.

What better way to celebrate Halloween?

The Center for the Investigation and Conservation of Cultural Heritage hosted a colorful showcase of traditional Costa Rican masks in its great hall, where hundreds of people gathered yesterday morning to hear about these remarkable works. Sponsored by the Culture Ministry, the one-day exhibit incorporated 58 large masks and 54 smaller samples, which were spread throughout two floors. While the 25 contributing artists used traditional methods and styles, their masks were all created for a contest organized by the ministry.

Representatives Fernando González from the Center and Fresia Camacho of the ministry described the masks’ history and significance to a packed house, then handed out awards to the winners.

The art form dates back to Costa Rica’s colonial period, when the masks were influenced by Spanish, African and indigenous traditions. Faces represent a variety of Costa Rican archetypes (policeman, farmer) and folk characters (the Headless Priest is a Halloween favorite). The technique got a boost in the early 20th century from the Martínez family of Cartago, whose high quality máscarasbecame nationally recognized.

Shortly after 11:30 a.m., performers scrambled into their masks and started to filter from the building. They marched down Avenida Central, guided by a brass quintet, and by the time they started to whirl and dance in the Plaza de la Cultura, the procession had attracted hundreds of revelers. Costa Rica isn’t known for its trick-or-treating or bobbing for apples, but the costumes were unparalleled.


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