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The Magical Masks Of Ocumicho

January 14, 2003

As a twelve-year annual veteran of Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro, I can honestly say that it was six years ago that the masks of Ocumicho made their return. Amazed at the appearance of these fantastically carved and painted wooden masks, we of course inquired about why we had not seen them before at the famous Muertos artisan's market.

Our good friends from Ocumicho simply replied that the men had always made them and this year they decided to bring them to market. Why should the women get all the credit? It is true that for generations the famous clay of Ocumicho was almost exclusively made by women while men went to the sierra to cut wood or to their milpas (small plots of land for planting the family's corn) daily. But even that is changing as men now help make and paint clay, while mask making remains exclusively the domain of men.

The mother of Octavio Esteban Reyes looks on proudly as we inspect and purchase masks in the courtyard surrounded by several trojes, the traditional log cabin-like homes of Purepechan Indians who in fact speak Purepecha. Spanish is their second language.
The selection and intensity of the masks is visually powerful whether in color on the wooden boards of the troje floor, or in black and white.

In the pine forested mountains surrounding Ocumicho, the men cut wood under strict government supervision. Nothing is wasted of this precious commodity, and a stick becomes a carved snake, a twisted twig will certainly do as an antler or nose, and even the tiniest twigs will become insect legs in the imagination of the Ocumicho carvers. While these masks are not used for traditional dances of the region, their whimsy and color cannot be resisted.

Left: Octavio Esteban Reyes holds a mask of his own creation.
Right: The storage area beside his troje is full of masks and clay figures.

Octavio is in fact one of the men who makes the clay, and his tall, naïve figures are some of the best in all of Ocumicho. His sense of color (and humor) become reality in tierra as he creates scenes of heaven and hell, cantinas filled with devils, and naked mermaids eating their watermelon feasts.

The village of Ocumicho is legendary for its clay work and devilish erotica, but one should not overlook the colorful wooden masks as a true, folk art treasure.

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO