Boruca Indian Masks
From Costa Rica Travel Guide: Vacation and Travel tips
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One of Costa Rica’s few remaining indigenous groups, the Boruca live on a reservation in the Puntarenas Province in southwestern Costa Rica, where they have existed since before Columbus’s arrival. The two main Boruca communities, Boruca and Curre, have a combined population of approximately 2,200 people. Back in the day, the ancestors of the modern Boruca made up a group of chiefdoms that ruled most of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, from Quepos to what is now the Panamanian border, including the Osa Peninsula. Now the majority of the Boruca tribe lives on the Reserva Indígena Boruca. This reservation is located in the canton of Buenos Aires in the Puntarenas Province. The reservation extends 138.02 Km2 in the Talamanca mountains.
Although agriculture was the traditional means of subsistence, like their ancestors the modern Boruca are known for their art and craftwork, especially weaving and their distinctive painted balsa wood masks. Today, sale of their handcrafted wares and especially the decorative masks, which have become quite popular decorative items among Costa Ricans and tourists, supplements many families’ incomes.
The Boruca Indians have been making handicrafts for centuries. In an attempt to improve their economic situation, the indigenous group began making commercial masks. Boruca women weave utilizing pre-Colombian back-strap looms. Woven items and other crafts, such as decorated gourds, are also sold. “Crafts, which revive traditional technique, have helped them define their identity in relation to other cultural groups and it has allowed them to remain in their ancestral territories,” according to the book ‘Weaving the Past and Carving the Present: Boruca Artistic Traditions’ by Patricia Fernandez.
Today, the masks are more colorful and some are made of cedar but the original masks were made of balsa wood, and remained unpainted. Selected members of the community made their masks in secret, and they were discarded after the ceremony of the Danza de los Diablitos (Dance of the little devils). These masks play an important role in the Borucas’ annual Danza de los Diablitos ceremony, celebrated every winter since at least early colonial times.
The Danza del los Diablitos is performed every year by the Boruca, in remembrance of their fierce resistance to Spanish colonization. A carved bull’s head, which represents the Spaniards, is the only mask that is preserved year to year.
The other masks, hand carved in devil-like human forms, have grotesquely distorted features and generally display horns, representing the Boruca. Fernandez also writes, “The mask, with or without color, is an indispensable element, because without the masks there would be no devils, and without the devils there would be no Boruca.”
The Boruca lack traditional governing structures; they organize locally as non-Indian rural communities. The elderly, however, continue to be highly respected. It is also common for individual community leaders to exercise a great deal of influence and as carving and craftsmanship has gained importance in the Boruca communities, elder members of the indigenous group share their secrets with younger members in the community, thus preserving a great tradition and bringing in extra income to participating families.
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