The Special Report of this edition seeks to promote the art of making Diablicos masks, one of the most popular traditions in our country and one that sets us apart from the rest of the continent. Our guests is Luis Enrique Calvo Perez a Master Craftsman from La Villa de Los Santos, a talented artist who, although he did not study art, always liked everything about painting from a very early age. He has worked as a sign maker, however, being a Diablicos Sucios dancer since he was a child, always had his mask made in times when the artisans did not allow the process of making it to be seen. His interest in this art led him to meet Mr. Jose Gonzalez, a Master Craftsman who accepted him to help him paint masks until little by little he began to learn the entire manufacturing process. Today Luis Enrique’s masks dress Diablicos dancers from all over the country, as they have also been exported abroad to places like New York, Spain, Italy and China. Despite being in high work season, he sits down for a while with The Visitor-El Visitante team to talk about this tradition that has hundreds of years of history and its impact on Panamanian tourism.
Where does the tradition of masks come from?
“What is known about the Diablicos masks is that they come from the time of the Spanish conquest. These masks were the first method used to evangelize the indigenous people of our country and the entire American continent. As the Spanish did not know the language and did not have a means of communication, they made the representation of a devil (where the masks come from) where they scared the indigenous and suddenly a cleric or priest appeared with a cross making the person disguised as devil recoiled in fear. This is how the first way to introduce Catholicism to our indigenous groups is created, letting them know that even the devil was afraid of the Cross. The tradition of devil masks comes from this action, which is what is represented in the Corpus Christi festivities.”
What kind of devil masks do you make and for which festivities?
“We make are all kinds of masks, Diablos Sucios (Dirty Devils) dancers to Diablos Limpios (Clean Devils). We also make parrampanes that are the masks that were used to make fun of upper class people. This is because, since the slaves could not celebrate parties, what they did was to escape to the mountains to use these masks to represent and mock their owners. We also make a hatch, which is what makes the shape of the Portobelo devils in Colon. We make all kinds of masks, both for table-type reminders as well as for dancers and decorations.”
What effect do these masks have on the people who see it, why do they attract so much?
“The effect that these masks have on people when they see it is shocking since in Panama masks shapes are unique, in other countries there are troupes with 100 people with the same masks. However, in Panama each dancer has a unique mask, where each one selects their design that can be a dragon, an animal, a devil with a human face, for this reason here we have much more variety. Before, the designs were drawn from the mind, but today with technology each dancer sometimes takes their design, either from movies or whatever they want to represent, and they bring it to me to do manufacture it according to the example. The color of these masks is one of the things that attracts tourists the most, and it is so much that there are many who come and buy the masks, sometimes from a dancer or from a craft stall that is selling, they even come to my workshop and they buy me a mask as a memory, whether it is small, medium or large.”
What is the reaction of tourists when being in contact with these characters as colloquial and controversial as the Diablicos?
“When tourists are in contact with these characters, they like them and ask questions, which allows us artisans to tell them the story behind the devils. They really like that here it is not like in their countries of origin where they use a mask and all the exact attire like the character of a movie or story that they like, here we do a representation of the character with a red and black dress or that of a Diablico Limpio (Clean Devil) who wears white clothing with colored handkerchiefs that represent the fires of the candle and seeing this contrast draws their attention. The dance is also added, where those of Diablico Sucio have the tendency to be the most liked.”
What do you suggest be done so that the Diablicos tradition is projected more to local and foreign tourists?
“I would suggest talking with tourism agencies or with those who manage tourist areas, just as it is being introduced in Finca Pamel where they promote the masks, and within the tourist package the tourist is taken into the whole process from the search for the land, the making of the mould, its preparation and how it is painted. There are masks that are shown as well as dances with the masks on, something that tourists like very much. It is a system that works well since when there is a group of tourist coming to the farm, we do demonstrations of how the manufacturing of the masks is carried out. Returning to the original idea, if all those who have tourist areas promoted this part of Panamanian culture to tourists, I am sure that the awareness that people have about our traditions would multiply. If the hotels in the region offer experience packages with these characteristics to local and foreign tourists, tourism would grow much more since we make them feel part of our traditions.”