Spring 2022

Masks that Transform

Deep lines etched in wood create the shapes of bright red mouths with tongues protruding and empty sockets for eyes to peer through. Strands of goat, cow and horse hair mimic flowing beards and long eyebrows, framing the oval faces. On the foreheads or chins of the anthropomorphic masks, a red or white cross wards against evil, demonstrating the Catholic influence on indigenous traditions.

Today these masks are artifacts on display, but many once had a vibrant life — not only as a piece of art but also as an item with the power to transform. They were once worn by pascola dancers, and they hold a deep ritual significance for the Mayo and Yaqui people of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. The pascola dons his mask for communal ceremonies and traditional festivities, where he acts as a dancer, a host, a speaker and a ritual clown. 

Dozens of pascola masks were on display at the Arizona State Museum through April 2022, and can be viewed in the museum’s online collection. The exhibit showcases ASM’s James S. Griffith Collection and examines the masks and pascola traditions that are integral to the Mayo and Yaqui lifeways. It was guest curated by Santiago Benton (Mayo) and Yaqui pascola elders in collaboration with Griffith and ASM. 

Involving members of the Mayo and Yaqui communities in the creation of the exhibit was important for the proper representation of these culturally important artifacts, says Diane Dittemore, associate curator of ethnological collections. The exhibit is presented in English, Spanish and Yaqui, with portions in Mayo as well. 

The mask collection came to ASM in 2005 as a generous donation from James S. “Big Jim” Griffith ’61 ’67 ’73, folklorist and former UArizona researcher. Griffith collected many of the pascola masks while visiting Mayo communities in 1965 and 1966 as part of the research for his UArizona anthropology master’s thesis focusing on the masks. He would go on to publish multiple scholarly articles about the masks as well.

Dittemore says it was an honor to collaborate on the ASM exhibit with Griffith, who passed away in December 2021 at the age of 86.