December - January Issue Issue Archive

Perseverance of Boruca Traditions

By Matt Levin

Lourdes Rojas toils through the night. The cherubic Boruca mother is scrutinizing over the finishing details of a mask for her son – adding feathers here and strands of hair there. Periodically, Rojas pauses to dole out instructions to her husband, who stands nearby in carpenter jeans and a dirty t-shirt drilling holes in a large wooden boar's head.

These masks transform members of the Boruca tribe into characters for the annual Juego de los Diablitos (Little Devil's Game), a tradition that dates back hundreds of years to the arrival of the Spanish invaders. The festival, which coincides with the New Year, celebrates perseverance. This tribe, which is unique to Costa Rica, has lived in the country’s southern mountainous terrain since long before Columbus's conquistadors arrived. Some 2000 Borucas make up the village today and the emotive masks continue to be their most enduring symbol.

Decades ago, many Borucas lost their fascination for mask-making, until the mid-90s, when the Juego de los Diablitos became a minor tourist hit, and the economy of the village shifted from agriculture to tourism. Villagers refer to 83-year-old Ismael González as the "originator," because he was the first to revive and commercialize the practice.

Since then, mask designs have evolved to appeal more to customers as colorful adornments, which has sparked concerns about selling out. However, most Borucas find the revival of this tradition moving.

"At the center they are all still our masks," said Rojas, 44. "And the spirituality is still there."

Carved from cedar or balsawood, the traditional masks are not painted and have more devilish features. Bloated eyeballs and curled teeth twist out of the masks' mouth. Monstrous charm radiates from these precisely cut and crafted works of art. Newer masks showcase dazzling colors and natural accessories, and a shift toward woodcut images of toucans and jaguars.

Today, the art is recognized throughout Costa Rica, and mask-making classes are offered at local universities. In 2002, González won Costa Rica's National Culture Award for his work. Before retiring in 2011, González hung his final mask on display at the local museum. He still has plenty to share about the history of the masks and the "good and bad" of change to anyone who asks.

Two cooperatives promote mask-masking in the village: La Flor Cooperativa and So Cagrú Artisans. Rojas began So Cagrú a decade ago as a way for women artisans to promote their work. Despite growing up an orphan in San Jose estranged from her culture, she returned home 20 years ago determined to maintain her traditions, and establish strong cultural roots for her children. The cooperative has grown from four women to a dozen families and occupies a studio overflowing with tools, paints and the colorful masks – perhaps one of Costa Rica's most attractive cultural secrets.

"It’s incredible because normally when you look for culture you think of Mexico or Guatemala," said Yolando Matamoros, a 27-year-old Costa Rican art student visiting for the first time. "You don’t think of your own country."

Touring Boruca:

Read more about their history and art at:
For tours of La Flor Co-operativa call Marina Lazaro Morales at 2730-1673.
For tours of So Cagrú call Lourdes Rojas at 2730-2456 or email
For information in English, call Harold Rojas at 8329-8770.
Toll Free USA/Canada: 1-800-235-92721-800-235-9272 / Local number: (506) 2299-6000

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