With the tranquil, turquoise waters in the background and the calm texture of sand crunching beneath my two dollar flip-flops, I stopped abruptly at the sight on the curb. I hadn’t seen this before on the island, but then again I stay surprised. A young man, intent on his task, chipped away at a rectangular piece of wood from interior Yucatan. His “hammer," fashioned from another piece of wood, hit the machete boldly, as the metal tip honed away wood chips, piece by piece. Thankfully, the machete never slipped, as his legs were his table. Angel, his Mexican name, not to be confused with his Mayan name, worked tirelessly on transforming the raw wood into a replica of a Mayan mask. Now I have seen many Mayan masks, skillfully painted in deeper colors than I prefer, available for purchase on the island, but I have never witnessed the craftsman bearing time worn tools actively revealing the wood into this art form. I asked no questions and Angel never looked up, despite my obvious delight in his task. I finally, reluctantly walked away.
Of course, I promptly returned, for a purchase perhaps… but immediately for the story. Angel, a native of Chichen Itza, 120 miles inland from Cancun, had come to visit his brother Martin, at his local shop on the island. As a pastime, he decided to create an authentic mask or two... actually five… as passerbys enjoyed the sight of authentic art in action. Influenced by his Mayan heritage, Angel tirelessly chipped away to make a fine example of his way of life, even today.
Mayan culture has long been known for their many artistic talents… carving being one. Chichen Itza, his home, is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, because of the Mayan pyramid, Kukulkan. It is one of the most visited of any Mayan sites. Other sites there include the largest ball court ever uncovered, as well as many refreshing cenotes (underground lakes, cut by time, into the limestone), whose chilly water is welcome after a steep climb on Kukulkan.
So, of course, I purchased a detailed, natural tone mask for our Isla casa. Will I paint it, bead it, shell it? Only time will tell. But for now, it stands proudly alone and bare, as an example of a fascinating life, still lived today, and it bears witness to an intriguing culture. Thanks Angel and Martin for your time and explanations of this quality art form. -E