SINCE PRE-COLUMBIAN times, folk art in Latin American has been the primary vehicle through which people have expressed their dreams and fears, courted their lovers, amused their children, worshipped their gods, and honored their ancestors. Today, as in the past, it is found in every part of Latin American Life, adorning the family's alter in the home or adding color and decoration to the furnishings. Also incorporated into architecture, local advertising, culinary habits, religious ritual, and politics, folk art is at the very core of Latin American culture and society.
Folk artists are found all over Latin America--in noisy, cities, busy regional market towns, sleepy coastal fishing villages, and small farming communities. They are men and women who provide the vital link between the past and the present, the caretakers of traditional life, usually held in high esteem by their communities. Some are full-time specialists who create as a means of earning a living. More often, though, they are farmers, masons, fishermen, barbers, and others who produce art in their spare time in order to supplement their incomes. Many of these artisans donate their skills, time, and artworks to an event--a religious festival, for example--as their contribution to the well-being of the community.
Most learn their craft through apprenticeships with other, more experienced artists. Frequently, this tradition is passed from father to son or mother to daughter, but non-kin also serve as mentors. Although traditional folk artists in Latin America seldom sign the objects they make, their works are not anonymous to other folk artists or those who buy and use them.
Reputations are developed that depend upon the standards established by the traditions of the community in which they work and live. While a degree of individuality is allowed, the folk artist understands the elements that are necessary to satisfy the purpose of the piece he or she is fashioning. Local values and perspectives are reflected through materials taken from the immediate environment. Many figural ceramists, for instance, are from communities producing pottery from local clay, fired with fuel from that area. Other folk artists depend on cast-off materials they recycle into useful objects.
The most visible and dramatic form of folk expression in Latin America is associated with ceremony, both secular and religious. Using traditional objects imbued with symbolic meaning, people commune with their saints, maintain continuity between the living and dead, acknowledge the passage from one stage of life to another, and strengthen ties with family, community, and nation. Ceremonial folk art provides viewers with an opportunity to experience the very soul of Latin America through the fundamental beliefs of those who use it in their lives.
The important role played by dance dramas in pre-Columbian Latin America quickly was recognized during the colonial period. Christian/Moor dance dramas took place as early as 1524 in Mexico and rapidly spread throughout the region, teaching the history of Christianity to the Indians through folk forms with which they already were familiar. Masks played central roles in these dance dramas.
Occasions recalling significant secular events--historical, patriotic, and/or military--yield colorful parades and reenactments. Masks, costumes, and related paraphernalia are part of the folk dramas staged to recreate pivotal moments in a villages or nation's history. Such annual performances strengthen the sense of community and bind the people to a larger image of nationhood.
Most Latin American ceremonial folk art, however, is religious. At its heart is the concept of La Promesa, a vow between a believer and members of the spiritual world who hold sway over individual, familial, and communal destiny. This contract is based on reciprocity. …