As kids, we wear masks for Halloween and pretend to be someone else for an evening. But in many cultures, masks have a more profound meaning and serve a crucial cultural role. In Museo de las Americas‘ latest exhibit, Cara a Cara, numerous Latin American masks line the walls of the spacious museum, depicting a range of times, societies, and functions. Every mask on display has “been danced,” which means they’ve all been worn during ceremonial events. Executive director Maruca Salazar says this imparts a sort of “magic” to them.

The exhibit contains pieces ranging from Guatemala and Mexico to Puerto Rico and Bolivia. While some have an eerie quality to them—perhaps the spirits of those that danced in them linger on—others are festive and lighthearted. You’ll see pieces with glass eyes (this is a cue that the mask was made in the early 20th century). You’ll notice a variety of animal masks—alligators, fish, fruit bats, and jaguars among them—that explore humans’ connection with nature. And you’ll notice a more serious tone in masks that explore Christianity in Latin American countries through depictions of Christ as a king, as well as collections of dark and light faces that represent the confrontations in Spain between the Christians and the Moorish people.

One highlight is a full Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) outfit from Mexico. Made during the 1800s, the suit is worn by a priest during the ceremony of life and death. The mask looks like a wooden skull (pictured, right)—and is covered with real human hair. “It’s one of the most important pieces we have,” Salazar says.

Cara a Cara is the first of two exhibitions commemorating Museo’s 20th anniversary. Part two, Hilos, opens October 18. Feliz aniversario!

Tonight: In conjunction with the exhibit, Museo is hosting “Performance of the Mask: Burlesque” from 6–8 p.m. Local burlesque dancer Vivienne Vavoom will run a ladies-only lesson before treating everyone to a live performance.

Images courtesy of Museo de las Americas; pictured at top (from left to right): a mask from Bolivia; from Costa Rica; and a devil from Mexico

Follow assistant editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger.

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at