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Fiction

It was a bit odd, but Dr. Lavinia Rivers was searching for the references Ruth Matilda Anderson had made to the famous and culturally significant Galician carnival celebrations. It was hard to be in the area without hearing references to the celebrations that had little to do with Carnaval (em português) in Rio de Janeiro or Carnival (en français) in New Orleans. No, here it was something completely different. Harder to get one's head around, but the heart knew that in Galicia it had deeper roots.

As demanded by her profession, Ruth had been pretty observant. (Lavinia often thought of herself as being on a first-name basis now with the brilliant but unassuming photographer who made five trips to Galicia to document cultural artifacts, particularly the local costumes, or at least the local forms of apparel.) It was a good sign that she was looking over Ruth’s Gallegan Provinces of Spain: Pontevedra and La Coruña. (New York, The Hispanic Society of America, 1939). She was going over the pages again, because she’d been allowing herself to get distracted by other things, things that concerned her and that she couldn’t define. 

Lavinia was wondering whether Ruth had photographed carnival festivities, because as has just been pointed out, one cannot fully understand Galicia without some knowledge of its pre-Lenten rites. Of course Ruth would be interested in the carnival revelry, if only because it might be a brief reprieve from the usual images of poverty in the rural parts of the country. However, it did constitute a type of masquerading. The big difference was that Ruth had been sent to document 'native costumes' that were only costumes, worn on special occasions. Nobody could wear fancy garments studded with expensive jet beads and be out plowing the fields. 

Surely the paintings by Sorolla that were in Ruth's employer, The Hispanic Society of America, were little more than figments of the famous painter's imagination. He spent little time in the area, although he might have understood a bit about coastal life, since he was from Valencia. The man had nevertheless provided a remarkable, albeitvery limited, view of Galicia. Ruth had been sent to follow in his footsteps. Supposedly. In any event, the director of the Hispanic Society was very impressed by Sorolla the artist, so Ruth's assignment was an honor.

Narrator's Note:

Sorolla painted the provinces of Spain and exhibited his work as such, as Las Regiones de España [The Regions of Spain]. For her part, Lavinia was beginning to feel that Galicia was separate from Spain, that it was its own country, not just a northwestern fragment of a greater whole. Certain acquaintances in Santiago were making sure she was being steered in the proper direction. She may or may not have been aware of this.

The search among the pages of Ruth's book had been provoked by something that had happened that morning, an inconsequential thing. Lavinia had seen a masked figure on a mug and on a t-shirt in the window of a modern souvenir store along Orfas Street. She had seen it that morning while on her way to the library of the Museo das Peregrinacións [The Pilgrimage Museum] and at that time the colorful peliqueiro with the enormous mask had practically leaped out in front of her. It was still in her mind as she sat down with the old book published by the Hispanic Society when Spain as a whole, including Galicia, was suffering because the fascist coup d'etat a couple of years earlier.

Had Ruth been so bent on getting her incredible photographs that she hadn't been able to enjoy what was going on around her? Had she laughed at the antics of the masked figures running through primitive streets? Had she known that carnival is not carnaval in galego, but rather is called Antroido, Entroido, even Entrudo?

The events throughout the area and for several days were unique to the region. Costumes and masquerade, parody and the sharpest of humor, people exchanging glances and physical contact, everything gaudy and occurring all at once. She had never gone to any of the villages know for their special style of celebration, butLavinia had been unable to forget the ‘screen’ in the form of a semicircle sitting atop a mask that covered almost the entire head of the wearer.

Masks are not simple.

Did the residents of each town or village know exactly who was behind each mask? Did the disguises in any way alter the behavior of the residents? Was there a minimum or maximum age for donning a costume? What was the origin of these disguises?

I don't know what's really going on during Entroido, thought Lavinia, knowing full well that her curiosity would end up getting the best of her. The problem was, she was going back home at the end of the year. Her sabbatical would be over and she had to return to teaching.

The pondering continued, as the pages of the book, ponderous and old, in its only edition, the one from the time of the guerra civil. Lavinia was going further than the photographs or narrative of Ruth. She had questions.

Were women allowed to dress up as peliqueiras (or any of the other dozen or so names for the masked characters)? O Entroido was when the world was turned upside down, following ancient traditions. Everybody participated. Men dressed as women, doing women’s chores. Women switched gender roles as well. But could women share the powerful anonymity enjoyed by the peliqueiros and other Entroido figures or was that form of power forbidden to them?

The mask is a very complex concept, the researcher from the US thought, and knew that idea was not original. Many scholars had studied masked around the world and had shown the role of them in local festivities. A mask was something worn to cover a face, but the images painted on the masks varied greatly, as did their meanings.

She had not come to Galicia to study the content of Ruth’s narrative cum photographs, but rather to gather information she could compare to what little was known about the extraordinary photographer. Ruth had written in English, telling her story to an English-speaking audience. The images had an explanatory text. The Galicians for the most part were not able to read the book, but they could see and comprehend the visual document Ruth had created. Nobody had seemed to notice what she had written. 

That is a real tragedy, though Lavinia, wondering if people hadn't discovered Ruth the writer like they knew Ruth the photographer because she was a woman or because she had been taking pictures of a part of the world that wasn't on many maps sold in the English-speaking United States.

Lavinia’s mind wandered now. It was a wandering led by thoughts of all the masks she had known, but real and metaphorical. There was a poem she had heard read at a campus event had appealed to her enough that she had gone on to read quite a few more poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, author of “We wear the mask.” Now, alone and bent over the white formica table in her bedsit, Lavinia recalled the starting lines:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

This was a different sort of mask, the sort that protects, that does not cause fear. It is a pleasant face, often belonging to a nodding head. Nodding in agreement, avoiding conflict or the perception of conflict, since conflict would mean the suffering of the mask-wearer. Wearing it was torture, but it could save lives, had saved lives. This was not a real mask; it was only metaphorical, unless you count the fact that a big grin and nodding head were sincere.

No, this was clearly different. For Dunbar and his community, the mask was a first line of defense against those in power. Its use was not limited to a specific race or races. Others had worn it, in one form or another. Things had changed, but not enough. Not enough.

While she was thinking about the injustice of being forced into wearing this sort of mask, Lavinia's thoughts kept racing. She recalled another poem, by a very different writer, and felt the need to look it up. It was signed by Álvaro de Campos, who was merely a heteronym of the most widely known of all Portuguese poets (after Camões), Fernando Pessoa.

I took off the mask and looked in the mirror.

I was the same child I was a year ago.

I hadn’t changed at all . . .

That’s the advantage of knowing how to remove your mask.

You’re still the child,

The past that lives on,

The child.

I took off my mask, and I put it back on.

It’s better this way.

This way I’m the mask.

Pessoa - or Campos - had envisioned the mask in a different way, looking from the inside out rather than receiving the outer glances of society. The man in the mirror who wants to be a child achieves this by means of a mask, but in order to do so he must first recognize it is there, then remove it. The subterfuge of Dunbar and his people was to represent a subservience that their hearts did not feel; Pessoa - or Campos - was struggling as an individual struggles, as all of us do, between being an adult and remaining a child. Race and class, in one case, age and youth, in the other.

It was all about needing that filter between oneself and the rest of the world. Still, it was metaphorical and was not anything tangible that one wore on one's face. Thinking about this, and considering that the masks of Galicia's Entroido traditions, the gaudy, big, bright-colored headdresses that inspired awe and laughter, Lavinia found herself distracted yet again by something written by Muriel Rukeyser, a rather curious poet. She went to the web page for her biography on poets.org. There it stated that

The violence and injustice Rukeyser saw in the United States and abroad informed her poetry. She felt a deep responsibility to comment on human rights issues and was particularly concerned with gender, class, and racial inequalities. She frequently documented her own emotional experiences within the context of a greater political or social events, and her poems became, in part, a platform for social protest. 

So Rukeyser's view was linked to inequalities, one of which, from her perspective, was gender. Of course Pessoa, or Campos, had utilized several pseudonyms as vehicles for what he wrote, because pretending, as he said, was to know oneself. And oneself can be complex. Not only did the speaker in his poem wear a mask, but he as author did. Rukeyser was out there, her sense of concealment was rooted in the writing.


There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory

of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued

   child

beside me among the doctors, and a word

of rescue from the great eyes.


No more masks! No more mythologies!


Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me with their own music. ("The Poem as Mask")


Once more, the ability to conceal who or what one is may save one's life. It may not be the most desirable method, though, if it does not allow for healing, for gazing out on the world and suturing oneself back together after being 'split open in sleep'. Two men and a woman, all with variations on a theme and probably irrelevant to what Ruth might have captured on film or to what could be seen in the Entroidos of Galicia.


What appeared cleared was that a mask was the norm for most people, although what constituted it and when it was worn varied considerably. Abnormal apparently was not wearing a mask. The topic was more than Lavinia wanted to tackle at such a late hour, even though the peliqueiro on the t-shirt was still dancing in front of her eyes.


The topic was moot anyway, since the Entroido or Antroido didn't really start until February, with a variety of events on each day of the week or on a sequence of Sundays, for example. Lavinia's sabbatical ended in December and she had to be back in the Statets by early January, at the latest. She couldn't go to anything and could only read about the festivities or watch videos on the internet. That didn't stop her from wishing she could go to some. Her friends would be off to places here and there in the four provinces, and she would hear about the goings-on, but it was not the same. She sighed, but the questions didn't stop.


Were some peliqueiros women? Were they allowed to wear the camouflaging dress of the masked figures? What about now? Were there more women now serving as peliqueiras, felipeiras, boteiras, merdeiras, cigarronas, vergalleiras? - so many names, costumes, symbols, specific roles to play. Lavinia wasn't aware yet that women indeed had used masks and clothing to keep the cultural traditions alive. They had become even more active since the 1980s. No, she hadn't learned that yet, but she would. After all, Galicia was a place where stereotypes might be the outward norm, but beneath the surface there was the mesh of centuries, peoples, conquests, and resourcefulness.


The researcher was at a standstill, and not only because it was late. She would have to talk to her friends, hear their stories, see the places. Places I cannot go to, she thought, when the Entroido is taking place. I won't be here.


She only knew one thing:


Peliqueiros don’t talk. They make noise and provoke noise. There is clearly much more to the masks than meets the eye. 


So what is the story? It's hard to say, but one option is to decide whether Lavinia will follow Ruth's lead and just go where her questions are leading her, or if she will once more assume the mask of the professor, the one who is supposed to know all the answers.


If she doesn't, she must find them. Somewhere. 



December 11, 2021 02:59

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