ORONO, Maine — The floor of Margaritas restaurant shook every time Mexican mask maker Manuel Abeiro Horta used a 16-inch machete to hack a chunk from the block of wood he was carving Wednesday night.
Less than an hour later, Horta had piles of wood chips around his shoes, and his black jeans were speckled with tiny splinters. The craftsman already had the beginnings of his latest work — the chin, nose and eye sockets of a man’s face had emerged from the wood.
Horta intended to carve the image of a ranchhand, called a caporal. At some point, however, things went a different way and Horta decided on the face of an ermitano, or hermit.
Sometimes, Horta said, the wood takes him in unexpected directions.
“You see the big hunk of wood and you don’t know what it has inside,” Horta said through interpreter Pat Picciano. “And then, by working with it, it reveals itself.”
Horta’s visit to Maine, including a stop Tuesday at Asa C. Adams Elementary School in Orono, is part of Margaritas’ education outreach program, which brings to the U.S. craftspeople from Mexico — some of the same craftspeople who create the restaurant’s decor — to the U.S. for multicultural programs.
“He feels it’s important so people understand [his] culture, traditions, dances,” said Picciano, who is also Margaritas’ community relations manager. “He’s aware he might be the only Mexican some of these kids see. Being this far north he knows it’s something unique for everyone here to see.”
Horta’s demonstration and a display of colorful, dramatic masks carved by him and his family drew restaurant patrons and employees, who sneaked occasional peeks as they went by with trays of food.
Horta’s largest audience, however, consisted of children.
Dozens of youngsters, many of whom had seen Horta demonstrate his craft in school the previous day, stopped in to see him at work. He had carved a mask with the image of a grinning jaguar Tuesday while at the school.
Although some of the intricate, life-size masks on display cost hundreds of dollars, children and their parents snapped up some of Horta’s smaller, more affordable pieces, such as 2½-inch masks. Some of the youngsters wore the small masks on ribbons around their necks.
It’s easy to see why children are so drawn to the masks, some of which have bulging eyes, tongues sticking out of their mouths, bright colors and animalistic features. Each animal has a different meaning — the owl is a sign of wisdom, the jaguar indicates personal freedom, the lizard represents agility. There were devil masks, masks of human faces, and masks of animals.
Some masks are decorative, others are used on altars for the upcoming Day of the Dead, and still others are used in pastorelas, which are morality plays performed between Christmas and Easter.
Greg Dimoulas, a fourth-grade student at Asa Adams, was so eager to look at the masks that he was at Margaritas before its 4 p.m. opening. He bought a midsized mask of a devil, which he said he liked because of its unusual features. Later in the evening, Greg returned with his father for another look at the wares.
“I was very happy that [Horta] came to our school,” Greg said. “I like knowing about how other things work. People eat different things. People talk different. My dad’s Greek, so it is very cool to know how people do different things.”
Horta, who turned 32 on Tuesday, is the youngest of five children of mask-making legend Juan Horta. The father and son were part of a similar tour in 2006, shortly after which Juan Horta died. There is a photograph of Juan Horta on the cover of the Margaritas menu.
“He feels like his father is accompanying him [to New England] in spirit,” said Picciano, who did an apprenticeship with Juan Horta many years ago.
The brothers have continued the tradition of their father and their region, Michoacan. Picciano said tour guidebooks are starting to list the area because of its significance as a craft center.
For his demonstration Wednesday, Horta used New Hampshire basswood, a soft wood similar to the copal wood used by the Mexican carvers.
Horta’s tools are made from scrap metal and fashioned by a local blacksmith.
He used a number of tools Wednesday, including the big machete to slice off the bark and take out larger pieces of the wood. Horta also used a fluted gouging instrument and a curved ax to further form the mask.
After a mask is carved, the craftsman leaves it to dry for a few days. The mask is then painted with automobile paint, which artisans prefer because of its durability and brightness, Picciano said. Horta didn’t get that far Wednesday night, but got a good start on his ermitano mask.
Like Greg Dimoulas, third-grade student Sam Holt saw Horta on Tuesday at school and was compelled to visit the mask maker at Margaritas.
“[Horta] did a really good job, and it was really fast,” said Sam, who bought a small penholder with a carved owl. “It’s hard to believe he started from a stump of wood.”