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The Story Behind Cajun Mardi Gras Masks
Wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated, the mask is key. Behind the best masks, they can’t tell whether you are laughing or crying. They can’t tell how absolutely drunk you are. The mask helps erase consequence. “Riders want folks to say, ‘Well, I didn’t see you on Mardi Gras!,’” claims Iota Louisiana mask-maker Jackie Miller. “Then they can say, ‘Oh, yes, you did; you just didn’t recognize me.’”
In South Louisiana, myriad small communities celebrate French-inspired Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday Runs through their towns. On horseback, flatbed trucks and ATVs, hordes of colorfully garbed riders blaze through the middle of big, Cajun crowds while singing, shouting and begging for nickels, trinkets and ingredients for a gumbo meal to be shared by the community later that night. The runs’ overlords (the capitaines) wear traditional wild, flashy robes and pointed hats called capuchin, while barking instructions to their foolish riders. The capitaines leave their faces exposed to let everyone know who is in charge. The drunken, debauched riders, however, hide their human identities behind various parish-specific masks made and molded out of wire mesh.
The wire masks of Church Point, for instance, are known to be plain, featuring regular human noses. Their capuchin are not as tall. Basile’s masks have no nose, just simple, colorful stylized features painted directly onto the screen.
Unlike other mask-makers, Lou Trahan covers her masks with colored felt, yarn, buttons, lace and other knickknacks. For 20 years, Trahan has been one of two people making traditional wire masks for the Egan community southwest-ish of Iota, between Crowley and Jennings. Egan happily stands in the shadow of the much larger Tee Mamou parade just to the west. She began making masks for her husband and two boys to wear while running with Mermentau. Of course, admiring friends soon wanted their own masks, which Trahan obligingly made.
“Egan kind of slowed down for a few years there,” remembers Trahan. “They had a disease in the horses and so went to trucks, but then they disappeared. Then about eight years ago the descendants started it up again.” Trahan continues to utilize aluminum window screen for her masks. “The aluminum is more flexible to your face,” she says. “[Riders] used to use just screen, but back then they were riding on horses and going slow. Now we’re going 55 [miles per hour] in a truck down a trail, and it’s cold, so I cover my masks completely with stuff, to make them warmer.” Trahan also sets her masks apart with the addition of soft-sculpture mouths, and noses such as her special croquecignole (doughnut) nose, which Trahan says is reminiscent of wire masks made in the 1940s.
The most famous and well-documented of these wire mask makers are Allen and Georgie Manuel of Eunice, whose ancestors have been making masks and running the Courir de Mardi Gras since the 1930s. “My inlaws were big into the women’s run,” says Georgie. “And my grandmother, who also ran with the women, was a costume maker, so when our family needed costumes we got down to the nitty gritty. But then we started going into New Orleans for their Mardi Gras,” recalls Manuel, who says that over the next few decades Eunice’s tradition fell into decline. In the early '70s though, the Manuels chose to stay in Eunice for Mardi Gras and encouraged their neighbors to help resuscitate the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras. “Why take the kids to the city when there is so much history and culture right here?” she says. “Then because we did it, a lot of other people did it too. It just takes somebody to keep at it and keep pushing it.” The Manuel family can be partially credited with what is now again a huge celebration in Eunice, with thousands of participants and more than 500 riders on horseback.
Manuel’s wire masks are distinct for keeping closest to the original, turn-of-the-century style. “I’m a history buff, and a romantic at heart,” says Manuel. “If the tradition of Mardi Gras is hundreds of years old, we need to stay as close as we can. I have about two-dozen masks in my collection from prior to the 1900s and they just give off an aura and a style that shouldn’t be changed.” As a result, Manuel’s masks are more or less flat, their stylized facial features applied with paint. None of them have noses. “I might add trim or fringe but usually only on request,” says Manuel, who continues to make masks every year. Her work can also be seen in exhibits in locales as disparate as Maryland, Holland and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Her work has been featured in books including A Unique Slant of Light: The Bicentennial Art and Weird Louisiana. Her work can be seen at the Presbytere of the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter of New Orleans and in the permanent exhibit at the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice.
Tee Mamou, west of Iota, boasts one of the oldest Mardi Gras groups, which has never stopped running since the Acadians first arrived in Louisiana. Women run Courir de Mardi Gras on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, children run on Sunday, and the men run on Mardi Gras proper. Unlike other areas where the women do most of the mask-making, everyone in the Tee Mamou community makes wire masks. But Jackie Miller of Iota has nonetheless been Tee Mamou’s recognized queen of traditional wire masking ever since her sons – now in their 50s – first began running Mardi Gras as kids.
“When folks were first wearing these masks back in France,” explains Miller, “they didn’t want to be identified as they were going around begging from people they knew. They were proud people and didn’t want to be humiliated. That’s also why they performed; to sort of earn what they were given. Now the mask is just pay-acting, for the element of surprise.”
Whereas other southern Louisiana Mardi Gras celebrations invite the whole community to run, Tee Mamou is more particular. “You have to be part of the group,” says Miller. “You have to go to the meetings, join the group, learn the song and have the proper dress. Meaning the masks have to be screen-based.” Tee Mamou masks are traditionally characterized by long noses and brightly colored decoration, but Miller says the design has evolved. “Years ago, the masks used to have beards and hair made out of horsehair and whatever else you could find around the house — whereas now we can just buy wigs. At first we had to sew a lot of the stuff on there, but now we use glue guns, plus we have access to more trim and braid than when I first started. And since riders wear the masks for so long, we just try to make them a little more comfortable now.
“Through the years I’ve developed my own style,” adds Miller, whose masks are what she calls a “double screen.” “Mine are plastic mesh on the inside and wire on outside. The wire keeps the molded face shape, but then the plastic is easier on the skin. Plus with double screen you can see out of the mask, but they can’t see in.”