Fall 2009 Issue

The Mask Makers

How can a carnival atmosphere help at-risk youth? Just ask Barry Professor Celeste Fraser Delgado and her band of revelers.

By Paige Stein

The king is anxious to get started. He’s practiced his part in the performance – ‘anointing’ his courtiers with his regal, ‘gold’ staff while weaving gracefully among them. And he’s wearing a lush black velvet and sequined robe fit for the occasion. But the maidens are still getting ready in the ladies room – typical of maidens. The performance will have to wait a few minutes; even kings have to wait sometimes.

Dancing among the king and his courtiers, at least during practice sessions at Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services, is Barry Associate Professor of English Celeste Fraser Delgado. If it weren’t for Fraser Delgado and others at the Bridge, the 16-year-old king might not be spending his time so creatively; he might be playing video games, or listening to music, or just hanging out with friends, but chances are he would not be learning a traditional Peruvian dance or making a mask similar to the ones worn by revelers at carnival in Venice, Italy.

The performance the king is taking part in is part of the Carnival Arts program, which allows youth in crisis to learn about and celebrate carnivals in various countries around the world, including Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Peru and Italy. By bringing in local artists, musicians and dancers, the teens learn traditional dances and songs and make masks reflective of the country’s particular culture, ones that might be worn during carnival celebrations. At the end of each country’s carnival, Bridge residents put on a final performance to show off what they’ve been able to create and to learn.

“Carnival is a celebration of life in times of crisis. In the New World people would work 18 hours a day in the fields and then go and dance in the night. It was a way of saying ‘you don’t own my body, I can take pleasure in my body,’ ” said Delgado, adding that the population of the Bridge mirrors the population in Miami. “Many of the Latin American and Caribbean cultures you see here are ones in which the carnival tradition is very strong.”

Professor Fraser Delgado can frequently be seen riding her pink bicycle around Barry’s campus. The bike is her favorite mode of transportation.

No pushing, please

As a temporary shelter for homeless and runaway youth ages 10 to 17 throughout Miami-Dade County, Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services does indeed serve people from a multitude of cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds. The not-for-profit organization not only provides teens with housing and food but also with counseling for themselves and their families. Its mission is also to prevent young people from ending up as victims or criminals and to help them to become productive members of society.

“With the younger kids, a lot of them come here as the result of a police complaint about abuse or neglect; the older kids tend to come because of behaviors not appropriate in school or home,” said Executive Director Mary Andrews. “Our work is 100 percent preventative. We don’t get into the deep end of social services. We try to give them the skills to keep them from going there.”

Providing meaningful activities for the young people to participate in can be challenging due to the transient nature of life in the shelter, says Andrews. “It’s easy to have the attitude of ‘Why bother to do anything, if they are only going to be here for a few days or a week? What’s the use?’ But my philosophy is that you never know what someone’s talent is until you unlock the piano.”

Fraser Delgado, who has been involved with The Bridge through the years as a volunteer, brings a “flexibility, vitality and level of professionalism” that are perfectly suited to working within the confines dictated by The Bridge’s transient environment, Andrews notes. “Every dollar makes a big difference since we are not funded through government sources; without Celeste taking the lead – recruiting the artists, finding art supplies – a program like this wouldn’t happen or would be a lot more difficult.”

Added to Fraser Delgado’s unusual combination of resourcefulness and drive paired with creativity and whimsy, is her firm belief in being patient and “not pushing.” If the Bridge’s young residents don’t want to participate in the carnival festivities, Fraser Delgado doesn’t push them. “If a kid doesn’t want to participate, I’ll invite [him or her] with smiles or whatever; then I’ll just wait. In their lives, there’s so much push, push, push. I want them to participate on their own terms,” she says.

The ‘glamorous’ life

Photos throughout are of the final performances of the Peruvian and Trinidadian carnivals held at Miami Youth Bridge August 31 and October 1 respectively.

If her mother had not held the belief that living in inner-city Cleveland was “glamorous,” Fraser Delgado might not have developed her non-confrontational style or her dedication for working with “groups who don’t have a lot of opportunities.”

“We moved to Cleveland when I was 9 and my mom thought living in the inner-city would be glamorous, so for the first time I went to a school that was predominantly non-white,” Delgado said. “Then, when I was 14, we moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the white, segregated, suburban life. Even though I was young, it got me thinking that you can’t just say ‘let books in’ and all will be well. There is a way of knowing among people who may not have had access to books and other opportunities. There is a lot to be learned from places of poverty.”

Given the chance to direct a play for her high school drama program her senior year, Fraser Delgado continued to try to expand conventional boundaries by directing the 1975 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” “Thirty girls showed up for the audition, fabulous actresses, who never bothered to show up before because there were no parts for them,” she said.

Even though the students kind of viewed her as an authority figure, Fraser Delgado says she refused to step into the role: “I’d just wait. Eventually someone would take control and we’d rehearse. It was then that I recognized that in any community project the less you try to be an authority figure, the more opportunities it opens up, and the more people rise to that occasion.”

At Duke, as a graduate student, and then at Pennsylvania State University, as a faculty member, Fraser Delgado continued her work with underserved populations. At Duke, she helped to develop a program for teen mothers that involved reading such diverse works as “The Women of Brewster Place” and the actual text of the Welfare Reform Act of 1986. As an assistant professor of English at Penn State, she helped to establish the school’s first Latino studies program and founded a project in which college students worked with Latino teenagers and senior citizens to create plays out of the elders’ life stories and cultural experiences.

Hide and seek

Fraser Delgado’s well-rounded background in theater and the arts, including the 10 years she spent as a Miami arts critic, was a vital component in getting the Carnival Arts program off the ground. “I know everybody – visual artists, dancers – so it was easy for me to call whomever I needed to call,” she says.

One of the first people she called on was local artist Maritza Molina, who served as the mask making instructor for Cuban carnival. “Even though I don’t make masks in my own personal work, I treated this like any project an artist is commissioned to do and worked around the idea.”

As the project’s self-labeled “guinea pig,” Molina didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, so she did as much research as she could. “Masks don’t play as large a role in Cuban carnival as they do in some others, so we looked to the floats, costumes and colors for inspiration,” said Molina. “But I wanted to give them a historical perspective on masks – how and why they have been used as far back as ancient times. We looked at masks from all over the world. I tried to give them a sense of the emotional power of masks to cross cultural and national boundaries, to express or to conceal something.”

A mask’s ability to hide or reveal something about one’s identity is an essential element of the program, says Fraser Delgado. “I knew I wanted the project to include a performance and that I wanted to videotape it. The masks are ideal for that, both because they allow us to show the kids on camera (while still protecting their identities) and because once the kids ‘step into’ the masks, they feel freer to express themselves,” she explains, pointing to a video of a young man who is grappling with gender identity issues. As he holds up his mask, he talks to the camera. “This side is male, this side is female,” he explains. “…this mask, it shows my feelings, my emotions. This mask symbolizes the real me. Basically, this mask symbolizes that I don’t have to hide anymore.”

Surprisingly, Fraser Delgado notes, the video cameras seemed to give the kids a sense of privacy, a freedom to express their thoughts. “It is funny how people seem to feel like it’s their private space, even though it’s not. We started working with kids on editing videos, and some kids, who wouldn’t do anything before, once you put a video camera in their hand, get really engaged. They forget they’re being recorded as they’re recording.”

Breaking molds

In addition to creating an outlet for self-expression, making the masks also helped to put a chink in the protective armor many of the teens had built up and got them to interact and talk with each other in ways they may not have ordinarily done.

“When we made the masks, they worked in pairs to create a mold of their partner’s face out of plaster strips, basically creating a model cast,” explained Molina. “They were forced to get close to one another, to put Vaseline on their partner’s face. They really had to be gentle and sensitive to their partner’s needs. The collaborative aspect was a great way to set up the project; it builds trust.”

Similarly, Rebecca Guarda, who was the mask making instructor for Venetian carnival, said she was impressed by how the teens encouraged one another. “If one kid didn’t like what he drew, the others would say, ‘No, it’s awesome, we love it.’ It was very eye-opening. It wasn’t my concept of teenagers; I wasn’t expecting it to be so overwhelming.”

“Overwhelming,” “surprising,” “moving” were words commonly used by the artists when describing their experience working with the Carnival Arts program. For some, such as Surzelle Bertrand, an ACE student whom Fraser Delgado recruited to teach Haitian dance, the experience brought back memories of carnivals she took part in growing up in Haiti. And, it also afforded her the opportunity to work with at-risk young people, something she’d long been interested in: “When Celeste approached me about this, I jumped at the chance. I’ve always wanted to work with at-risk youth, to bring out what no one sees. I tried to make them comfortable by telling them that they don’t have to do my steps exactly. Street, hip-hop dance – some of the steps they do every day are similar to Haitian dance.”

Celebrations and frustrations

For many of the artists, the experience – while overwhelmingly positive – was also challenging and emotionally draining. “I had to work with their moods. Like all teenagers, they experience a million different moods during the day. When the masks were not looking so great, sometimes they would get discouraged,” Molina said. “It’s difficult to see kids in that situation. A lot of them haven’t had a lot of support and guidance when they need it the most. So it was very important to me that during the little bit of time I spent with them, they have a good experience and learn something.”

Although Mary Andrews understands the difficulties in working in such a transient environment, she says the benefits of the Carnival Arts program for the Bridge’s residents and staff were indisputable. “I understand it can be frustrating for artists because a particular project can go through three or four different phases with a rotating cast of characters. But from our perspective, any interaction that takes the child outside of their comfort zone can be extremely beneficial, if not invaluable,” said Andrews. “Plus, no matter what age, culture or background, that carnival atmosphere will get you up, thinking, creating, participating.”

A ‘traveling’ carnival

That “carnival atmosphere” is one that Fraser Delgado hopes to bring to other cities across the state. Up until now, the program has been able to operate thanks to funds from the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and from the Children’s Trust. However, with the help of Barry’s Office of Grants, Fraser Delgado has applied for a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant which would allow the program to expand and continue. “The Carnival Arts program is a good example of the Barry community collaborating with other partners to provide enriching services to disadvantaged youth in the local community. As a result, it makes for a competitive grant application from a funder’s perspective and a great fit for the mission of the university,” said Mara Lalonde, director of grant programs.

The cities of Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale, Homestead and Cape Canaveral are being considered for possible expansion of the program, Fraser Delgado said. The sites, she notes, were chosen for their proximity to youth shelters as well as Barry ACE sites. “Barry already pays for part of the project such as a portion of my salary, and through the ACE sites we’d be able to draw upon the talents and resources of Barry staff and students.”

The grant, she adds, would allow the program to pay the artists and performers so they would “show up like a regular gig.” Barry would match the funding through staff salaries and the service learning hours put in by students. “I hope it will be a model program for the state and even other areas in the country – one that will help to cut out problems down the line and make it less likely that these kids will end up in the juvenile justice system.”

While the exact shape and scope of the Carnival Arts program going forward has yet to be determined, for many of the people who have already participated in it, the experience is one they can’t forget.

“There are so many kids whose stories stand out. I remember we had this one Mexican kid who was a tattoo artist. Her parents were in prison, so she was living with her godparents. She was always tattooing people that came to their house, and she wasn’t 18 and had no license [to work as a tattoo artist], so they couldn’t have her in the house for a while. Her drawings were incredible.”

Molina, too, says her carnival experience is one she’s not likely to forget: “The mask making went away after a while. But it’s the kids who stay with me – their essences, their struggles.”