In Latin America, Face Masks Become a Form of Expression

May 6, 2020
11:41 AM

A man wears a mask featuring the smile of comic book character The Joker, amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

By ANDREA RODRÍGUEZ, Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) — Rarely used in Latin America outside hospitals before the coronavirus pandemic, face masks are now compulsory for subway riders, supermarket shoppers and even joggers in some countries—and they’re becoming a colorful part of the region’s daily life.

Motifs showing up on masks are varied, often reflecting local cultures. There are lucha libre-themed masks in Mexico, logos of soccer clubs in Argentina, Batman characters in Peru and colorful swimsuit prints in Colombia.

Some activists sport masks with political statements.

“It’s a garment that has a strong visual impact,” says Lauren Fajardo, one of the owners of Cuban fashion brand Dador. “It is also a way to express yourself. I don’t even have to talk for someone to see what I’m trying to say with my face mask.”

A motorcycle taxi driver wears marijuana motiff mask amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

When the virus first started to spread in Latin America, pharmacies quickly ran out of conventional face masks, pushing up prices and even forcing medical personnel to go without them. But with lockdowns putting the brakes on business activity, local manufacturers reacted quickly, and grassroots producers also jumped in.

Night guard Felix Ortiz wears a mask with the logo of Jurassic World as he poses for a photo in front of a closed store at Market 4 during a lockdown and the spread of the new coronavirus, in Asunción, Paraguay, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

In Havana, women working at home on their sewing machines used leftover fabric to make free face masks for neighbors. In Rio de Janeiro, samba schools suspended production of flashy Carnival costumes and began churning out colorful masks.

A youth wears a homemade face mask made of sequenced fabric amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Old Havana, Cuba, Friday, March 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa )

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei appeared on television wearing a mask emblazoned with the country’s name, and his government commissioned the production of 4 million of the masks that were handed out for free.

In Peru’s capital, designer John Sánchez stopped printing designs on mugs and T-shirts, and used his equipment to make face masks with patriotic slogans like “Resist Peru” or with the logos of institutions like the national police force.

John Sánchez wears a face mask with the Spanish message “Resist Peru” as he waits in line to be tested for COVID-19 at Almenara Hospital in Lima, Peru, Friday, April 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

“My previous production ground to a halt,” Sánchez said. “So I started to make face masks that had an added value — like messages that keep people positive.”

More than 40 fashion companies in Colombia are producing masks, including several swimwear brands whose bikinis usually sell for $100 through U.S. retailers like Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdales and Amazon. The masks are made with the same colorful prints of toucans, jaguars, hummingbirds and other tropical motifs as the swimsuits.

“We wanted to be part of what is happening in the world right now” said Carolina Ordoñez, chief designer at Palo Rosa beachwear, a Bogota company with 15 seamstresses. “We also needed to find work for the people who sew for us, so we are reinventing ourselves.”

An elderly woman wearing a protective face mask and disposable gloves adjusts her headscarf as she takes a walk outside at a nursing home amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, May 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

In Bolivia, the Mujeres Creando feminist association is making masks that emphasize women’s rights. “Staying at home is not the same as staying quiet,” says one message.

Many entrepreneurs think masks will be popular for some time.

A man wears a face mask amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

“They’re here to stay,” said designer Leon Campa, who runs Benik, a Mexican company that makes colorful wallets, pencil cases and backpacks inspired by the country’s cultural motifs. The company, based in the central state of Guanajuato, now makes 500 face masks each day that feature similar prints.

Campa expects masks to continue evolving.

A woman wears a mask with printed lips, amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

“Shoes would be a good comparison,” he said. “You can live without them, but using them provides benefits, and they’ve evolved in all kinds of sizes, styles, colors and materials.”


Associated Press journalists Carlos Rodríguez and Berenice Bautista in Mexico City; Sonia Pérez in Guatemala City; Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Marcelo Sousa in Rio de Janeiro; Manuel Rueda in Bogotá, Colombia; and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.