The pahko’ola -Pascola dancer means “Old Man of the Ceremony”. The term comes from two words: pahko -ceremony and o’ola -an affectionate term for old man. The two words pahkola’ola were shortened into pahko’ola or pahkola and is pronounced pascola in Spanish.
The pahko’ola has many roles. He is first of all, the historian of the Yoemem, the Yaqui people. He keeps the history of the people alive through the legends, myths and sermons, and jokes. He is the host of the Pahko, and is an entertainer, with his jokes, stories and antics.
The pahko’ola represents nature, with his animal mask, which is usually that of a goat. The symbols on the mask represent man’s closeness to nature. The triangular design around the edge of the mask represents the rays of the sun. The sun symbol, seen by some as a cross shape, represents the source of our energy and home of Itom Achai Taa, Our Father. We say that our ancestor’s home is in the East where the sun rises – Taa’ata yeu weye vetana. The sun is the home of our ancestors, the stars. Those who die, first enter the sun, then become a star. We celebrate with our ancestors through the star symbols on the mask.
The small animal designs represent nature -the frog, lizard, snake, etc. These symbols represent our closeness and respect for all nature.
The hopo’orosim – abalone or mother-of -pearl necklace, is protection from evil and has the Yoeme sun symbol, shaped like a cross. The sun symbol represents the four directions: east, west, north and south. We celebrate with the animals of the sea through the hopo’orosim.
The koyoolim – sleigh bell belt, represents the seven stars of the constellation, Big Dipper. Each of the seven bells is also a prayer. Each bell presents one of the original seven Yoeme villages in Rio Yaqui. Later, an eighth village was formed by the Spaniards to over see the other seven villages, like a guardian.
Pascola dancers perform on various occasions, most notably during fiestas. Performances can be very long. For instance, prior to Palm Sunday and Easter, the Pascolas dance with the Maaso (Deer dancer) from mid-afternoon until the following morning.
There is a Yoeme (the name the Yaqui call themselves) legend stating that the Virgin Mary recruited the Devil’s son to be the first Pascola so that there could be a fiesta. Because the Pascola is said to be dancing in defiance of the Devil, he wears a rosary with a cross, and his mask has a cross on the forehead to ward off evil. Some pascola masks have a second cross on the chin for even greater protection.
Yoemem (plural) say that the cross also represents the sun, and the rim design represents the sun’s rays. Such ideas have caused many non-Indian observers to speculate that the Pascola may well be a pre-Columbian ritual figure who was later co-opted to serve on Christian holidays and rituals.
During the late 19th century, there was a deliberate effort on the part of Mexico’s president, Porfirio Diaz, to exterminate the Yoemem/Yaquis as a people, due to their repeated uprisings in reaction to encroachments on their traditional lands by non-Indians.
Many were deported to other areas of Mexico, as slave labor, others fled to Arizona, establishing Yaqui colonies in the areas of Tucson and Phoenix. One of these was Pascua, on the northern edge of Tucson. Since then the Arizona Yoemem have established a Reservation to the west of Tucson, called New Pascua, and they refer to the original barrio as Old Pascua.
In such communities the Yoemem have continued to practice their traditional dances and fiestas. There is a steady flow of visitation between the Arizona Yoemem and their relatives in Sonora, not unlike the persistent connections that have been maintained between Southern African American migrants to the industrialized North and their Southern relations. Due to such traffic, the Arizona Yoemem communities have maintained a continuity of culture with other Yoemem who have re-populated their traditional villages in Sonora.
Here is a few classic Pascola masks of Northern Mexico. The eyebrows and beards on the mask are created by carefully inserting goat hair into tiny holes. The Yaqui cut the eyebrow hair short, while the Mayo prefer to leave it long and flowing. The flower motif on the cheeks is unusually cheerful for this type of mask.
This human faced pascola mask is traditional in form, and clearly in the Yoeme/Yaqui style. It has a second cross on the chin, and tufts of hair on the cheeks that one often sees on a Yoeme pascola mask. The pattern of wear on the back indicates that it has clearly been danced. However, the style of the carving does not bring to mind any particular carver, and the mask has no information attached to further explain. Danced pascola masks are not so commonly found for sale in recent years, and those of an identified master sell for much more than this anonymous example.