In Latin America, face masks become a form of expression

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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)

HAVANA – 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.”

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.

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.

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 Sanchez 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.