Festival of Masks in Puerto Rico
The Spanish conquistadores never found the gold they sought in Puerto
Rico, but this small “island of enchantment” is rich
in more important ways. The synthesis of Taíno, Spanish,
and African cultures in Puerto Rico has resulted in a unique cultural
and artistic heritage. Of all the vibrant art forms on the island,
perhaps the most popular are the caretas, or masks worn
at island carnivals and festivals. These festivities have origins
in the traditions of both medieval Spain and tribal Africa. Some
historians have suggested that the Taínos were also accomplished
An important character in many of these celebrations is the vejigante,
a trickster or prankster whose role it is to entertain and frighten
the onlookers. Wearing an elaborate horned mask and colorful bat-winged
jumpsuit, the traditional vejigante carried an inflated
cow’s bladder or vejiga, which he used to taunt the
spectators, sometimes chasing and bopping people in the crowd with
it. The term vejigante is a derived from the word “vejiga”
combined with “gigante,” which means “giant”
in Spanish. Thus, the vejigante may be considered a “giant
with a bladder”. Over the years, the costumes and masks have
gained and lost elements in the different celebrations, yet the
comical vejigantes remain central characters in island
There are several theories about the origin of the vejigantes.
Some maintain they originated as a character found in the popular
European 16th century Morris or Moorish dance. Others believe they
evolved from early 17th century Spanish processional traditions
in which marching demons attempted to terrify sinners into repenting
and returning to the church. However, yet another theory suggests
that the vejigante character and costume grew out of the
masquerade or disguise balls that were popular in Spanish colonial
days in Puerto Rico.
The vejigante character has also been profoundly influenced
by African tradition. The two types of music that generally accompany
the vejigantes, the bomba and the plena,
are a mixture of European and African influences. In the bomba,
which has been described as a duel between a dancer and a drummer,
the African influences are particularly predominant. The plena
is characterized by the use of musical instruments from Taíno,
Spanish, and African traditions, in conjunction with a rhythmic
dance. The performers sing songs about local and current events,
and traditionally was a way to pass along information to those in
outlying towns and to people who did not read.
The tradition of the masks, with their elaborate horns and fangs,
as well as the design of the vejigante costumes, also has
roots in African culture. In some areas of the island, contemporary
masks have developed into a sculptural art form with many faces,
horns, and attachments. A mask will sport at least two or three
horns, and some may have hundreds of entangled horns of all shapes
Whatever its origins and influences, the popularity of the vejigante
tradition continues today. Festival crowds eagerly interact with
and call out to the colorful characters, who swoop and dance about.
There are three primary masquerade carnivals in Puerto Rico: the
Ponce Carnival in February, the St. James Festival in Loíza
Aldea in July, and the Festival of Innocents, also known as the
Día de las Máscaras, in Hatillo in December.
Since the Ponce festival is the most timely for this February newsletter,
we’ll focus on it.
Ponce is Puerto Rico’s largest city on the southern coast.
A harbor town located on the southern coast of the island, it is
considered an important mask-making center. The people of Ponce
celebrate carnival every February. Similar to Mardi Gras, this pre-Lenten
celebration originally lasted for about a month. Today the festivities
are characterized by six or seven days of processions, floats, music,
and public celebrations.
Ponce is noted for the creation of unique vejigante masks
made of papier mâché. The papier mâché
technique involves dipping paper strips in a glue-based mixture
and molding them over various forms and armatures. Once dry, the
resulting shapes are very hard and durable. Traditional maskmakers
use a clay mold or the outer shell of a large gourd as the form
for the face of the mask. They make molds of bull and cattle horns
to create the large spiked extensions that project off the mask.
A vejigante masquerader in the Ponce festival usually wears
a colorful papier mâché mask with horns, fangs, and
other animal-like characteristics. A baggy, bat-winged bodysuit
in a vivid solid color, brightly-colored shoes with jingle bells,
and a stick or string with the painted cow bladder, known as the
vejiga, attached complete the costume.
The vejigante walks through the festival either alone or
as part of a group. Festival revelers attempt to trick or provoke
the vejigantes, who in turn, try to scare the children
back to their parents’ sides, eliciting earnest promises to
be good from the children. This serves as informal reminder for
children that they should not stray too far from their families.
Renewed interest in traditional mask-making in Ponce, the major
center for this craft, has led to a renaissance of this vibrant
Puerto Rican folk art. The Puerto Rican festivals with their unique
and elaborate masks provide a classic example of the fusion of African,
Spanish, and Caribbean cultures on the island.
print is part of the CRIZMAC Curriculum Resource Boriquen—Then
and Now: the Art and Culture of Puerto Rico. Click
here for details!
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte
by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)
In what ways are artworks special? What makes some artworks
better than others?
• Are artworks special because of what they show people who
look at them?
• Are artworks special because of how they make people feel
• Are artworks special because of how they are made?
• What purposes do artworks serve? What is art for?
• Do artworks help people celebrate? Communicate? Better themselves?
• Do all artworks have a purpose?
What kinds of things would you say are artworks? What kinds of things
would you say could never be artworks? What is art?
From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art
in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with
learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as
they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations
about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of
discussing important questions about art. They learn about their
own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through