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A 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 mask makers.

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 festivals.

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 and sizes.

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.


This print is part of the CRIZMAC Curriculum Resource Boriquen—Then and Now: the Art and Culture of Puerto Rico. Click here for details!


Discussion Questions:
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 or act?

• 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 their efforts.