The Puerto Rican Vejigantes mask tradition offers a unique link to the island’s past.
Contributing writer Meg Pier went beyond the tourist markets and sought out three of the island’s best known mask makers to learn about their techniques and the history of this ancient folk art.
In Puerto Rican museums, restaurants, and homes, the mystical creatures known as vejigantes leered at the tourists with their grotesque features contorted into a maniacal grin.
While the vejigantes are inescapable, few people take time to explore the rich history and craftsmanship behind these masks.
The vejigante is a colorful character that is a blend of Puerto Rico’s African, Spanish, and Caribbean influences. It’s a key figure in several of the island’s annual celebrations, particularly Ponce’s Carnival and Loiza’s Santiago Apóstol Fiesta.
The vejigantes represent either the devil in the battle between good and evil, or the Moors that Saint James fought during the Catholic Reconquista of Spain.
The name originates from the Spanish word for bladder, vejiga. During the Carnival and Santiago Apóstol Fiesta festivities people dressed as vejigantes roam the streets in groups that try to scare people by hitting them with a balloon-like sack made from cow bladders.
Miguel Caraballo, 70, is a Smithsonian-recognized artisan. He has lived his whole life in Ponce, a city on the southern coast of Puerto Rico with the island’s oldest Carnival celebration, an ongoing tradition for 153 years.
Caraballo has been making vejigante masks since he was a boy, when he created them for himself and his friends to wear with their costumes during Carnival. Visiting Caraballo in his modest bungalow, I observed him creating masks in groups of 10.
He mixes the papier-mâché paste from scratch and applies it to layer after layer of newspaper over a mold, which he then sands. Later, he’ll add the horns, also constructed from papier-mâché, and then apply paint. Painting each mask can take up to two weeks. Each mask is dappled with hundreds of tiny dots of paint atop a brightly colored background. According to Caraballo, a traditional mask has to have spots and the horns.
Caraballo describes his masks, “When I was growing up, the masks were strictly for fun during the Carnival—today they are collected. There is a difference between the masks made for collectors and those that will be worn, with the latter needing to be much more lightweight. The largest mask I ever made was 7 by 7 feet, for a collector.”
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Caraballo learned to make the masks from a neighbor, Francisca Salvador, who was the matriarch of a three-generation mask-making family.
Her son Juan Alindato and his son, also named Juan, are well-known Ponce artisans. Juan Senior, who passed away last year, was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987 for his mask making.
In his Playa de Ponce workshop, Juan Junior pointed out different masks with chicken, horse, lion, and dragon designs.
Each had his own signature style of painting the dots.
He showed me the mold he uses to form the mask, which was his grandmother’s and is more than 60 years old.
As Juan explained his techniques, his granddaughter sat nearby at a table involved in her own creative process.
Juan told me that one of his daughters is a mask maker and he hopes the tradition will continue for generations.
The vejigante masks made in Loiza are different from those made elsewhere in Puerto Rico, because they are made of coconuts.
Raul Ayala made his first mask when he was 15. He learned from his father, Don Castor Ayala, who began selling them to others in the community in 1940.
“With nine kids in the family, he needed to make a lot of masks to feed us,” Raul recalled.
This year, Raul was one of about 120 folk artists from 45 countries invited to participate in this year’s Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, the largest venue in the world.
There are more than 15 different styles of mask in Loiza distinguished by the different combinations of colors. Most are primary colors.
The colors of Spain and Loiza – red, yellow and light green – are the most popular.
Raul has names for different mask styles. One he calls Obiwayza, which is a combination of the word “Obi,” which means coconut in the African language of Yoruba, and “Wayza,” which means “mask” in Taino. Obiwayza is the name of the island’s indigenous people.
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Another style, “Enchanted Sadness,” has a serious expression and is named for a salsa song that ran through his mind as he was carving it.
His mask-making process begins with visiting a coconut wholesaler.
One by one, he examines a mountain of about 3,000 coconuts, ultimately selecting 40 that are suitable for making masks.
In order for a coconut to be workable, there needs to be three distinct planes and good symmetry.
To begin carving, he cuts off the back with a machete and then hollows the gourd out, removing the meat and the nut.
He marks in chalk the sections for the eyes, nose and mouth and then saws those areas out.
“You have to be careful,” Raul said. “I probably cut myself 20 times a year.”
Raul can carve about two dozen masks in two days.
After carving, he applies a coat of primer, then sands the surface before painting.
Prices for the masks range from $20 for very small ones to $500.
According to Ayala, the Loiza mask-making tradition is related to the Santiago Apóstol Fiesta, which dates to the 17th century.
The annual festivities take place over 10 days.
From July 26-28, a procession marches through town with a statue of Saint James.
On the last day of the celebration, the crowd gathers at Raul’s house, where the Bomba band he leads performs, with the party lasting into the night.
Text and photos by Meg Pier for PeterGreenberg.com. Meg Pier is a travel writer for the Boston Globe and other publications. Visit her on the Web at www.ViewFromthePier.com.
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