If you've ever been to Puerto Rico, you've probably seen vejigante masks. These brightly colored, fantastically whimsical masks adorn the walls of countless souvenir shops in San Juan and around the island. The one hanging on my wall is black and pink, with five huge horns and a sharp beak.
But what are they, and where do they come from? The answer lies in the history of Puerto Rico, and cultural convergence that produced unique traditions.
The vejigante is a folkloric figure who's origins trace back to medieval Spain. The legend goes that the vejigante represented the infidel Moors who were defeated in a battle led by Saint James. To honor the saint, the people dressed as demons took to the street in an annual procession. Over time, the vejigante became a kind of folkloric demon, but in Puerto Rico, it took on a new dimension with the introduction of African and native Taíno cultural influence. The Africans supplied the drum-heavy music of bomba y plena, while the Taíno contributed native elements to the most important part of the vejigante costume: the mask. As such, the Puerto Rico vejigante is a cultural expression singular to Puerto Rico.
The Careta Mask
The mask of the vejigante is known as the Careta. Made from either papier-mâché or coconut husks (although I've also seen plenty of masks made with gourd), it typically sports a fearsome assortment of horns, fangs and beaks, and are often polka-dotted.
Masks are hand-painted and assembled by local artisans. While the "true" Careta is obviously large enough to be worn, you'll find that sizes of the mask range from miniature creations that you can easily carry back home to Chinese-Dragon-like masterpieces. Similarly, prices start at around $10 and reach up to the thousands.
Beyond the Mask
Vejigante is an amalgamation of two Spanish words: vejiga, or cow bladder, and gigante, or giant. The name refers to the vejigas that the characters carry with them. The bladder, which is dried, inflated, filled with seeds and painted, is the trusty weapon of the vejigante. During the Ponce Carnival, the largest cultural event in Puerto Rico and an annual stage for the vejigante to strut his stuff, the characters will happily walk among the crowds, chanting, singing, and whacking random passersby with their vejigas. (Don't worry, this is not a violent or painful experience ... at least, it's not meant to be!) The banter between vejigantes and the crowds is all part of the fun.
The mask is just one part of the ensemble. In addition, the vejigante sports a flowing cape, a bit like a clown suit but with billowy sides that spread out like wings when the vejiga spreads his arms.
You don't have to wait for Carnival to find vejigantes. They can be found in a variety of events and festivals -- I saw one hanging out at Saborea! -- but to really get the full experience, there's nothing quite like the Ponce Carnival and the Fiesta de Santiago Apostól, or Festival of Saint James, held in Loíza each July.
These two towns are the unofficial capitals of the vejigante tradition in Puerto Rico, and where many of the island's best artisans and mask-makers can be found.
I find the beautiful, unusual and vibrant vejigante mask to be the most representative and interesting expression of Puerto Rico's arts and crafts tradition. While they range widely in quality (especially the miniature ones, which in my view don't quite capture the spirit of the masks), it's not hard to find a lovely mask to call your own. And if they aren't quite symmetrical, remember that these are not factory-made souvenirs, but hand-crafted works. Asymmetry is part of its beauty!