Vejigante Masks: A Puerto Rican Tradition

vejigante puerto rico

The Vejigante (Vay-he-GAHN-tay) is a fantastic, colorful character introduced into carnival celebrations in Puerto Rico hundreds of years ago from medieval Spain., and is still an important part of Puerto Rican culture today.  During the carnival celebrations in Loiza, Aldea and Ponce, the Vejigantes roam the streets in groups and chase children with their vejigas (a pouch that traditionally refers to a cow’s bladder).

You don’t have to wait for Carnival to find Vejigantes. They can be found in a variety of events and festivals, 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.

The tradition of carnival dates back to the Middle Ages and is still observed in most of Europe and the Americas. The word itself is said to come from the Latin carne vale (farewell to the flesh) or Fiestas de carnestolenda. These festivities take place approximately three days before Ash Wednesday. For three days and nights people celebrate with boisterous gatherings that feature extravagant costumes and themes before preparing their souls for the coming Lenten fast.

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. He is a classic example of the blending of African, Spanish, and Caribbean influences in Puerto Rican culture.

Most every souvenir shop in Puerto Rico will have many versions of the Vejigante mask for you to take back home and are my favorite souvenirs from the island.  They represent a tradition that dates back through time and combine the disparate cultures that make up modern-day Puerto Rico.  They’re distinctly Puerto Rican, incredibly creative, and will brighten any room. Virtually every color combination is available, and each one is handmade (the pricier ones come from the workshops of master artisans). The other benefit to shopping for them is that you can find one for any budget. From small mementos that cost just a few dollars to fantastic creations that can run well into the thousands, you’ll find the right mask for you.

For that favorite child in your life, the Vejigante Plush Bear is an excellent gift.  Or for our Corporate Gift buyers, consider the Vejigante Artisan Pin for an advanced teaser mailing or as a table topper.

If you are interested in finding out more about how the masks are actually made, check out this link  from the Helpful Art Teacher.  The Helpful Art Teacher has been voted number one by readers, The Most Fascinating Art Teacher Blog of 2012!

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