The mask is one of many that represent a tradition that dates back through time and combines the disparate cultures that make up modern-day Puerto Rico. The vejigante is actually a folkloric demon spirit that comes from medieval Spain. But the vejigante you see today in Puerto Rico is a different creature, one that moves to the African-inspired music of bomba y plena and is adorned by masks that have been influenced by the island￢ﾀﾙs native Taￃﾭno culture. In other words, it￢ﾀﾙs a totally Puerto Rican creation, and it plays a major role in the island￢ﾀﾙs biggest festival: Carnival.
If you are ever in Puerto Rico during Easter and want to see the island at its most colorful and vibrant time, you must head to Ponce for Carnival. It￢ﾀﾙs the largest event of the year, and one of the oldest. The vejigantes are the stars of the show, walking or dancing around the streets carrying their vejigas (a pouch that traditionally refers to a cow￢ﾀﾙs bladder). The name vejigante is a combination of vejiga and gigante, which means ￢ﾀﾜgiant.￢ﾀﾝ In addition to the mask and the vejiga, the vejigante wears a long, loose cape and a baggy suit that resembles a clown costume. When the vejigante spreads his arms out, it looks like he has wings.
During Carnival, you￢ﾀﾙll see spectacular and elaborate costumes, and the vejigante is also the highlight of the annual Fiesta de Santiago Apostￃﾳl, or Festival of Saint James the Apostle, in Loￃﾭza in July.
Vejigante masks are my favorite souvenirs from the island. They￢ﾀﾙre distinctly Puerto Rican and incredibly creative.
In the 17th century it was typical to see processionals in Spain in which vejigantes were demons meant to terrify people into going back to church. But my personal vejigante seems to be there to scare me into being creative when I'm feeling lazy. And it does its job quite well when I need a kick in the rear end.
And come to think of it, I have been going to church a lot more lately too, so you never know.