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  • Writer's pictureyannick-robin eike mirko

Vejigantes: Culture, Charisma, Contradiction

Updated: Apr 1

It was an interesting experience, growing up. There are some things that I feel like were never fully flushed out, like: a respectful definition for ‘transgender’, an answer for what happens to the indigenous people who weren’t Catholic before they died, and Vejigantes…among other things. 


I spent a decent chunk of my upbringing going to and from Boríken, but being in the United States school system meant that I would miss the carnaval where all the Vejigantes would come out to play in the streets of the town center of Ponce, where the old fire station and church are. It was a festival I always hated missing out on, despite being afraid of the masks I would see around town (the one that always stood outside of my favorite souvenir shop, especially). Engaging with them on a deeper level became an urge I suppressed as I had no choice where I was during the carnaval as a kid. 

[image description: a digitized design of a vejigante mask by yannick-robin, with eight main horns and several small spikes coming out of them, it faces right wards with an open mouth full of spiky teeth.]


But now as an adult, I get to learn more about the things that make my community so special, and building a deeper relationship to Puerto Rican culture is a centering and humbling journey, which is why it seems fitting to share this information with those who want it, so they can relish in the benefits of the weird and wonderful folklore of where I’m from just as much as I do. And without even explaining what they look like yet, you’ve seen a Vejigante. See the careta/mask near my name up on the header of the website? With the long pointy nose, antler-like spikes/horns, terrifying rows of teeth. That’s the mask I hide behind all of the time. And it comes from stories stacked on top of each other, all coming together to represent the then and now with grace and mystery. Let’s learn about what I mean by this. 



The Origin of the Vejigante


[image description: two masqueraded people stand in the carnaval, the one to the left with a vejigante mask and costume in black and red, Ponce's town colors, the person on the right in a costume and mask shaped like a lion, after the towns mascot.]


Ponce is considered by the folks from it as the ‘Pearl of the South’, and in other terms boasted about to the point of shaming everywhere else on the island, claiming ‘Ponce es Ponce, y lo demas es parking’ (‘Ponce is Ponce, and everything else is [it’s] parking [lot]’). Named after the great-grandson of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León [who had almost the same name], the second biggest city on the island has hosted a Carnaval honoring St. James (originally historically laced with a time of Spanish reign consisting of slaughtering Taínos, but I digress) from mid February to the end of March wrapping up the season of Lent since the mid-1700s, and the festivities have always involved several important things: music, dance, and Vejigantes. The creatures’ name comes from the word vejiga (bladder) and gigante (giant), as the being traditionally would carry around an inflated cow or goat bladder, for the purpose of hitting the carnaval attendees enjoying themselves most. We Boricuas didn’t actually imagine this character by ourselves: it’s something that was passed down by the White colonizers of Spain, as they originated this in the 1700s with the intention of using them to scare people into churches, if they weren’t already headed inside. 


No, I would not be surprised if you feel slightly disappointed that this is a product of colonization. What’s important to note here is that we didn’t keep it as they intended, we infused it with native Taino influences as well as with ideas from our African ancestors who came to our island via the very people who brought us the original Vejigante. If we make space for the version of it now as it is used and made with its modern twists, it becomes easier to set aside where it once came from. A point of contention for me with this is that there is a lot about Spanish culture (ie: flamenco, siestas) that as a culture, Puerto Ricans don’t identify with, because we see them as the colonizer. However, the island seems to have no problem with being transphobic against the living people that resemble their two-spirit ancestors from before the times of Roman Catholicism brought in by the Whites but…that’s another essay for another time (for now, I encourage you read Julia Felix's Taino Reconnection with a Dash of Lateral Violence).


[image description: Pablo Juan Garcia's '...And Justice For All', a painting where a vejigante in a Puerto Rican flag inspired shirt holds up the scales of justice like the Statue of Liberty, holding a sword in the other hand, afront a jailhouse mugshot wall with black and white stripes, and height indicators.]



Vejigantes as we know them now


Vejigante caretas are typically only made in two towns on the island, each town doing them in different ways. Out in Loiza, the masks are made of coconut shells that are cut in half and decorated with wooden sticks spiking out of the sides, and paint added to create a face. They are an integral part of the Loiza carnaval, as well as the annual Fiesta de Santiago del Apostol, the patron saint of Spain [see how we sometimes celebrate them, but other times no?] on July 25th. Vejigante masks made in Ponce are made of paper mache, and have more three-dimensional features to them, making them larger in size and fear-effectiveness. Neither place practices the goat bladder slapping of peasants in modern times due to the short supply of them. Though both places do have the masquareader wear a one-piece costume covered in frills and occasionally with a cape, for their journey across town. 


[image description: a row of Vejigantes walk center street in the Loiza Carnaval, wearing coconut masks.]


From their original habits of howling, screeching, to now being used as symbols for resilience, rebirth, and standing up for causes that matter, the symbol of the vejigante couldn’t be something I am prouder to represent. Of all places for my lineage to be from, we are from a town with a preserved wooden fire station, a sacred ancestral burial ground, and paper mache masks. And after going back down for a funeral full of transphobic people, (and preparing for that by stopping at the new Amnesty International mural of the Puerto Rican flag with the pride colors and a Vejigante that says, ‘ni confusión, ni atadura’ that’s not far from our house, before having to brace myself for surviving the hypocritical disrespect alone), I wouldn’t have it any other way. Our ancestors and their traditions keep us strong, we must keep preserving them and propelling them forward to a better future, using them to our advantage as the world teaches us to hate our own kind. 


[image description: yannick-robin walks afront the aforementioned Amnesty International mural with Gloria in hand, a palm tree shines in the sun, the sky is bright and cloudless.]


It has meant the world to debrief with you on this, though I am aware others have done this more effectively. Should you want to learn more, below are some resources to help you along the journey. Thank you for your time and mind, I encourage you to learn about your own culture and what traditions or symbols may have changed meanings over time.

Ni confusión, ni atadura. 


[image description: a photograph of varying mystical versions of Vejigantes by Luis Gabriel Sanabria, ranging from multi-body Vejigantes to one's with wings, antlers, capes, and more.]



In the media/out in the world




More about the history 

 


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