Unmasking Puerto Rico’s Carnivals

The role of masks in Puerto Rico’s carnival celebrations took center stage on the second day of the Caribbean Carnival series at the Bronx Music Heritage Center, reports Hunts Point Express‘ Angely Mercado – who also covered the first day’s performance by Afro-Caribbean band Ilu Aye. Panelists discussed the significance of masks on the Caribbean island. The presentation included photos, a documentary and a display of actual masks.

Masks from carnival celebrations in Puerto Rico were on display at the Bronx Music Heritage Center, as part of a series on Caribbean culture. (Photo via Hunts Point Express)

Masks from carnival celebrations in Puerto Rico were on display at the Bronx Music Heritage Center, as part of a series on Caribbean culture. (Photo via Hunts Point Express)

Masks make up an integral part of the annual carnivals celebrated in cities around Puerto Rico. For example:

Paraders wear “vejigante” masks patterned after cow bladders during Carnival in the Puerto Rican cities of Ponce and Loiza Aldea, the presenters said. In fact, the masks are so key to the event that paraders also carry inflated cow bladders that resemble the masks while taking to the streets. Vejiga means bladder in Spanish.

Also evident were the influences of both African and European cultures in the festivities, said a professor of Puerto Rican art, history and culture at the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico – Bayamón. Each group has their own part, a custom that dates back to the beginning.

Nestor Murray-Irizarry told the gathering that Ponce’s carnival still distinguishes between four distinct groups, the way the celebration was originally drawn up during the era of European colonialism. The ruling Spanish, the island’s Creole population, the artisans who created the costumes and decorations, and direct descendants of Africans are all represented.

How far back do these traditions go?

“You’re looking at 500 years of development,” added Bobby Sanabria, the Heritage Center’s curator.

Felipe Rangel, a New York-based mask maker who had work on display, hoped the show would inspire attendees, especially those from Puerto Rico, to learn about the island’s history.

“I want people, that when they say ‘yo soy Puertorriqueño,’ to go back to the roots and start reading about that, what does it mean to be that,” he said.

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