Already the clock read 7:00 p.m. and the Ortiz family was still sitting in the van waiting to go to the night’s festivities. One thing I learned about scheduling and a family full of Latinas, was that when you say, “Vamonos a las seis y media, el show empienzas a las siete de la noche”, it really translated to “Vamonos a las sietes y no te procupas, llegamas en tiempo.” This may allude to a funky time-warped paradox, but for my family, this was a normal running time for them. What was the rush anyway, we were just going to look at some pretty pictures hanging on a wall and declare that yes were latinos, yes we appreciate the arts, yes we are proud to celebrate Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month, now avanza so we can get back home to our daily “routine”.
But that was not the case because when we finally made it to the art exhibit, we were overwhelmed by the music, food, and amazing works of art. After passing by each section of the exhibit, I was in awe of the beautiful art on display. There were tall wooden poles painted to show the flora of a South American landscape. Barks from actual palmas de coco were cut out and painted to show a Caribbean seaside. There was even a portrait of Santa Maria as serene and pure as the color tones used to define her features. My family, as much as they enjoyed the food and music, fell in love with the artwork surrounding them. We continued to tour and rounded the corner to see what else was on display.
As soon as my eyes shifted to the wall I felt myself mesmerized by the masks jutting towards us. These were not just any masks, no señor, these had horns, cuernos, protruding from their cheeks, foreheads, and chin. They were inflamed with brilliant yellows, dark reds, deep blues, eery greens, and dotted everywhere. I’ve never seen these masks up close or even in person, but I knew what they were…vejigante masks.
The artist, Lilly Carrasquillo (Puertorriqueña) is a vejigante mask-maker and she was more than gracious to give this Latina schooling about the traditions behind the craft.
Lilly made sure to explain that the vejigante masks are influenced by European, African and Caribbean cultures.
The name vejigante derives from two words: vejiga and jigante. Vejiga is the bladder of a cow which is removed, dried, expanded (through the process of blowing), inserted with seeds and painted bright colors. This is the vejigante wearer’s musical instrument. Jigante translated in English means, “big”, or “large”.
There are two main types of vejigante mask styles: Ponce’s papier-maché masks and Loíza’s coconut masks. The papier-maché masks consist of parts. The horns, or cuernos, must be created separate from it’s “face”. Using water and other adhesives, the horns are then attached. The more horns on the mask, the more beautiful. The more puntos or dots on the mask, the more elaborate. Lilly estimated that for one Ponce vejigante, it takes her about two weeks to complete.
The vejigante mask is worn with a large bat-like costume, similar to a clown’s suit, in which the wearer swings his arms back and forth to the beat of folkloric dances such as La Bomba and La Plena. They would hold the vejiga instrument in one hand and sing “estribillos” or call and response chants were one individual calls out a phrase and the parade-goers respond back, for example: the leader calls out, “Toco, toco, toco..” audience responds, “Vejigante come coco..” and the chants are reciprocated from the vejigante wearer back to the participating audience. The atmosphere of a vejigante festival is fun and carnival-like. Many in the audience try to avoid being touched by the vejigante wearer’s vejiga.
After hearing of so much history behind the vejigante masks, I asked Lilly what she believed was the importance of the arts to the latino/a family.
Lilly took a moment and responded by saying that promoting latino/a arts and culture is very important. Even if you are away from your homeland, families should maintain their cultural traditions, customs, and holidays. It does not cost a dime for the latino/a family to explore these aspects of our culture. They can visit their local library, check-out art books and show their children the works of famous artists. Families can take at least 10- 15 minutes a week to discuss art and music with each other. This will enrich the lives of their children and enhance their knowledge of la cultura latina.
So when we departed from the event, I felt that my family did learn just a little more about our culture. At first we may have disregarded the importance of visiting an art exhibit, but I could see that we each took away something special that night…a newfound cultural knowledge that could not be erased. It fortified the importance of the arts and made us proud to be called Latino/as. I hope you celebrate this Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month and not just enjoy it, but learn something new too!
Ciao for now!
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