New Orleans, Río de Janeiro and Ponce…At first glance, these cities might not seem to have much in common, but a deeper look reveals a deeper connection, their love and celebration of the carnaval. Carnaval is the Spanish word for carnival, a festive season that takes place before the Christian observance of Lent. In its purest form, a carnaval is a street parade accompanied by handmade circus-esque elements such as masks and costumes. Usually, the celebration lasts a week and ends right before Ash Wednesday.
Although it’s not as widely known as its New Orleans and Río de Janeiro counterparts, the Carnaval de Ponce is said to be one of the oldest carnivals, with its origins dating back to 1858. Ponce’s rendition of the carnival is as colorful as it gets, mostly thanks to the mischievous vejigantes. Vejigantes are jester-like characters, dressed in elaborate horned masks made out of papier-mâché (paper mache) and vibrantly colored capes. The demon-like masks represent evil and each one of them is a custom work of art. During the carnival, vejigantes swat festival goers with their vejigas, dried-up cow bladders blown-up like a balloon, allegedly to scare away any evil spirits.
The week-long jamboree takes place in Ponce’s town square, with a different event happening each night. On Wednesday, the opening day of the carnival, the Festival de las Máscaras, a street masquerade parade takes place. People gather around the town square to get the first peek at the newly created masks, dance to some good music and playfully taunt the vejigantes into hitting them with their vejigas. The following night is the King Momo parade, where the bigheaded king representing good gracefully marches through the streets and officially kicks off the festival. The next few days are followed by more parades, the crowning of the adult and child queen of the festival, marching bands and floats. The celebration ends with the Burial of the Sardines, a faux funeral procession meant to signify the burial of the past and the rebirth of a new society.
The 2012 edition of the Carnaval de Ponce will be held from February 15th through the 21st so don’t miss out on the opportunity to witness this centuries old tradition and dance those evil spirits away!!!