Walk into practically any souvenir shop in Puerto Rico and you’ll see them hanging on the walls: the wild-looking, many-horned masks of the vejigantes. But these papier-mâché (or sometimes coconut husk or gourd) masks are more than just a unique memento of the island. They represent a tradition that dates back through time and combine 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 our native Taíno culture. In other words, it’s a totally Puerto Rican product, and it plays a major role in the island’s biggest festival: Carnival.
If you’re ever hear during Easter and want to see the island at its most colorful and vibrant time, you must head to Ponce for Carnival. It’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’s bladder). The name vejigante is a combination of vejiga and gigante, which means “giant.” 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’ll see spectacular and elaborate costumes, and the vejigante is also the highlight of the annual Fiesta de Santiago Apostól, or Festival of Saint James Apostle, in Loíza in July, but you don’t have to wait for these events to watch these characters in action. Vejigantes can be found in virtually every major festival or street fair. They are an essential part of any cultural celebration, and they are quite friendly!
Vejigante masks are my favorite souvenirs from the island. They’re distinctly Puerto Rican, incredibly creative, and will brighten any room. Virtually every color combination is available, and each one is handmade (the pricier ones come from the workshops of master artisans). The other benefit to shopping for them is that you can find one for any budget. From small mementos that cost just a few dollars to fantastic creations that can run well into the thousands, you’ll find the right mask for you, and you’ll be able to take home an authentic piece of Puerto Rico.