For years, a character named vejigante has been ‘the life of the party’ in various carnivals across Puerto Rico.
With its colorful outfit and quick movements, which dance to the rhythm of the drums of ‘bomba y plena,’ it’s one of the most charismatic icons associated with the island’s culture.
The tall character takes his name from the balloon-shaped pieces that he carries and uses to go around hitting people. Originally these artifacts were made with giant (‘gigantes’) cow bladders (‘vejigas’) ― nowadays people use actual balloons containing tiny stones to make them sound like ‘maracas.’
The vejigante is a must at the yearly ‘Carnaval Ponceño,’ which takes place every February in Ponce, in the southern part of the island.
It’s also seen at the ‘Carnaval de Loíza,’ another annual weeklong festivity that takes place in a town approximately 19 miles from San Juan.
Moreover, it’s not unusual to see vejigantes at the Puerto Rican parades in New York and Chicago that occur every summer in the United States.
But vejigantes weren’t meant to be so much fun to have around, according to Jorge Felix, exhibit director of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance in Chicago.
“The vejigante represented the devil or the evil, and it was created during the festival of a carnival that occurs just before Lent,” Felix said. “What we have here is this character that is taunting people in the streets that is going around and scaring them, and trying to convince them to do bad.”
Inherited from the pious Spanish colonists, the vejigante character has existed for more than 400 years. However, the influences of the African and Taino cultures in Puerto Rico have made it a folkloric symbol.
“In a sense it has become a colorful and folkloric character despite the origins, that were meant to scare and represent evil,” Felix said.
The vejigante costume uses very bright colors, and sometimes a cape adorned with various rhinestones.
The costumes made in Loíza have masks made with coconut shells resembling a demon, while the ones created in the south of the island, in the town of Ponce, have dragon masks made with ‘papel maché’ that look more like a dragon.
During the parades, vejigante shares the spotlight also with the ‘cabezudos,’ big masks that in the past were used to honor important people in town. Today they just take the shape of regular faces of the Puerto Rican community, ‘el jibaro,’ ‘el plenero,’ or ‘la vecina chismosa.’
“Puerto Rico is a great Latin American country associated with the United States, but has its own flavor, music and culture,” Felix said.