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Apuntes históricos

MASKS OF PUERTO RICO
Festivals in honor of Saint James the Apostle in Loiza Aldea

by Myriam Vargas

Translation by Ann Shevlin


(c) CopyRight - Prohibido copiar, reproducir

* Lea este artículo en Español


Brass mask

CCORDING TO FERNANDO ORTÍZ, the festivals of Saint James the Apostle in Loíza are born of a religious fusion (the joining of indigenous and Christian elements). In his essay, the Cuban anthropologist sets out to identify the African influence in these festivals.

According to him, the Knight, the Vejigante, and the horse races are of Spanish origin. The Knight and the Vejigante are the equivalent of the dances of Moors and Christians in Latin America. He does not find any great African influence in the music, the dances, and the choreography, since the Bomba and the Plena, as well as the instruments of the bomba, bongos, tambourines, maracas, guicharos, palillos and guitars, according to Ortiz, are not unique to these festivals but rather are included because they form a part of Puerto Rican folklore. They are played because they are Puerto Rican, not because they are African.

Even the ‘Little Devils’ do not appear to have exclusively African influence, because they also existed in Europe and Asia. In some masks, according to Fernando Ortiz, there remain features similar to the masks produced in Guinea; they are the most grotesque and terrifying ones which, in addition to horns, have dehumanized faces with the mouths and eyes exaggerated by the use of the color white in painting them. White is used for the dead in the funeral rituals of African Blacks and in their secret societies.

To Fernando Ortiz, the devils of Loiza refer, beyond their meaning in the Catholic religion, to pantomime representations of their ancestors, who return from the other world to share the traditional tribal festivals with their descendants, especially those ceremonies dedicated to fertility -both agricultural and human.(1)
Photo: Reinaldo Rodríguez, maskmaker from Mayagüez.

He also proposes that the scarcity of fundamentally Black features in the festivals of Loiza "makes us think that it was due to one of those curious transculturation phenomena which happen, by reason of premeditated defensive camouflage, when a people, oppressed by the contrast between their exotic culture and the present and dominant one, wish to reduce the constant depressive friction in the hostile environment to which they must adjust, and try to extensively deny their past in exchange for retaining, under new forms, the ashes of their deepest traditions. Beneath this de-Africanization, something of a Black ethnicity can be observed in the process of fusion. "St. James is the camouflaged representation of the war god of the Afro-Antillians, Ogon of the Yorubas and Dahometanos, Zarabanda of the Congos".

There is influence of African tradition in the three celebrations in honor of St. James: one for men, one for children, and one for women. To Fernando Ortiz, this seems to be a means of conserving the ancestral Black tradition of social groupings according to age and sex, each with separation of functions. Santiagos: el de los hombres, el de los niños y el de las mujeres. Para Fernando Ortiz, esto parece ser un modo de conservar la manera ancestral del negro de sus agrupamientos sociales por edad y sexo, con separación de funciones. "These divisions and groupings of people by each tribe by sex and age is very characteristic of West Africa".(2)
Photo: gourd mask.

There is African influence also in the manner in which the saint is carried in the procession and in the greetings when they meet up with the others. There is a sort of animation; the person carrying the saint does not want it to be merely a static, lifeless symbol, and so he moves it and balances it to give more realism and dynamism to this being who is going to intercede before God on their behalf. The "Madwomen" of the fiestas in honor of St. James also seem to be of African influence, since they appear to want to clean house with their brooms, sweeping out the evil spirits. In many African villages a ceremony or ritual is carried out in which, at the stroke of midnight on the last night of each year, people sweep out their houses to frighten away bad luck, lust, or any other entity which might cause them harm.(3)

According to Ricardo Alegría, The cult of Saint James the Apostle came to Puerto Rico with the conquistadors and became the battle cry of the Spanish against the Indians, as it had been against the Moors in Spain. While the origin of the festivals of Saint James that are celebrated in Loíza each year in the month of July has not been determined, Don Ricardo maintains that the economic importance (mining at first, and later agricultural) that this town had in the early years of the conquest, the continuous attacks by pirates and other Caribbean Indians, and its mostly Black population, were elements that contributed to the celebration of the cult of this saint who is always identified with war and thunder.(4)
Photo upper right: mask maker Raúl Ayala.

Don Ricardo proposes the thesis of a religious fusion that happens precisely because in Loíza the previously mentioned conditions prevailed and promoted the devotion to this saint. The African slaves, as well as the free Blacks in the region joined the Spaniards in the defense of land and lives. It is very probable that from this arose the identification of the African gods with the European saint. En the Yoruba religion, Ogón and Shangó are gods that represent strength, war, thunder, power, and bravery. Shangó is shown in sculptures as a warrior on horseback. Photo left: gourd mask.

In "The Tradition Masks of the Feasts of Saint James the Apostle in Loíza", Doctor Alegría states that one of the most interesting aspects of these festivals are the mask: the mask of the knights (St. James), the Vejigantes, the Old Men, and the Mad Women. Each of these characters had its function in the festival. The principal mask in these festivals is that of the knight. There is an effort to imitate the costume of Spanish knights of the past who fought to expel the Arabs from the country, According to the participants, these masks represent good over evil, Christians against non-Christians.

The wearers of this mask use a costume that is made up of torn-off short pants or long pants, and a top, both of two or three colors: yellow, red and green, mainly. A short cape decorated with tiny mirrors, sequins and colored ribbons is also worn. Over the face is worn a mask made of metal screening on which has been painted the features of European knights. They also wear a hat made of the same material as the costume and decorated with mirrors, bells, colored ribbons and paper flowers.
Photo: gourd mask.

The Vejigantes represent evil, the devil, and the Moors. The costumes consist of a wide shirt with ample sleeves that are attached to the body of the suit and which resemble a bat or the devil when the arms are extended. These suits are made of inexpensive fabric in brilliant colors and some multicolored patches. The mask is made of coconut shell, cardboard, or brass. The most popular is the brass mask. All have horns and their features are grotesque. The people who are disguised as Vegigantes run through the streets of the town on foot, jumping, shouting, and doing cartwheels. They usually carry an inflated cow's bladder which they use to hit children, chasing after them to frighten them. Often the Vejigantes sing out verses that are answered by the people attending the festival. Photo: a Vejigante.

The so-called "Old Men" are local men of limited means, who cannot afford the cost of the masks and the costumes, and therefore dress in rags and make their masks out of paper bags and cardboard boxes, to look like persons of advanced age. These masks do not have horns. Some times these old men are popular musicians who go through the streets and neighborhoods playing music and begging for money.

These same costumed characters called Old Men or Grandfathers are seen in the Feast of the Bulls of Señor Gerón that are celebrated in the province of Azuay in Ecuador. "According to tradition, they represent the ancestors. These "Old Men" speak in a falsetto voice, wear very old clothes, a large, patched hat, and a mask made of cloth or wire…". (5) The old men play picaresque tricks on everyone at the festival, especially the women and children."

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SOURCES:
(1) Ortiz, Fernando. Los diablitos negros de Puerto Rico. Prólogo de la fiesta de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza Aldea; p. 12.
(2) Ibid. p. 17.
(3) Ibid. p. 20.
(4) Alegría, Ricardo. La fiesta de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza Aldea; p. 21-26.
(5) González de Vega, Susana. Elementos de la fiesta popular tradicional; p. 63.

* La autora, Myriam Vargas, es especialista en Artes Populares del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.

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