Behind the Mask: Artists Explore Puerto Rico’s Afro-Latino Heritage

Artist Adrian Roman (Photo by Dorian Geiger for Voices of NY)

Artist Adrian Roman (Photo by Dorian Geiger for Voices of NY)

Olga Ayala’s mother was once caught trying to raid a neighbor’s coconut patch as a child in her native Puerto Rico. After being discovered, the homeowner threatened her with the supernatural — a folkloric demon well known to many in Puerto Rico as a vejigante.

This multi-horned beast with sharp teeth was reputed for snatching delinquent children in the night.

“My mom used to tell me… They would sneak into somebody’s yard, and knock down the coconuts, take the fruit from the trees and run back into their yard,” recalled Ayala, a polymer clay artist now living on Staten Island.

“Then, if they would get caught, they would say, ‘the vejigantes they’re going to come and get you. You’re being bad, and the vejigantes they’re going to come at night and get you!’”

These were the tales that Ayala grew up listening to during her childhood in the heart of Spanish Harlem.

“I would think, oh wow, that must be like some monster — they would explain they had this mask, and they had horns, lot of colors and you’re a kid and your imagination is going wild.”

At New York’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade, Ayala, then 8 years old, spotted her first real-life vejigante when an intimidating, stalky creature with a bright mask, bulging horns and wings slid past her.

Now, at 57, Ayala’s imagination is still occupied by vejigantes and their colorful masks — but the demon is a major cultural motif of the sculptural art that she creates. Today, there are very few actual vejigante mask makers operating in New York but the masks live on in virtually ever other medium of Puerto Rican art from graffiti to acrylic.

The vejigantes will again come out to play at this year’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade, taking place on June 14, yet few people, including younger generations of Puerto Ricans, are aware of the masks’ vibrant history which can be traced back to two small cities in the motherland — and their respective African roots.

Each year in late July, thousands flock to the northern city of Loíza for the Feast of Santiago. Similarly, in February, the bigger center of Ponce hosts Carnival celebrations in the south. Vejigantes are everywhere — visual motifs of both celebrations. However, the masks are more than just carnival-like character — they represent Puerto Rico’s African heritage.

“The African aspect of our culture always kind of gets minimized,” says Miguel Luciano, a 42-year-old visual artist who was born in San Juan but now lives in New York.

“In the case of the vejigante it’s one of those symbolic images that points back to a significant part of culture and heritage. Unfortunately, it’s generally understood too superficially and it becomes a collector’s item in some person’s home,” he added.

A symbol of resistance to racism and oppression, the vejigante mask serves as an emblem of the country’s Christian and colonial past that have changed meaning over time.

“I’ve always been interested in the symbol of the vejigante because it is an early act of colonial resistance that takes place in this town [Loíza],” explained Luciano, whose work has been featured in the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “They were sort of challenging Spanish colonial traditions and belief systems. It was subverting the tradition itself and giving power to the people and agency to the people through practices that are actually connected to African culture.”

Saint James, the Catholic apostle and patron saint of Spain, helped lead the Spaniards to victory in Puerto Rico over the Moors in the 12th century. Vejigante masks, meant to represent and demonize the conquered Moors, were worn by colonizers to celebrate the victory. Centuries later, vejigantes assumed a more religious purpose, and became known for scaring ill-attending churchgoers back into Mass.

During Spain’s colonial rule of Puerto Rico, thousands of the country’s indigenous Taino population, including many from the Congo, present day Benin, Nigeria, and other African countries, were enslaved. These populations transformed the mask into a symbol of resistance against their oppressors and Catholicism.

“[Vejigante masks] represent the resistance, this anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, celebrating people, celebrating the culture — being proud of where you come from,” said Adrian Roman, 34, a Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican artist.

Roman, who uses the artist name Viajero, incorporates vejigantes into illustrations, graffiti, and woodwork. In 2013, he painted a graffiti mural of a vejigante mask on 111th Street and 3rd Avenue in East Harlem. Roman’s art revolves around his Latino heritage, often functioning to raise awareness about his country’s African roots.

“It’s preserving your history, and using your culture by using these negative images and flipping it [them] around,” said Roman.

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