During the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, Ponce celebrates Puerto Rico’s version of Mardi Gras called the Ponce Carnival. This carnival is the biggest and most celebrated and colorful festival on the island. It’s also one of the oldest celebrations, dating back to the 1700s. It annually drawing tens of thousands of locals and tourists. And if New Orleans has its beaded revelers and Rio its costumed dancers, Puerto Rico has its Vejigantes. They are elaborately masked figures representing local folkloric demons.
A festival that has been held for over 200 years is the epitome of all things boricua, and an annual testament to Puerto Ricans’ capacity for whimsy and revelry. The carnival dominates the historic downtown area in the city of Ponce. The celebration takes place in February, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
The vejigantes are the undisputed stars of this show, but what, exactly, are they? In a word, they’re demons. More to the point, the vejigante, is a figure straight out of a centuries-old folklore that blends African, Spanish, and Caribbean cultures. The name originates from vejiga, which means “bladder” in Spanish. I’ll explain that in a bit. The traditional vejigante costume requires three basic components: mask, cape, and suit. The mask is the most iconic and colorful of these essentials. I have yet to see a vejigante mask without a conflagration of teeth and horns. Like Mardi Gras, the carnival has its roots in Catholicism. The vejigantes, armed with their vejigas (inflated cow bladders), go around whacking children and other innocents, ostensibly to beat away any evil spirits that are lingering around them.
The festival ends with the Entierro de la Sardina, or “Burial of the Sardine.” This is a nutty mock funeral, complete with a dummy-laden coffin led by drag queens and fake mourners, is in honor of the coming season of lent. Coffin and dummy are set on fire, to symbolize the burning away of the sins of the flesh. In addition to marauding costumed vejigantes, expect a lot of traditional bomba y plena music, plenty of eating and drinking, and a chanting, boisterous crowd. There is also a parade for the King and Queen of the Carnival, and the aforementioned “Burial of the Sardine.” It’s Puerto Rico’s biggest party, and it’s a family event in which locals and tourists alike descend on the island for the occasion, and the main draw are the vejigantes, which are costumed characters donning wildly vivid demon masks. It’s a fun, raucous event marked by thumping bomba y plena music, massive crowds, and hordes of masked revelers. You’ll see mini vejigantes all over the place. Expect crowds, loud music, loud revelers, and a great time! This is a huge month in Puerto Rico.