mask-2Dur­ing 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.

ponce-mask-2A 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.

ponce-maskThe 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.

maskThe 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.