The third week of July marks the Fiestas de Santiago in the Puerto Rican town of Loíza and the appearance of the mysterious and colorful Vejigantes. Originally brought with the traditions of the Spanish conquistadors, the character and its celebration was transformed by this African community into a blend of Christian and Yoruba rituals. The Vejigante is also found in two other towns with their own variations on the theme– Ponce in February and Hatillo in December–but the African influences are strongest in Loíza.
The mask of the Loízan Vejigante is made from a coconut husk, brightly painted and adorned with wooden horns and fangs. His costume is constructed from colorful scraps of fabric and resembles a clown suit with batwings under the arms. Sometimes a cape is added as well. In the rituals of the festival, the Vejigantes represent the Moors, the enemy of the Christians in the Holy wars. The blending of African and Spanish culture has given the characters double meanings, so the knight of Santiago is also the Yoruban god of war, Ogun, and the Vejigantes represent the resistance to Catholicism.
The Vejigantes roam the streets of town in bands, looking for women and children to scare with their fierce faces. They rattle their vejigas (traditionally made from dried cow’s bladders filled with pebbles but these days more often from a stuffed sock or paper bag tied to a stick) and playfully whack bystanders. They dance to the African rhythms of bomba and plena music through the streets. The Vejigantes also lead the crowds in call-and-response chants. Everyone knows these nonsense rhymes and sings along.
From The Vejigante and the Folk Festivals of Puerto Rico, © Exit Studio 1995