Looking for a traditional, handmade Vejigante mask during my last visit to Puerto Rico, I discovered the Ayala Family Museum and Shop in the town of Loiza. A small, traditional jíbaro house, this place is filled with history and elements that show how the African and Spanish cultures came together in Puerto Rico.
During the month of July, a 10-day celebration is held in Loiza to commemorate the victory of St. James the Apostle against the Moors in Spain. The Vejigantes symbolize the Moors St James fought against in the 12th century, however their meaning has evolved and now Vejigantes symbolize demons in the battle between “good and evil”. Meant to scare people away from the Catholic church during 17th century St. James processions in Spain, Vejigante masks can be very scary, painted with bright colors, grotesque features and multiple horns.
The Ayala Family has been making these masks in the town of Loiza for generations, and unlike those made in the town of Ponce, the Ayala’s make their masks from coconuts. “It is very hard to pick out the coconuts to make our masks. I can pick through hundreds of coconuts and come home with only 30 to 40,” said Raul Ayala.
These folkloric masks are made from carved coconut husks, leaving enough space for someone to wear them, horns made out of wood and bamboo strips for teeth.
The rest of the Vejigante costume is an oversized jumper, with sleeves to symbolize wings.
I’m a sucker for tradition, and visiting the Ayala’s shop made my day.