The Puerto Rican Vejigante
The importance of teaching art in its social and cultural context
In my public school art room I constantly feel pressured to make the biggest splash in the shortest period of time. School schedules often pinch at art classroom time, leaving little space for in-depth studies in the curriculum of the cultural contexts that produce art making.
Yet, years ago I embarked on a journey to contextualize each art lesson within the sociopolitical influences in which the art is created. I picture my curriculum as concentric circles, like a splash in a pond, with the study of a specific art form in the center, and the students’ knowledge, my curiosity, and the expertise of the community bubbling outward. This process began while I was an elementary school art teacher and continues today in my middle- school art room and my summer arts camp for teenagers.
THE VEJIGANTE MASK
“Can we make those?” my students called out, as we studied the colorful Vejigante masks of Puerto Rico in a video.
“Yes we can make these masks,” I assured them. “Let’s figure out what the Vejigante mask is all about. That will help us build our own mask interpretations.”
For each slide that flashed on the screen, I asked my students, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”
Jasmina jumped in, “I notice lots of spots. They painted them with spots, on every mask. I wonder why?”
“I see lots of horns, I notice they are scary,” said Orlando.
“I notice that each mask is different; some look kinda the same, but they are all different,” Richie added.
“I see fangs, teeth, horns, big mouths, and flared nostrils,” Sarah said. “I wonder how they made so many teeth on that one?”
The Vejigante character from Puerto Rico is a crowd pleaser, both on the island during Carnival, and here in Amherst, Mass., in my middle-school art room. But most of my students have limited knowledge of Puerto Rico. Of the 700 students in this school only about 9 percent of my students identify as Latino or Hispanic, and most of those students who identify as such are Puerto Rican. The Puerto Rican community is one of the fastest growing of all the communities of color in this school district. Yet many students, from all cultural backgrounds in this school population, have not learned much about Puerto Rican art in the school setting.
Many students in the Puerto Rican community have grown up here in New England where the dominant culture in the schools has made Puerto Rico’s rich history and culture invisible. Exploring the history, traditions and cross-cultural influences of the Vejigante mask provides a context for understanding the intersection of the African, European, and indigenous Taíno cultures in the Caribbean. Art making in this context enhances a more comprehensive understanding of Puerto Rican arts, culture, and history.
The following is a glimpse into the organic evolution of my art curriculum that started years ago with a well intentioned – yet superficial – multicultural focus, and which continues to evolve and develop into a deliberate intent to teach about the Puerto Rican experience in a broader context.
I began to develop a curriculum about the Vejigante years ago, but the more I worked on it, the more I began to question the image of Puerto Rico that my students were internalizing. In follow-up lessons, students from first grade to seventh grade would identify Puerto Rico as “the island where they make Vejigante masks!” Yes, that is true, but did they think that everyone on the island spent their time designing and wearing Vejigante masks? Did they understand the specificity of this folk character to certain traditions, regions and events? I do not want my students to assume that “folk art” existed on the island in a void without any previous historical context. I do not want to denigrate this beautiful tradition to the status of a mere “tourist curriculum” by exploiting the attractive color and character of the custom. And I wanted the students to understand the significance of the intersection of Spanish and African cultures in the endearing character of the Vejigante – so it was more than an appealing “exotic” character to replicate in art class.
ART IN CONTEXT
The challenge was to teach about the masks in a historical and cultural context of folk arts, while keeping my art class active and hands-on. After we spent the first part of the class period studying the Vejigante masks through slides and video, I demonstrated how to begin making the mask. As the students watched me shape the oak tag and listened to me explain skills in paper cutting, folding, and scoring, I also talked with them about what they remember from the video. “Does anybody remember when and where the Vejigante masks are worn in Puerto Rico?” Some students responded with guesses, some responded with clear memory of the video.
After a recent class session, I was confident that my students were very much aware that the Vejigante is an artifact of social context, when Alejandro and Sarah grabbed their masks and started chasing their classmates with loud scary roars. They were imitating the gestures we had read about and viewed on the video. “Alejandro,” I shouted over the roars, “you are dressed as a Vejigante, what time of year is it in Puerto Rico?”
“February, it is festival in this town!” He yelled.
“Sarah, where are you in Puerto Rico?”
“We’re in Ponce, Ms. Bode, because my mask is made of papier mâché and it has fangs – it’s not the coconut-shell kind from Loíza!”
This classroom dialogue drew upon the work of Edwin Fontánez whose Legend of the Vejigante video and The Vejigante and the Folk Festivals of Puerto Rico book (Exit Studios, 1996) provide a sociohistorical context of the Vejigante tradition. By using his work in conjunction with the book Vejigante/ Masquerader by Lulu Delacre, (Scholastic, 1993) students learned about the towns of Ponce and Loíza Aldea, where the Vejigante tradition thrives. The mask makers in the town of Loíza Aldea, whose population is predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican, carve the masks from coconut shells, a style derived directly from African traditions. We compared these coconut shell masks to the papier mâché masks in Ponce which are linked to the European tradition, and usually painted with chromatic acrylic paints. The comparisons of the towns, the demographics of their populations, and their styles of mask reveal some of the social context of art making, and illustrate Puerto Rico’s history of race and class stratification. We extended our research about the town of Loíza to learn that this community has maintained African traditions over the years in many aspects of life such as cooking, language, and religion. This leads us into a discussion of race, and heightens awareness of the multiracial heritage of Puerto Rico.
“A NICE PLACE TO TAKE A VACATION.”
As I moved around the art room assisting with goopy glue strips of papier mâché and trouble-shooting with attaching horns and fangs, I overheard some non-Puerto Rican students saying things like, “Puerto Rico is a nice place to take a vacation.” I think to myself, while this may be true, if that is all they know about Puerto Rico, they’re missing a lot.
This limited understanding of some of my students led me to underscore the value of folk arts, by placing them within the context of other art traditions. I firmly believe that folk arts play a critical role in the maintenance and nurturing of culture. I began to compare and to teach folk arts in the context of contemporary arts, to offer students a fuller picture of the arts of Puerto Rico. I wonder: Do my students have a grasp on folk art as a tradition passed down through generations of families and communities? Do they realize that there were multiple other realms of art created by artists at the universities, galleries, and community art centers both on the island and the mainland? Do they see this connection between Puerto Rican artists in New York and throughout the United States to artists on the island? Are they viewing folk arts and the Vejigante as the only example of Puerto Rican artistic expression?
Throughout our days in the art room, as we worked on our masks, I tried to address these concerns. I showed slides of contemporary artwork such as Juan Sánchez’s innovative imagery he labels “Ricanstructions” juxtaposed with slides of several Vejigante masks. Students asked questions about the Sánchez work: “Why does he write about racism and injustice all over his artwork?” “Why does he paint the United States flag in opposite colors?” “Does he make Vejigante masks, too?” I responded with some answers and with some questions: “No, he does not make Vejigante masks; he works more with painting and collage. Why do you think he writes about racism and injustice? Why do you think he paints the United States flag in opposite colors?”
His work inspired discussion about the relevance of history for all contemporary artists. Aviva said, “Maybe he thinks the United States is doing the opposite of what it promised . Maybe he feels that racism is the opposite of United States’ symbols.” These insightful comments lead me to utilize examples from several other contemporary Puerto Rican artists, such as Carlos Irizarry’s “Transculturalization of the Puerto Rican,” which comments on Puerto Rican identity and Soraida Martinez’s creation of “verdadism.” These artists and images – along with my students’ observations – set the stage for discussions on the role of race and class in the Puerto Rican community and the wider United States society, and how it is expressed through art. I emphasized to my students that they, too, are contemporary artists, and I encouraged them to address their concerns about justice and injustice through their art.
When I discussed race and diversity, I emphasized the vibrant and resilient heritage of the Puerto Rican community, while simultaneously looking at the hard reality of marginalization of the culture in the United States. U.S. business interests have wreaked havoc on the environment, language, and livelihood of many Puerto Ricans throughout the 20th century and to the present.
While my students are busily fashioning masks in my art room in Amherst, Mass., I read aloud current front page news articles about the bombing practice near the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico and the debate surrounding the U.S. military presence there. A deeper understanding of the Vejigante creates an avenue for understanding the political debates and the different perspectives of the Puerto Rican people surrounding these debates. I was reading this news article, while we were painting our masks, and I invited the students to voice their opinions on the military action around Vieques. We had such a lively discussion, we had to make a rule about “using words” and “no paint splashing” to emphasize one’s opinion.
We decided that when we were finished with our Vejigante masks we would each make a painting/collage inspired by the style of Juan Sánchez, in which we would articulate a social political passion of each student’s choice. Since this art activity was openended, some students chose to stay with Puerto Rican themes and emphasized the Vieques-military debate. Others directed their creativity into a spectrum of social and political statements, such as child labor in the globalized economy, U.S. consumption of fossil fuel and its global and environmental effects, and capitalist control of artistic expression in the music and radio industry, among many others.
The evolution of my curriculum led me to realize that one art form is never enough to teach the entire history of a people. I am wary of the danger of using only one example such as the Vejigante to represent all of Puerto Rico’s folk arts.
I am also cautious about trying to take on these tasks as a lone art teacher within the confines of the art room. As an art teacher, I do not want to participate in the “colonization” of any art works or cultures. If Puerto Rico needs to be more visible and more contextualized in art class, then it needs to be so in the entire school curriculum. I certainly cannot accomplish this goal with one art unit, and I absolutely cannot do it alone. This is a complex endeavor.
I needed help. As I developed this unit over the years, I sought out discussions and collaborations with colleagues who teach social studies, language arts, and world languages to integrate curriculum. I also met with parents, grandparents and community members in an effort to represent their voices in the curriculum. Some of these discussions were informal chats in the school hallway; others were organized community meetings. And we integrated what we learned into our art class. Each day, while students were developing their masks, I asked them what they knew about Puerto Rico. One day after watching a video in social studies, Alicia explained the debate over Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth, a state, or an independent country. Another day Isaiah retold a folktale they read in English class. I asked how this information has affected the art traditions, leading us back to our Vejigante study. I made a large chart paper list of what we know, and another classroom list of our questions. This list helped me develop the curriculum, and reminded us how much more there is to learn in art class and in other classes. In these discussions, many students turned and stared at the Puerto Rican students in the class. I wonder if they expected them to be experts on all aspects of Puerto Rican history. I realized this is another misconception I needed to address.
Not every Puerto Rican identifies with the tradition of the Vejigante or even knows about it. Puerto Rican students who have lived most of their lives here in the United States have very different experiences from those who have arrived recently from the island. Each community has unique experiences, and each family develops its own perspective on those experiences. My classroom experience reflects this diversity: Some Puerto Rican students had their first introduction to the Vejigante in my classroom, while others are the grandchildren of famous mask makers on the island.
In the midst of this unit, some of my students reminded me: “That’s not the Puerto Rico that I know.” I responded, “Yes there are so many different communities and experiences in Puerto Rico! Tell me about the Puerto Rico that you know. Let’s learn more about that.” That is why I find it so valuable to draw on student knowledge and experience. When using one specific Puerto Rican art form, I find it essential to place that artwork in its location and history, to emphasize the diversity of the island and the arts it produces. I strive to keep in the foreground that no culture is a monolith, and that no single art form can adequately represent an entire culture. Especially because I am not Puerto Rican, I tell my students, “I am in the process of learning, researching and exploring, and I need your help.” This helps to level the playing field for all students – Puerto Rican or not – to view each other as resources, and to draw on the expertise of students and families as well as academic resources. When my students heard about a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico several years ago, they were motivated to hold bake sales to assist in the relief effort. When they heard about the struggle with the military in Vieques, they were curious to hear more and to voice their opinions.
I use the study of the Vejigante mask in my art class to stimulate students’ interest in Puerto Rican culture and to heighten their awareness of the politics surrounding Puerto Rico’s history. In my struggle to contextualize this art activity, I have found students from all backgrounds in all grade levels hungry to learn more. Parents, grandparents, caregivers and community members are eager to share artifacts, stories and knowledge. This unit will continue to expand as long as my teaching career progresses.
Patty Bode (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches middle school art in Amherst, Mass. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Another version of this article will appear in Sonia Nieto’s new book, What Keeps Teachers Going In Spite of Everything? (Teachers College Press, Forthcoming Jan. 2003).
RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT PUERTO RICAN ART
Delacre, Lulu, Vejigante Masquerader
(New York, Scholastic, 1993). (Bilingual)
Fontánez, Edwin, The Vejigante and the Folk Festivals of Puerto Rico
(Washington, D.C.: Exit Studios, 1996).
Fontánez, Edwin, The Legend of the Vejigante
(Washington, D.C.: Exit Studios, 1996). (Video)
Sullivan, Edward, ed. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century
(London: Phaidon Press, 1996).
Website for Exit Studio:
Website for Museo del Barrio
(specializing in Puerto Rican Arts)
Website for Scholastic
(page about Lulu Delacre)