Carnival Celebrations: Masks and Vejigantes
This lesson is an adaptation of activities that appear on Our Story in History: A Puerto Rican Carnival, a website produced by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The lesson also includes objects from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Natural History.
These standards are achieved through guided work with the teacher.
Visual Arts (from the National Art Education Association)
- N-VA.4. Visual Arts: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
Language Arts (from the National Council of Teachers of English)
- N.12. Students use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion and the exchange of information).
U.S. History (from the National Center for History in the Schools)
- Topic 1. Living and Working Together in Families and Communities, Now and Long Ago: Students understand family life now and in the past, and family life in various places long ago.
- To understand the Carnival tradition of Puerto Rico
- To explore masks and parade traditions in Carnival and other holiday celebrations
- "Carnival Costume and Masks" set of images (mask 1 , mask 2 , mask 3 , mask 4 , mask 5 , costume )
- Virtual reality files (mask 3, mask 4)
- "Costume and Masks" graphic organizer
- "Carnival Images and Information" document
- Vejigante Masquerader by Lulu Delacre (book)
- "Make Your Own Carnival Mask" guide
SET UP AND PREPARE
Background Information (for the teacher)
Carnivals are of ancient origin and virtually all peoples in all eras have organized carnivals to mark or celebrate different events. Carnivals can be magical, political, satirical or purely entertaining; some even poke fun at death. In much of Puerto Rico, and other parts of the world with a strong Roman Catholic presence, Carnival has a special meaning. It refers to the last days before Lent. In Puerto Rico, Carnival begins on February 2 and lasts until Ash Wednesday, which is forty days before Easter.
In many carnivals, masks are key ingredients of the public spectacle. The prominence of masquerading devils during Carnival is understood by many as an ancient reference to the contest between good and evil. Although introduced by Spanish settlers, the customs of the island’s carnival, like mask making, music, and public performance, have developed into uniquely Puerto Rican traditions that also reflect the customs and sensibilities of Puerto Rico’s African ancestry.
A person dressed up for the Ponce Carnival in Puerto Rico is called a vejigante (bay-he-GAHN-tay). The job of a vejigante is to scare people, much like dressing up as a scary monster for Halloween. The vejigante swats children with a vejiga (bay-HE-gah), a cow’s bladder that has been dried and blown up like a balloon. Every vejigante needs a carnival mask. The masks used at the Ponce Carnival are made of papier mâché. Each mask is made into a scary or devilish shape, and decorated with bright colors, horns, and playful designs. Costumes are one-piece coveralls made out of bright cloth. Many of the costumes are made with the colors of the Spanish flag and the town of Ponce. Yellow and red are the colors of the Spanish flag, and black and red are the colors of the town of Ponce.
Part One: Accessing prior knowledge
Lead a class discussion of masks by asking the questions below. You might first show the "Carnival Costume and Masks" set of images (mask 1 , mask 2 , mask 3 , mask 4 , mask 5 , costume ), or you might simply begin by asking if any of the children have ever made or worn masks.
• What is included in a parade?
• Who participates? Who watches?
• What special characters have the students seen? (Clowns, float characters, etc.)
• How are the characters dressed? Do the characters have special masks as part of their costumes?
• What are some of the sounds of a parade? (Music, drumming, sirens, etc.)
• What kinds of food are eaten? (Candy, popcorn, etc.)
• Where do parades take place?
• Most importantly, why do people hold parades? (To mark a holiday, celebrate with family and community, etc.)
Part Two: Examining the costume and masks
1. Present the “Carnival Costume and Masks” set of images (mask 1 , mask 2 , mask 3 , mask 4 , mask 5 , costume ). Ask students to describe what they see and how the masks make them feel. As a class, generate a list of descriptive words. Do these masks look familiar to the students? Do they look old? Are they scary? Can the students guess what the masks are made of? Can they guess how and when these masks might have been worn?
If you have computer access and projection capabilities in the classroom, enrich the discussion by showing the two "virtual reality" files. You can turn the masks to see them from all angles. (mask 3, mask 4).
2. As a class, record students’ responses in the top sections of the "Costume and Masks" graphic organizer . Note that the important part of this exercise is looking, not knowing the right answer.
3. Follow up the discussion by sharing the information on the costume and masks from the "Carnival Images and Information" document . Look at the image Vejigantes on the Street in the same document. Do the students’ opinions of the objects change? Were they able to guess the materials? Did they connect the objects to holidays or parades? You may want to rewrite the top sections of the graphic organizer to reflect the class’s updated answers.
Part Three: Read aloud
1. Read aloud Vejigante Masquerader.
2. Look specifically at the masks and costumes in the book. Return to the “Costume and Masks” graphic organizer and compare the objects in the book to those that the students have examined. As a group, choose one mask and one costume in the book and fill in the last rows with the students’ descriptions.
3. Post-reading discussion:
• What is a vejigante? (Here you can discuss the physical description of the vejigante as well as his central role in Carnival.)
• Why is it important for Ramón to have his own vejigante mask and costume?
• How are Ramón’s vejigante mask and costume connected to his family and community traditions?
Part Four Concluding or extension activity
1. Have students use the "Make Your Own Carnival Mask" guide to create their own Carnival masks.
2. Ask students to show their masks to the class and to share the reasons they made them the way they did. Are the masks connected to any family or community tradition?
For Further Reading
Bernier-Grand, Carmen T. Shake It, Morena! And Other Folklore from Puerto Rico. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 2002 (available in English and Spanish).
Delacre, Lulu. Rafi and Rosi: Carnival! New York: Harper Collins, 2006 (available in English and Spanish).
Fontánez, Edwin. The Vejigante and the Folk Festivals of Puerto Rico. Arlington, Va.: Exit Studio, 1996.
For additional teaching resources visit www.SmithsonianEducation.org