Traditions Behind the Fiesta Unmasked
Pastora Ayala’s little shop in this north coast town is hard to miss.
It is painted bright yellow, red and blue.
Two grotesque horned masks made of coconut husks with fangs and long red tongues hang from the shop’s porch posts.
The 79-year-old shopkeeper is the widow of Castor Ayala, the famed mask maker of Loiza Aldea who died in 1980.
Loiza Aldea, population 30,000, is Puerto Rico’s largest and oldest black town; 90% of its residents are descendants of slaves brought here from Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It is a town rich in a unique mix of African, Puerto Rican, Spanish and Indian tradition. The Santiago masks sold at Pastora Ayala’s shop are part of that tradition.
Loiza Aldea is named after a Borinquen Indian chief, a woman, who died fighting the Spanish in the early 1500s when Spain brought slaves here to mine gold.
The gold ran out. Sugar cane was planted. The slaves harvested the cane. They learned Spanish. They became Catholics.
And, ever since the founding of the town, Fiesta de Santiago (the Feast of Santiago, honoring the patron saint of Spain) has been the grandest celebration of the year at Loiza Aldea.
For three days each July, celebrants sing, dance and parade, wearing gaudy costumes and the grotesque coconut masks. This year, from July 26 through 28, people from all over Puerto Rico will come here for the festival.
Of all the fiesta mask makers of Loiza Aldea, Castor Ayala was the most famous. He handcrafted thousands of coconut husks into a dozen dramatic styles. He trained others to make the vivid masks to keep the tradition alive.
When Ayala died 10 years ago, his son, Raul, now 43, became the leading mask maker of Loiza Aldea. He fashions the masks throughout the year, and his mother sells them for $50 to $75 from the colorful shop in front of her modest home.
“The Bible says Santiago (St. James the Apostle) was martyred in Jerusalem a few years after Christ’s Crucifixion,” said Raul Ayala. “Legend has it Santiago’s bones were moved to Spain. A town grew up around Santiago’s tomb in Spain. The town was destroyed by the Moors in the year 997.”
Legend has it that Santiago came back to life and led the Spanish army on horseback to chase the Moors out of Spain. “In our celebration of Santiago’s feast, we mix our African roots with Spanish history,” Ayala said.
“The masks are similar to masks made in Africa. Tradition has it that the Spanish soldiers riding with Santiago wore these devil-like masks to frighten the Moors.”
Costumes worn during the fiesta represent Spanish knights; locas , or crazy women, and Viejos , or old men. Another popular costume is called vejegantes , which means bladder in Spanish. Years ago, celebrants carried real animal bladders on sticks in the parade. While the costume has retained the name, today it looks more like a bat than any animal part.
Iglesia San Patricio, built in Loiza Aldea in 1645, is the oldest church in continuous use in Puerto Rico; it also figures in the Santiago story.
A 6-inch statue of Santiago on horseback was reportedly found in a cork tree in Loiza Aldea 200 years ago. The statue was brought to St. Patricio Church. But it mysteriously vanished and reappeared in the cork tree five miles away.
According to legend, three times the statue was taken to the church, and three times it disappeared from St. Patricio and was found in the cork tree.
The original 200-year-old statue and two other similar statues, each two feet tall, are carried at the head of parades from the church to the cork tree to reenact the legend.
“Each day the parade starts from the church with 100 costumed people following the statues. The masqueraders dance and sing all the way from St. Patricio to the cork tree. By the time the parade reaches the tree, there are as many as 10,000 people following the statues,” said Ayala.
After each parade, there is a lavish feast and then dancing to rhythmic Bomba and calypso beats.
To be caretaker of the statues is a great honor. For more than a century, the same three families have guarded the statues in their homes.
One of the Santiago statues stands in the living room of the humble dwelling of Sylvia Fuentes, 45. It was handed down by her mother, Anita Mena, who received it from her mother.
“We are very proud to be guardians of the Santiago statue. In our own small way, we help make certain that the important tradition of Santiago will never cease in Loiza Aldea. We feel the statue protects us in this house, that Santiago watches over us at all times,” said Fuentes.
And each July, among the coconut palms on Puerto Rico’s north coast, legend and history blend in a special, festive way.