Religion in Puerto Rico permeates almost all aspects of our culture, if not all. When other countries have carnival, towns in Puerto Rico celebrate their patron saints with parades, music, masks, costumes, and games. These festivities take place all throughout the year, and can go for a weekend and up to ten days.
The town of Loíza has one of the biggest carnivals in the island. It’s a celebration for the apostle Santiago, and the convergence of African and Christian religious beliefs.
I remember one time as a kid accidentally driving with my parents through Loíza during the carnival. We were coming back from a week-long summer vacation somewhere across the island. My grandma Ana was there, as well as uncle Wilfredo, aunt Elizabeth and their three kids. That year we’d decided to take just one car, so we’d fit everything and everyone in my mom’s car – a Chevy Celebrity hatchback, circa 1990.
I’m not sure how or why, I only know that all four of us kids were riding back in the trunk. It was all fun and games until we ran into the parade. One minute we were all singing, playing, laughing, and pulling on each other, the next we were dead quiet and on the verge of tears. We were completely surrounded by giant vejigantes wearing bright scary masks and costumes with bat-like wings. There are various theories as to what the masks in the Loíza carnival represent, but the general consensus is they’re a representation of evil – and they certainly look like it. The masked men and women surrounded the cars as they danced, laughed, and fed off four kid’s wildly active imaginations. What we didn’t know right then was that our parents were as scared as we were, and that the nervous laughs that followed once we got through the parade was their collective sigh of relief at having “survived” the encounter.