We hug the hearse as it inches along Ponce’s backstreets. Caped mourners veiled in black lace swing lanterns, wail and sob into their hankies, and fan themselves in the warm night air.
“Dios mio, la sardina esta muerto…”
The deceased, La Sardina, a pearlescent, person-sized, pink-lipped fish, rests in an open sequin-covered coffin. Her fate is decided tonight, for tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.
We bring up a procession of school bands, beauty queens, acrobats, cabezudos (big-headed guys), stilt walkers, and the face of Carnival, vejigantes, horned devils named for the vejiga, inflated animal bladders sported as weapons. As we approach the crowded main square, Plaza las Delicias, each group passes the raised throne of El Rey Momo, the Carnival King, and showcases its talents.
In the 16th century, the Spanish empire overtook much of the New World, bringing its culture and Catholicism. Carnival, traceable through the Spaniards to the Romans, combines elements of the pagan purging of winter, a surge in indulgent behaviors before the privation of Lent, and a cartoon version of social upheaval. In South America and the Caribbean, the fact that there is no winter has deemed some of these rites moot; yet they persist, and evolve.
Ponce’s week-long Carnival traces its origins to 1858, the same year Samuel Morse set up the first telegraph on the island.
As I arrive, the crowning of queens, both pre- and post- pubescent, and the vejigante showcase have already transpired. But there are art shows, salsa, bomba, and plena on the streets and stage, the big Saturday parade and final ceremonies, plus an abundance of fried food.
Using my room near the square as a base, I can transect the city on foot. At the organic market, I indulge in a carambola soda. Hummingbirds dart among yellow flowering tabebuia trees, and blocks of bright Creole houses are checkered with abandoned structures needing TLC.
Some of Ponce’s most significant historic houses serve as restaurants and cultural institutions. The high-ceilinged, breezy rooms of the History Museum are dense with photos and timelines of Ponce’s evolution as a cultural and political hub.
At a workshop at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, artisan Freddy Soto shows how to make your own vejigante mask. He uses cow horns as molds, wrapping them tightly with strips of goopy, specially-treated paper. Bright paint is applied in layers. The horns can be twisted in many angles; every mask is individualized.
For a different view of Saturday’s Main Parade, I hike outside the city’s historic core to meet it halfway. Along the route, spectators claim patches of sidewalk with camp chairs and coolers. The unsettled sky gives way to a tropical downpour that briefly sends us under the protective canopy of strangler figs. For more than six hours, we are treated to a spectacle both homegrown and familiar: politicians in vintage cars, giant pirates, bands from all about the island, rescue dogs in satin. From Loisa Aldea on the north coast comes a wildly festooned truck of cross-dressers in black face. There is no shortage of quasi-vejigantes in rubber Halloween masks instead of traditional ones. Those that can squeeze into the plaza enjoy salsa dancing into the night.
Families mingle and nosh; vejigantes, their animal-bladder weapons now more often distended plastic bottles, play at being marauders. Despite the din, just steps away from the stage in patches of lush vegetation, I hear the persistent peep of the coqui, the island’s native frog and mascot. (Editor’s note: The coqui is just a little less revered in Hawaii, per Suzan Colon.)
And what will become of La Sardina? On this final night, her casket has been lifted to rest at center stage, before El Rey and the citizenry of Ponce. Will she soon be interred in the local cemetery, or torched before our eyes, as she would be in Madrid? Firemen stand in the shadows, their hoses poised. The mourners chant:
Ya se muerto el carnaval!
Ya lo llevan a enterrer;
Enchenle poquita tierra
Que se vuelve a levantar.
During the mourners’ traditional Carnaval recitation, a straw, denim-clad dummy is brought forth and hoisted onto a scaffold between the crowd and stage. After a safety zone is established, the effigy is set ablaze. Sparks flying, it breaks apart and falls to the pavement, to be extinguished by quick-moving bomberos. Depending on your belief system, the dummy is Judas, or Pelele, whose fiery demise assures that good (or spring) will follow. And I’m relieved that La Sardina, who must have taken weeks to design and fabricate, will be returned to air-conditioned storage, to be borne aloft again.
Carnival is dead now
They are burying him
Throw just a little dirt in
So he can rise again.
Ericka Hamburg is a New York-based writer, photographer, and artist.
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