Angel Sánchez Ortíz, 57, has been making “la vejigante” since he was a boy in Ponce, Puerto Rico. In Spanish, the word “vejigante” (literally, “giant bladder”) refers to a colorful papier-mâché mask that is used during pre-Lenten festivals in February. A retired factory worker, Ortíz found his vocation in the 1990s when he began teaching this Puerto Rican tradition in Springfield. Ortíz, of Holyoke, Mass., recently exhibited his masks at the Park Branch of the Hartford Public Library.
Ortíz shared his story in a recent interview with Patrick Raycraft of The Fartford Courant, which has been translated from Spanish. Here is his story:
When I came to Springfield in 1988 there was a lot of gang activity. I introduced the vejigante as a way kids could create artwork.
I started at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. They loved it. It relieves stress. It brings joyfulness. For others, their sadness is hidden behind the mask. [Eventually] the sadness goes away and joyfulness emerges. It changes people. A lot of these kids are now grown adults and they know how to make [the masks].
I’ve always taught classes to teachers so they can in turn keep teaching children. I have a gift inside that I express through the vejigante. Sometimes people don’t pass on the gifts that they have.
I’ve been invited from all sides — teaching how to make them in Boston, Holyoke, New Britain, Hartford. Back in 1995 the mayor of Hartford was really pleased with what I was doing and congratulated me.
As Puerto Ricans, the vejigante culture is our own. It’s celebrated in Ponce, Loíza, Hatillo and many other [Puerto Rican] towns. In Ponce, papier-mâché is used. In Loiza, coconut. In Hatillo, colorful woven wire.
I learned to make the vejigante when I was very young. I watched my older cousins make them. I was 5 or 6 years old. They molded it with paper, glue and regular house paint. From there I learned to do it. At that point I realized I had a knack for making masks.
Ortíz is considered a master artisan who has taught the vejigante art form at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and at the Worcester Art Museum. His masks are priced from $650 to $1,000 and a few are still on display at the Park Branch of the Hartford Public Library
For the original report go to http://articles.courant.com/2012-03-30/news/hc-mi-comunidad-0323-20120328_1_masks-hartford-public-library-tradition