Puerto Rican mask tradition to be featured in International Festival parade

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A report by Jon Wysochanski for The Chronicle.

The Lorain (Ohio) Arts Council aims to unify cultures with folkloric masks during this year’s International Festival parade.

More than a dozen people were present Monday at the Lorain Arts Council headquarters, 737 Broadway, to hear Kenneth Melendez, a Puerto Rican musician and artist, talk about Puerto Rican festivals and folkloric masks.

Melendez travels the world as a Latin music percussionist, and he also teaches people how to make vejigante masks. Vejigantes are characters associated with festivities that occur on different parts of Puerto Rico during the year.

In Ponce, a carnival occurs in February nine days before Lent. In Hatillo, Las Mascaras occurs in December for three weeks. In Loiza in July, the Festivity of St. Aposto is celebrated.

All the carnivals involve masked characters, vibrant colorful costumes, shoes with bells and religious symbolism, which Melendez said originally came to Puerto Rico through the Spanish conquistadors.

Melendez’s focus is on the Carnival of Ponce in which masks are made of paper machete versus the masks made in Loiza, which are made of coconut shells, or the wire mesh soldier masks worn in Hatillo.

“These festivities were traditionally centered around getting people to the church,” Melendez said.

Masks have cultural and personal significance to the wearer, Melendez said.

“Your mask is your character,” he said. “It’s the inner demon inside you that makes you do good or bad.”

The mask-making project in Lorain is focused on uniting different cultures and encouraging those cultures to create masks that represent their cultural identity.

“Although I’m showing my way of creating a vejigante mask, I want people to create their own masks with inspiration from their surroundings,” Melendez said.

Antonio Barrios, Lorain Arts Council president, said he believes art can unify the community, and he’s looking forward to a masked multicultural group marching during the parade June 25.

Melendez will be in Lorain at the Arts Council 6 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday the next two weeks, and people are encouraged to stop in and check out the mask project.

There are a few slots available for those interested in participating.

For more information, call Barrios at (440) 320-0295

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