7 Facts About Ponce's Carnival

Melina Aguilar | 21 February, 2023

            7 Facts About Ponce's Carnival

The Ponceño Carnival, the oldest in Puerto Rico turned 165 years today!

This celebration continues to fill the streets of Ponce with history and tradition, bringing thousands to congregate along the route to admire the floats, school bands, queens and vejigantes that fill with color the multitudinous party that takes place before the beginning of Lent.

But, have you ever wondered how this centennial revelry originated or from whom we inherit?

To try to answer these and other questions, let's explore some curiosities and facts about Ponce's Carnival: El Carnaval Ponceño. 

1) What is a carnival? 

Carnival's roots are found in pagan traditions from ancient Egypt, where a festival was held at the beginning of spring to mark the end of winter.

This tradition reached ancient Greece when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. Likewise, the Romans copied the festival from the Greeks and called it bacchanal in honor of the god of wine, celebrating it with excessive wine, dance and music.

Little by little the tradition continued to expand throughout Europe, to later adopt a Christian meaning which they called carnival, an expression derived from the Latin phrase "carne" meat and "vale" goodbye,meaninggoodbye to meat.

Since then, the carnival alludes to the week before the start of the Catholic fast of Lent and the consequent abstinence from meat.

2) The Carnival in Ponce

The Ponce Carnival in its beginnings was a copy of the carnival that was celebrated in France. It became part of the local culture with the colonization of Spain. In that Iberian country, the celebration of carnivals was important in cities such as Valencia, Seville, Barcelona and Madrid.

Back in the island, at first what eventually became the Ponce Carnival, consisted of the celebration of sumptuous masked dances and it is believed that this tradition anchored in Ponce through immigrants from Catalonia and other regions who arrived at the Port of Ponce. 

The consensus among historians is that the first carnival in Ponce was documented on a Tuesday in February 1858. It was the first masked ball held and a local business located in the corner where Villa and Concordia de Ponce streets intersect today. 

In that property of Don Benito La Guardia, the masquerade ball was held in the pre-Lenten period, forever fixing the celebration of Carnival just before the beginning of Lent. For this reason, this year we celebrate the 165th edition of the Ponceño Carnival in Ponce. 

3) Carnival Traditions 

In its beginnings, the carnival exploited everything grotesque and ordinary in everyday life. It began with the arrival of King Momo, represented by a person from the town and, as a mockery, the people unloaded all their hostility against him, throwing damaged eggs, flour, rotten fruit and anything that could denigrate the king's appearance. 

All this took place in the form of a comparsa, to the sound of traditional music, where the participants paraded mostly masked or made up exaggeratedly. It was also normal for men to dress up as women and vice versa.

4) The King Momo & Burial of the Sardine

King Momo, Rey Momo, is a typical carnival character who alludes to a deity from Greek mythology with the same name, Momo, who was the god of mockery, sarcasm and madness. In the Ponceño Carnival he is a celebrated person from the town who wears a gigantic mask made of papier-mâché and remains masked, without revealing her identity, until the end of the celebration, just before Ash Wednesday.

During that last night of celebrations, the “Burial of the Sardine," El Entierro de la Sardina, is also celebrated: a ritual in which a mock funeral is held with queens and people in chorus crying over the death of the sardine. 

In local tradition, one version suggests that the sardine is the one who symbolically saves King Momo, who, in turn, in the old Spanish tradition, is sentenced to death at the end of the Carnival. 

Other versions suggest that the burial of the sardine alludes to the end of the festival and is considered the last mischief of the vejigantes, who hide the fish to make the blessed sin in the Lent that is about to begin.

5) The Vejigantes 

These figures with demonic features that walk the streets of Ponce alone or in comparsas, dressed in masks and costumes created by hand, usually carry inflated cow bladders in their hands with which they prowl among people, doing mischief.

Regarding the origins of his mask made of papier-mâché, it is mentioned that this traditional native mask from Ponce was born for the carnival from the integration of the concepts of the Franco-Spanish, Taino and African mask.

It is also said that its origin is in the Playa de Ponce neighborhood, where the cattle slaughterhouse was located, from which horns were extracted for the vejigantes masks. As well as the site to collect the bladders of the cows to inflate and paint in bright colors, to later use them to hit other people. Hence the name vejigante"veji" from the word vejiga or bladder, and "gante" from the world gigante or giants, meaning: giants with bladders. 

This mask is so important and impressive, considered collectors items and currently exhibited in museums and private collections throughout the world. 

6) Carnival Posters 

An important part of the carnival celebration in Ponce is the creation of commemorative posters. There are over 50 posters recording carnival memories, the oldest I have found dates to 1939! An interesting fact about these posters, is that the first time we see an image of the vejigante monster is in 1964.

An important function of these posters is that, in addition to sharing information about the carnival's dates, they provide a sample of the essence of carnival or what was experienced that year.

For example, in the official poster of the Ponceño Carnival number 163 -created by the artists of the Salón Boricua creative workshop- you can see the characters of the celebration coming out of an iPhone, alluding to the special edition of a virtual carnival, popularized by Facebook Live , something that marked what the city and the world experienced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year the poster focuses on the Centennial Municipal Band and the Parque de Bombas, to whom the festivities are dedicated. 

7) The Centennial Band of Ponce 

The 165th edition of the Ponceño Carnival is dedicated to one of the most important institutions of Ponce: La Banda Municipal de Ponce, which will celebrate its 140th anniversary of exemplary trajectory next September 2023.

Originally called La Banda de Bomberosor Firefighters Band, it was created by Juan Morel Campos when the musician and composer was 26 years old, in September 1883 This was after the reorganization of the Firefighters Corps, which was founded in 1853, and which at that time was established in what had been the Pavilion of the Exhibition Fair of 1882: the same space that we have known since then as the Parque de Bombas.

After the early death of Morel Campos, Domingo Cruz “Cocolía,” the great musician, composer, euphonium player and friend of Morel, carried on the legacy and directed the Banda de Bomberos de Ponce, ensuring that this tradition would be passed on to future generations. 

Today, the Centenaria Banda Municipal de Ponce is the oldest and continuously performing band in the Caribbean, and the fourth oldest band in the world!

Ponce is Ponce

It is clear that Ponce is history, music and carnival. At Isla Caribe we are dedicated to exploring the city, sharing its treasures, and telling its stories. We look forward to showing you the best of Ponce in our daily walking tours, Ponce Walking Tour, the best way to learn, see and experience Ponce, Puerto Rico.  

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