Many people visit Piñones sector on the northeastern coastal zone of Puerto Rico for a beach day or to eat fresh fish, seafood or fried local food, such as alcapurrias and bacalaitos, in restaurants or kiosks along Road 187 in the Municipality of Loíza. However, some visitors are unaware that an additional stop not too far away from Piñones general tourist area may transform their day into a special cultural experience beyond the gastronomic encounter.
On Road 187, km 23, the open doors of a small establishment known as Artesanías Castor Ayala Store-Gallery (Artesanías Castor Ayala) serve as gateway to an outstanding display of colorful vejigante masks made of coconut shell that are emblematic of the traditional Santiago Apóstol Festivities held annually in the Municipality of Loíza. The cozy red and yellow wood structure also serves as tribute gallery of artisanal works made by Castor Ayala, the first who was honored as “Master Artisan of the Year” by Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company forty years ago. Besides Castor Ayala’s handicrafts made of coconut and/or calabash tree fruit known as higüera in Puerto Rico, locals and travelers may also admire vejigante masks crafted by Raúl Ayala Carrasquillo, who followed his father’s steps and learned from the best, Castor Ayala. Raúl was recognized as 2002 “Master Artisan of the Year” and 2007 “Typical Artisan of the Year” by Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company.
Each vejigante mask we saw in Artesanías Castor Ayala is valuable for its particular artisanal creation or beauty. However, four masks immediately caught our attention: (1) one named as “Cumbé de los Cocales” and which artistic composition reminds us of the sun, (2) two masks named “Mona Lisa”, and (3) a mask named “Obi Guaiza”. According to Raúl, he carved and painted the Cumbé de los Cocales and Mona Lisa masks, and Cástor Ayala handcrafted the Obi Guaiza mask. Raúl informed that the Cumbé de los Cocales and Mona Lisa masks’ aesthetic designs are more elaborate than the Obi Guaiza mask’s as the latter represents the common vejigante mask that his father ordinarily crafted and was typically used during Loíza’s Santiago Apóstol Festivities. We suggest seeing the pictures in this article’s photo gallery in order to appreciate the masks’ distinguishable art. Though these particular vejigante masks are not for sale, it is worthy to visit this store-gallery to observe these.
We also took a close look at other beautiful vejigante masks at Artesanías Castor Ayala. While the store-gallery only displayed half-vejigante masks available for purchase, we had the chance to visit Raúl’s workshop and see him in action as he was applying the finishing touches on six impressive regular-size vejigante masks to be sold. The vivid red, yellow and green colors of some masks represent Loíza flag’s colors while others masks have the symbolic colors of Puerto Rico’s flag. Even though there is a traditional basis of carving a dry coconut shell to make Loíza’s vejigante masks, Raúl explained that there is no particular design to follow when crafting these masks as the artisan’s creativity leads the way. This Master Artisan wisely said: “The coconut suggests you the type of mask to craft: its shape, size, and design.” (translation ours)
Raúl explained that the size of the vejigante masks for sale at Artesanías Castor Ayala is subject to the available dry coconuts suitable for this artisanal work. Currently, the offer of half-vejigante masks or mini masks is higher than the regular-size mask’s due to Hurricane María’s impact on Puerto Rico’s palm trees, as informed by Raúl. Still, he recognized that coconut growth conditions have improved and more dry coconuts are currently found on the ground. During June of this year, Raúl produced around 30 vejigante masks and sold these during a period of three weeks, as he stated. Those who want to purchase a vejigante mask made by Rául and don’t find the one of their interest at the store-gallery have the option of placing an order. Even though Raúl usually crafts common vejigante masks, such as the ones we admired in his workshop, people may request the creation of masks with a more elaborate artistic design such as the ones displayed for exhibition purposes in Artesanías Castor Ayala. Any orders for these handicrafts are subject to availability of the proper dry coconut.
At Raúl’s workshop we felt privileged as we had the chance to see the original Mona Lisa vejigante mask that Raúl crafted and Castor Ayala's last designs of the common vejigante mask as these were shown in some masks created by Raúl. You may browse this article’s photo gallery to take a peek at these handicrafts.
A visit to Artesanías Castor Ayala is definitely an enriching experience. This store-gallery is open every day from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Those interested in learning details about the history and making behind Loíza’s vejigante mask may contact Raúl for information about his workshops. We suggest reading the “delve!” subsection of this article as it includes a brief description of these workshops. T: 787-564-6403 E: email@example.com
Note: Though Artesanías Castor Ayala’s structure was recently reconstructed following Hurricane María’s impact on Puerto Rico, Raúl explained that the new establishment’s design style has a resemblance to the one in the original store founded by Castor Ayala in 1958.