More than a decade ago, Stelvyn Mirabal, the founder of the Lawrence group Asociacion Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, told me some of the anti-colonial symbolism of the ruffled suits and monstrous, fanged, papier-mache masks of the traditional Dominican “diablos cojuelos” (limping devils) in his troupe.

“The natives used to do a mockery on the Spaniards,” he said. “The Spaniards used to wear the suits when Christopher Columbus discovered America. So that’s the suits. And the faces—they were like devils.”

The recent exhibition “El Carnaval Continúa” which was on view through June 7, 2023, at the Essex Art Center in Lawrence, showcased the dazzling costumes of Asociacion Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, many made in the Dominican Republic by traditional costume makers for the annual February carnival there and imported by Mirabal. The group was founded in 2000 and now counts some 45 performers bringing the Caribbean tradition here.

Asociacion Carnavalesca de Massachusetts masks and suits in “El Carnaval Continúa" at the Essex Art Center, Lawrence. (Mariana Martins photo)
Asociacion Carnavalesca de Massachusetts masks and suits in “El Carnaval Continúa” at the Essex Art Center, Lawrence. (Mariana Martins photo)

State Folklorist Maggie Holtzberg recounts another story attached to the diablos cojuelos: “a demon was once banished to Earth because of his clownish pranks and was injured in his fall, hence the limp.”

“Stelvyn’s home city of Santiago Los Caballeros is known for its style of masks, which are called lechones (meaning pig),” Holtzberg has written. “They are considered tradicional costumes and are relatively simple; the masks represent pigs or ducks.  Suits from the city of La Vega are larger and more elaborate and are referred to as fantasía. The lechones play the role of vejigantes, those who protect the people in the carnival, who, at one time, were members of the royalty. Vejigantes carry and swing inflated cow bladders to keep the crowd away from the parading comparsas.  Here in the United States, the cow bladders have been replaced by colorful balloons.”

The lechones dance as they crack whips. “The way we dance is an African dance,” Mirabal told Holtzberg. “So it’s passed generation to generation. We dance different from the guys from La Vega. They jump.”

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