BEHIND THE CARNIVAL MASKS
By: Pablo Fernández Colón
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.
As presented in various readings and film materials discussed in the course Engl 6488 for
Dr. Fiet, the concept of the use of Masks on Carnivals (Masquerades) have been used by African
descendants in the Caribbean Islands as well as many other countries and cities around the
World. From its most make-fun purposes (to keep in anonymity) as well as a mystical
instrument for inner knowledge, revelation and prophecies as well as a tool for communicating
with the deads, their uses have been many.
In “I talked to a zombie” by Kathleen Gyssels in Ici-Là: Place and Displacement in
Caribbean Writing in French, Mary Gallagher (ed), N.Y. Rodopi, 2003 as in many other books,
Plays, Films, Papers or Articles which will be reviewed in this paper, the use of masks or
Carnival Masquerades as a means for communicating with the dead is clearly described in this
play. Even thought this belief is not shared with every citizen of the Caribbean, it is a well
spread and well known practice carried and promulgated by its believers. As discussed and
performed in this Play, “displaced growing poor Haitians seeking for better work
possibilities”(p.227) as well as other Caribbean displaced or emigrant people are represented in
the lines of the Guadalupean writer and performer Simone Schwarz- Bart. Yukio Mishima‟s first
Novel: Confession of a Mask is herein cited as reference for plot and setting purposes. Both
Wilnor and his wife Marie-Ange, main characters in Ton Bean Capitain [Trans. Your Handsome
Captain] which was also written by Simone Schwarz- Bart expressed in their masked characters
how they represented their “extreme solitude, loneliness and alienation” (p.228) in addition to
their hidden “unspoken and imperceptible”realities.
Recalling notes of Reactions to Two can play (Sept. 21, 2013) the following was
discussed: Female immigration because of lack of jobs. (Nursing, housekeepers, other related
jobs). More women emigrate because of abuse or violence from their partners. Women seen as a
sexual possession as in The Harder they Come. Dummying down commercials, in national TV,
shows how JIM was drumming down (enbrutecerse). When she moves to Miami she becomes a
revel. But thinks and recovered her principles. When the performers dramatized these realities,
they did it wearing masks on stage, and sometimes behind curtains, been heard only voices as
was the case of Marie-Ange, main characters in Ton Bean Capitain [Trans. Your Handsome
As it is progressively presented in this paper, the “masks” not only represented the unseen
and imperceptible realities of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, but they are also utilized as a means
to find solutions to their everyday limitations, percussions and humiliations by their “Masters”.
In Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad (2,000), by Funso Aiyegina & Rawle Gibbons
One of the many themes presented in the article, the one that calls my attention is the one
regarding the Inner Knowledge Theory or as it is called in the article:
INNER-MIND/HEAD (Ori-inu) conception of an African religious tradition practiced
by the Orisa-Yoruba followers in: Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad (2,000), by Funso
Aiyegina & Rawle Gibbons. Explained as: “Aware that the only public method of
workship he would have was that of the slavemaster, the African accepted the religion of
the slavemaster (e,i, Christians) and consciously erected a parallel interpretation of the
Christian structure of saints such that when he publicly prayed to them his inner-mind/
head …(Ori-inu) which is regarded by the (New World, Caribbean) Africans …to be by
far more powerful than the actual head (mind), In spiritual matters, was praying to the
equivalent Orisa.” (p.10).
The practice or process whereby the African appropriated Christian practices for the articulation
of this spirituality became known as syncretism. It is defined as “the method of conflating two
religions in one “ but to these authors it is “an inadequate term”, because they see syncretism as
the actual and true means the African used to keep their religion alive. In their own words:
“What the African did was to use the dominant and accepted form of theology. The saints and
the prayers therefore became mere „alphabets‟ with which the African recorded the stories of his
Orisa for posterity”(pp.9-10).
As seen in this article, Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad, the use of Masks went
beyond as far as a means for interpreting life, finding espiritual guidance and deeper knowledge
inner-mind/ head …(Ori-inu). Herein The Trinidad carnivals are considered to be a festivity
where the masquerade brings the spirit of Orisa to celebrate with the living. Cite: “During the
annual feast, all the Orisa are invoked and the major ones are expected to manifest on their
special days within the period of the feast” (pp.11-13).
In THE ORISHAS: www.youtube.com/yoruba+religión/ by Arias Williams, the
following Notes were taken: History of the Orisas (Orishas), Central-Western regions of Africa
in Cuba, Trinidad and Brasil. Substrates, inslaving system. Link to African religions. Orisa or
Orisha. Sacred masquerades. Syncretism is introduced due to African-Europeans Religion
(Saints); duality. Political issues concerning letting the African Yoruba religions being active in
Trinidad. Manipulation of religious issues to sum other religions to add holydays to their
calendars. And finally, a practical reason for permitting religious propagation.
As mentioned previously, the use of Masks herein presented and wore by the religious
leader or layvan, provided them knowledge, wisdom and prophecies to their followers among
other faculties or powers. In The Ifa Divination System, presented by UNESCO, at the following
http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEE9CBAE8DF9BE362, provides historical as well as
educational information concerning the religious practices carried to the Caribbean by the
African diaspora; where the Ifa Orisha Trinidad News represented their oficial voice. Deeper
considerations concerning the rituals, some of them conducted under the use of masks are
In the following site: http://people.opposingviews.com/african-masks-used-duringreligious-ceremonies-6381.html , masks are seen as part of African religious ceremonies (and
many other countries also, including the Caribbean), a connection with Spirits, Ancestors,
Rulers, and as a means for Protection.
In the last decades it seems that the Masks are just part of an African Diaspora cultural
manifestation, to keep live their remembrances of past traditions, as it is developed and
expressed in Terry Eagleton‟s The Idea of Culture, a derivation of “coulter”as cited by Eagleton
as “the finest of human activities, from labour and agriculture, crops and cultivation” (p.1). Same
idea of the use of carnival masks represent that human desire of freedom as well as anonimacy as
seen in Burton‟s Carnival Complex “…the profane order of society”(p.156). Burton cites
Eagleton ideas of freedom and permission for doing everything during these days of carnivals “a
licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of hegemony”.
IN CONCLUSSION, Behind the Carnival Masks, a hidden nature is enclosed both as a
mean of freedom, resistance, spiritual manifestations and nowadays, simply a remembrance of
the past expressed as a cultural manifestation during the Carnival days of “licensed affair”of
Aiyegina, Funso & Gibbons, Rawle: Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad (2,000) The University
of West Indies, Saint Augustine, Faculty of Social Sciences, Research and Working
Burton, Richard D.E., The Carnival Complex, Pdf. Chapter 4.
Eagleton, Terry, The Idea of Culture. Pdf., Blackwell Publishers. Chapter 1.
Gyssels, Kathleen I talked to a zombie in Ici-Là: Place and Displacement in Caribbean Writing in
French, Mary Gallagher (ed), N.Y. Rodopi, 2003.
The Ifa Divination System, by UNESCO: at
The Orishas- Introduction to Ifa: Yoruba Religion by Arias Williams: