ROCHESTER — Kenneth Meléndez’s mask-making journey began with a request from a former girlfriend.
After having traveled around the United States as a teenager with his jockey father, Meléndez moved to his parents’ native Puerto Rico as a teenager. He was asked to make a vejigante mask for a competition and ended up winning. The vejigante is a folkloric character whose origin traces back to medieval Spain and is a central part of carnivals in Ponce, Puerto Rico, according to gopuertorico.com. The vejigante is the prankster of carnival — its exaggerated features represent the African slaves that the Spaniards brought to the island and the horns are a symbol of the slaves’ refusal to convert to Christianity, Meléndez said.
Since his first competition, Meléndez has been sharing his knowledge and passion for the traditional art of mask-making all over the world including, stops in Germany, Spain, Italy and Indonesia, he said.
"Since then, I’ve been representing Puerto Rico," said Meléndez, who is also a percussionist.
Meléndez and Michael Oludare, a Nigerian mask carver, were invited to Rochester by a collaboration between several cultural organizations, including the Baobob Center, Grupo Cultural Latino, Kuumba Consultants and the Rochester West Indian Festival Organization. The African Masquerade collaboration is intended to teach the local community about the African connections to mask-making traditions in the Caribbean and the United States’ Gulf Coast, explained Terry Chaka, director of the Baobob Center.
"That is why me and Kenny connect," said Oludare, who had previously met Meléndez in Ohio during another workshop several years ago. "The same thing they do in Africa is part of (what they do) in Puerto Rico. … They (Puerto Ricans) are our brothers there."
"The connection was magical. I came across a brother from another life," Meléndez said of Oludare as he neared tears.
Oludare and Meléndez provided demonstrations and guidance of their craft during workshops in May that kicked off with a May 14 informational session at the Baobob Center.
The workshops were offered through a Creative Collision grant from the Max and Marian Farash Foundation, Chaka said. And the masks created by the participants will be worn during an African Masquerade Ball that is in the works for next year, she added.
Plus, the collaboration hopes to clarify the spiritual origins of masks, which people in the United States largely associate with Halloween, Meléndez noted. Oludare said that his masks represent ancestors who have died. He even recalled how growing up with his grandmother, she would leave leftover food at the door when they would go to bed at night in case an ancestor would stop by during the night.
Showing the connections between African and Latino traditions also is part of the project’s goals to get the entire community involved, Chaka noted. She said younger generations also need to understand how those traditions were brought from Africa to other parts of the world because of colonization.
"Kids don’t know, they don’t realize how much … (different cultures) all share together," she said. "It is time for us to turn it around. … We felt there really is a need to tell the story that the schools don’t."
"We have to understand our past before we move to our future," added Meléndez.
During the opening session at the Baobob Center, the two artists presented historical information on mask-making, including videos about Nigeria and Ponce, Puerto Rico. Then, participants created their own masks at the Shawn Dunwoody Studio in the former Sibley Building using sheets of cardboard, cutting out hand-drawn stencils by Meléndez and gluing on horns.
Sandra Rosario said that she decided to attend the May workshops as a representative for Rochester’s recreation department and the Puerto Rican Parade.
"I’m here to learn how to make a vejigante, mask and we’re going to teach our youth how to make them," she said.
Plans were in the works for a mask-making event at the Avenue D Community Center, which Rosario said represents a cross-section of youths in the city.
"The way he is teaching it is very youth friendly," she said of Meléndez’s method rather than the traditional clay mold and layering method that he also explained to the group. "Also, this (method) is more cost-effective."
Educating youths and other adults about this kind of traditional art also promotes cultural awareness, which is lacking, she said. The older generation is not even ensuring that speaking Spanish is maintained, Rosario noted.
"I think it is important; we’re losing a lot of our cultural roots," Rosario said. "I’d like to make sure our kids understand the African influences of our Latino culture. … I want to make sure our kids know about this (tradition), not just Puerto Rican kids and Latino kids, but all kids."
Plus, this kind of hands-on activity is fun for adults and youths, she said.
"If we don’t share this with them these kinds of thing, they will be interested in things they should not be," Rosario said. "Plus, they can be proud when they’re done and know more about their culture."
Jennifer Jones of Brighton brought along her 8-year-old daughter, Ezri Effah Jones, so they could create masks together.
As they cut out their masks from a large white sheet of cardboard, she said that the activity not only can unify families, but communities of color can also appreciate that they share a foundation, she said.
As a dancer with the local African troupe Maunafanyi Percussion and Dance Ensemble and a city school teacher, Jones said that she had been aware of the connections between African and Caribbean cultures. But she hopes the project helps more people in Rochester develop that deeper understanding as well.
"That to me is the key that can bring us all together and share that love," she said. "We can extend that love in Rochester, which needs it so badly."
Jones said that it pains her to encounter so many urban youths who don’t want to associate with anything from Africa. But those youths fail to realize the great gifts of the African culture and how it permeates so many other cultures, she added.
"This (project) is one of those things that is going to teach that (history) around in Rochester," Jones said. "I love it."
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Editor’s Note: For more information about the upcoming African Masquerade, visit http://latinosdecorazon.org/barakoa/.