Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1970s, between a three-legged spiritist table and a parochial catholic education, I figured out early that the spirits were all around me – and this was a good thing. Progress, however, dictated by the Department of Education, the demands of a burgeoning service economy and the spread of radical evangelism insisted in burying my grandmother’s mix of spiritism, herbology and promises to the saints deep beneath reasoning and anti-superstition campaigns.

A colonial consumerism described best by Edouard Glissant as “annihilation of local production and overstimulation of consumerism” blanketed the island, and my ancestral spirits became a faint counterpoint in a zombifying march.

Fresh breadfruit slices, almost ready to peel & fry.

The counterpoint became louder around my grandparents. They taught me how to pick and shell my own gandules (pigeon peas), how to tie a small knife to the end of a long stick to knock down the largest breadfruit, and other essential skills – like how to tie pasteles with kite string. Each task came with an old time story, more nourishing than the food we prepared. I didn’t know the word then, but they were teaching me how to make saraka.

In the midst of 21 st century politics, a simple invocation of the dead can bring awareness of where we’ve been and where we’re going. And no matter how business-like or how academic we get, the spirits are undeniably present.

Now, there’s the quiet reverence of my grandmother, a elderly widow and her grandchildren cleaning and scrubbing the white concrete of the tomb where my grandfather is buried – an All Saints Day marked simply by a floral offering and a clean tomb. Then there are the loud, discordant sounds of the Festival de las Máscaras de Hatillo, not far from our home. This is not exactly the evolution of the spirit-filled saraka of which we speak today — unless we mean rum spirits. Or is it?

Mascaras de Hatillo, by H. Melendez

What errant ways did the Canarian settlers who founded Hatillo in 1823 consider (if they considered anything) when they dreamed of transplanting this strange festival? And who would have thought it would endure into 2011?

El Festival de las Máscaras de Hatillo, the festival of the masks, or the Day of the Holy Innocents, is no quiet ancestral reverence. Think of April Fool’s Day and carnival mixed up and turned upside down. I’m not sure what it teaches the children. Here’s what I remember from childhood days spent with my grandparents: horns blaring on December 28; floats spilling over with young men dressed colorful costumes, big hats and covered with jingle-belled robes; my cousins (or at least I hoped they were my cousins) chasing me down the street to tousle my hair, pick me up and hang me upside down, or spray shaving cream on me. I also remember daring monumental traffic jams to get to the center of Hatillo to watch the floats parade round and round until someone fell off the Jeep/carroza, and (every other year at first, then more frequently) expecting at least one carroza full of females to boldly roll into this spectacle. If you didn’t go to the town plaza, the máscaras would come to you at any traffic light and demand their offering.

Mascaras de Hatillo, by H. Melendez

The masked person is covered from head to toe in shiny satin, wears a lavishly decorated big hat and a net or wire mask over his face. Some poorer máscaras wear a stocking over their heads. The meaning of the mask is blurry. Tradition and conventional wisdom say these are the soldiers sent by King Herod to kill baby boys in a failed attempt to assassinate Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew. From the lavish costumes and the use of carrozas/chariots, that would be the obvious interpretation. Others maintain that the ghostly appearance of the masks hints at the return of the victims as avengers – you better give them something if you don’t want to be jinxed. In Spain, they called this “pedir el aguinaldo,” asking for the gift. And the time of year – Dec. 28 – coincides with a time of aguinaldos sung at parrandas, the lively island-version of Christmas caroling. [Coming from a syncretic catholic background, I kept my black fist amulet close to my chest for protection, and hoped the masked spirits would let me pass through the traffic light or the street corner and live through January 6, when the Three Wise Men would bring my reward for having paid my respects to the máscaras. ]

Looking back, I see a different picture. Those masks are ourselves, the people of my generation who either physically left the island, or abandoned the path the ancestors would have preferred we followed. Those are the islanders who sold the most beautiful hill overlooking the ocean in Hatillo to build Plaza del Norte, a shopping mall built in 1993. Maybe those masks were a prelude to the ghosts that would fall to crime and domestic violence. Or maybe they were the zombies who would give in to profiteering and sell the land to condo developers.

What would our academic ancestors say?

Glissant: would notice the submerged archipelago of interconnections…leading us to the intersection of gandules and pigeon peas, parranda and parang, the Whole as opposed to the Oneness.

Even the H. Melendez

Benitez-Rojo: would remind us we are, after all, that shipwrecked (náufrago) who washed up on a repeating shore. The labor economist in Benitez Rojo might have considered the 15-20 percent unemployment rate pervasive throughout the islands, he might have weighed the cost of a brain drain that continues to leave gaps at our saraka table, he might have caution against the lopsided economic incentives that privatize beaches to siphon cash out to golf-course developers and other continental investors. But in the end, he might play a polyrhythmic drum beat and say: It’s all carnival; come back to Grenada in August, or to Hatillo any 28th of December.

Cesaire: would light a candle in the night. He wouldn’t say a word. He would sit quietly in the middle of a Caribbean Tempest like a “master of ominous silence, a master of hope and despair, a master a laziness, a master of dance (Notebook, 49). And he would rally the dancers, he would convoke the wind and rise in a spiral into a Caribbean black hole…and remind us how to fish the malevolent tongue of the night. And all our ancestors would be there, fishing the same hole: the arawak, the african, the spaniard, the brit and the dutch – everyone and everything Cesaire exhorted us to accept and accept repeatedly.

And the black hole that provides nourishment becomes a saraka table.

Drink a Rum – Lord Kitchener