Alli Arocho is a Puerto Rican artist who has been living in Utah since July 2017. Her work represents an attempt to capture and reconnect with her Puerto Rican heritage in the context of the diaspora that she embodies. Alli primarily experiments with coconuts, mask-making, acrylic paints, clay, and fabrics, but is generally attracted to unique creative processes; she engages with algorithmic art, video game development, Bomba (percussion-based) music and dance, and embedded systems.
My vejigante mask artwork is about a vital connection to my homeland, and the resilience of a culture morphed and threatened by colonization. Existing within the blurred lines of a Latinx and American identity after leaving Puerto Rico meant that I felt the need to reclaim my space as a displaced islander through my art. I felt an even greater drive to preserve a part of my culture that is endangered as the island population dwindles.
A vejigante is a folkloric character who originated in a festival brought to the island by Spanish Conquistadors; it was the Festival of St. James the Apostle in Loíza, Puerto Rico. The African people of Loíza were often made to participate in the festival while wearing vejigante masks. However, they fashioned the masks in a colorful and style guided by their Yoruba roots as a subtle form of resistance to assimilation. To modern day Puerto Ricans, the masks are a symbol of that resistance.
To honor the mask-making traditions of the northeastern part of the island, I make vejigante masks out of coconut husks that I carve, paint, and finish by hand. I was taught to open the coconuts with a machete, carefully remove the coconut while keeping the husk intact, and use hand tools to carve out familiar expressions and grooves typically seen in coconut mask folk art. I then use pieces of wood, often from coconut tree branches, to decorate the masks. While I enjoy this time-honored process, I found myself longing for the permanency of the vejigantes and their message. Unfortunately, coconuts aren’t very durable, so I searched for a medium that could withstand the test of time. It is why I also make masks out of clay. The promise of longevity that the clay affords is carving a path for my art career that I know will continue to evolve as I explore the seemingly boundless possibilities of this medium.