Masquerade: heritage of the Caribbean

Series Cultural Heritage


There are similarities between Maskarada, Guloya and Diablitos and the parades of various cultures of sub-Sahara Africa. Almost all sub-Sahara cultures have masked parades to either thank the Supreme Being and spirits of nature for a good harvest, protection against sickness, death or disaster and also as a collective form to venerate ancestors. Among the most important ones are the Egungun parade of the Yoruba culture (where Nigeria is now situated), the Gelede parade of the Fon/Dahomey culture (where the countries Benin and Togo are now situated), and the parade of the Bantu tribe Bapende (the oriental part of the Democratic Republic of Congo). These parades have a great deal in common in their rituals. For example, elaboration of the masquerades and the costumes or disguises of the participants.

Both the masquerade itself and the disguise symbolize the frontier between the invisible world
where the Supreme Being, spirits of nature and ancestors live and the visible world, inhabited
by people, flora and fauna. Both the masquerade and the disguise are elaborated in such a
manner that the whole body of the participant is covered. So, his identity remains unknown,
because the belief is that once a person wears the mask or disguise, either a spirit of nature
or an ancestor possesses his person and as such this person relinquishes his personality to
the that of the spirit that has possessed him.

Another similar element in these African parades is the organizational aspect.
The organization and execution of these parades are in the hands of societies formed exclusively by men.
Often it is a religious society of brotherhood which uses this type of activities as a transition ritual
from boyhood to manhood. Considering the parades in our region, we can see the similarity
in the elaboration of the masquerades, the aspect of masculine exclusiveness, the secret
aspect of the participants and organizational aspects. Thus there is the esthetic similarity
between the masquerades that are used in ‘el baile de los diablitos’ in Chuao and masquerades
elaborated by the Bantu tribe of Bapende.


The organization of Guloya in the Dominican Republic is in the hands of brotherhoods
of men that also use this parade as a spiritual initiation of its members.

Here at home, we see that the connoisseur of the Bonairean culture,
Frans Booi in a translation of the late Max Sintiago, mentions in an article dedicated to
the masquerade of Bonaire the fact that children were not allowed to participate in a masquerade group.
Masquerades were for men, although it could happen that a man would disguise as a woman”.
Referring to the aspect of secret identity of the participant in a masked parade,
says Booi in the same article “when members of the group entered the house to take off the mask,
all doors and windows were closed in order to prevent those disguised from being recognized. (………)
The reason why these persons had to remain unknown was that during the parade the masqueraders
used to do all kinds of amusing things. For example, they used to scare little children or touch ladies
standing along the road.” Another similarity between masked parade in our region is the period in
which they were held. They all coincide with Catholic feasts at the end or beginning of the year.

In Bonaire, masked parades are held on or around the feast of the Epiphany. In the Dominican
Republic and in Venezuela on Corpus Christi, the feast of the Sacrament of the Altar.
This coincidence has to do with the fact that during the time of slavery, the owners of plantations
used to give their slaves free in this period and allowed them to hold certain activities, provided
they remained within the acceptable margins for the owner of the plantation and the Church.
The masked parades in our country and in our region may differ in function and religious
purpose from those in Africa. But that they are firmly rooted in the earth of Mother Africa is
something that no one can deny.

Foto 1: Masquerade Bonaire, (Fundashon cas Bonairiano, 1984)

Foto 2: The parade ‘el baile de los diablitos’ of Chuao, state of Aragua, Venezuela.

Foto 3:  A masquerade of the Bapende Tribe.


– Folklore Boneriano,  Max St. Jago, 1995 (1980), hoofdstuk Maskarade vertaalde versie van artikel van Frans Booi.
-La Negritud en Venezuela, Angelina Pollack-Eltz, 1989
Masks Rock Africa’s Cradle òf Voodoo, Chris Rainier National Geographic News updated 2004
Los bailes Cocolos, Higuey Magazine, Republica Dominicana 1982
Beads Body and Soul, Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe, Henry John Drewal, John Mason,  1997

Text: Bob Harms, Picture: Adriaan Castricum; Angelina Pollack-Eltz, Cuadernos Lagoven.