BCD Travel Insiders Guide: Puerto Rico Itinerary Reveals the Mystery and Charm of Santos, Puerto Rico Religious Folk Art

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On Santos Trail, Encounter Creators of Puerto Rico Religious Folk Art

With BCD Travel Insiders Guide, get off-the-beaten-path with a Puerto Rico itinerary that enables you to discover authentic Puerto Rico through its santos tradition. A form of Puerto Rico religious folk art, the santos tradition is believed to be at least two centuries old, and possibly even more ancient. Santos are carved wooden figures of the Roman Catholic celestial hierarchy and an integral part of the island’s culture, playing a role in not only religious worship, but family life, community celebrations, and national identity. The santos craft has survived despite challenges and today continues to inspire devotion among both the faithful as well as an ever-growing number of collectors. I am pleased to share this Puerto Rico itinerary and the island I came to know through conversations with its santeros, and their advocates and aficionados.

Puerto Rico Itinerary Map

How To Use This Map

Above you’ll find a map of the destinations and sites mentioned in our Puerto Rico itinerary. Click on the top left of the map to find a list of all points of interest. Click on any of the icons (stars) to see more information about that point of interest. Hope you enjoy it!

Two hours southwest of San Juan, we ascended steep inclines and then plummeted down into deep valleys, riding the backbone of the Cordillera Central Mountains far into the jungle. The blacktop of the curving, narrow road shimmered in the intense heat as it cut a path through densely-packed towering trees of cedar, oak and palm. With each swoop we made above the emerald canopy, we saw the surrounding peaks draped in thick, swollen clouds. Making our way back down to the jungle floor, occasionally we heard the roar of rushing water seconds before passing cascading plumes spilling over the tops of sheer cliffs far above.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico itinerary: The Cordillera Central Mountains, Puerto Rico’s largest mountain range, runs from east to west, and is home to many of the island’s coffee plantations. Photo: Meg Pier

We were heading toward one of the island’s most remote towns. Orocovis had taken its name from the language of the native Taino Indians, and means “remembrance of the first mountain.” Our destination is also known as Corazón de Puerto Rico, or the island’s heart, where we traveled in search of its soul.

Cresting another hill, on the side of the road I spotted a tall, thin man, a distinctive figure with a long black pony-tail falling down his back almost to his waist.

“There he is!” I yelled excitedly.

My husband Tom swerved over to the side of the road and I jumped out of the car to meet the santero.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis

Antonio Avilés Burgos is a fourth-generation tallador, or woodcarver. He learned the art of creating santos from his father, Don Celestino Avilés Meléndez, a renowned artisan who died in 2004 at the age of 79. Antonio’s grandfather Damartis was a carpenter and his great-grandfather was Francisco Rivera Avilés, an important 19th-century santos carver.

Santos de palo are a Puerto Rican tradition, small wooden statues that represent the pantheon of Catholic saints. Christianity was introduced to Puerto Rico after the island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The Spanish outpost was sparsely settled until 1815 when there was an influx of colonists from Catalonia and the Canary Islands, most of whom settled inland in the mountains to work on coffee plantations. Due to the remoteness of settlements and a dearth of clergy, a home-based cult of devotion to the saints flourished among the largely poor, rural dwellers, known as jibaros.

The original santeros were often carpenters without any training and the earliest statues were rough-hewn likenesses of the saints. Favored woods were those that were soft and easy to work with such as guaraguao, a relative of mahogany, and Spanish cedar which has a fragrant odor. Santeros made the icons for members of the community in exchange for chickens, rum, rice and sometimes cash. Families displayed their favorite saint in sacred space within their home, usually in a niche. Antonio later told us his grandmother had a room in her house that was reserved for prayer, where she kept about 50 santos.

Antonio welcomed us and unlocked the museum’s doors. In the early 1980s, the Avilés opened the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis, exhibiting artwork and teaching classes to promote and preserve the culture of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: A portrait of Don Celestino amidst religious statuary in the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés. Photo Meg Pier

Entering the rustic, barn-like structure, I was struck by the magical imagery of the scene in front of us. We were greeted by the countenance of a smiling bearded man depicted in a huge finely-drawn charcoal portrait—a likeness of Don Celestino created by a friend. Below him on the unfinished wooden plank flooring stood life-size statues of the Virgin Mary, Joseph and other saintly figures. At their feet were half-dozen smaller, more primitive carvings, each figure’s eyes closed and hands clasped as though in prayer.

Antonio told us his father carved saints for more than sixty years and is best known for his unpainted figures with closed eyes, in what he called “a position of absolute religious solemnity.” Don Celestino received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Award in 2001 in recognition of his work as a carver of santos and his contributions to the preservation of Puerto Rican history and culture.

Don Celestino began his carving career in the 1960s by making rings from corozo, the nut of a palm tree. This type of jewelry was very traditional in Puerto Rico and was worn by older generations as wedding rings. Antonio said he and his father went to craft fairs around the island to sell the pieces and met Ricardo Alegria, an anthropologist and advocate of Puerto Rican traditional arts who founded the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1955. Alegria encouraged Don Celestino to apply his talents to the santos tradition.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: 4th Generation Wood Carver Antonio Burgos

Antonio told me that if his father had not been an artisan, he probably never would have known he could carve, but he feels it is in his blood. He created his first piece when he was 12 years old—his father thought he was too young to handle a knife and would cut himself, so Antonio stole a knife and piece of wood from him and hid in the bathroom to carve. He laughingly said that first piece looks like him because he used his own reflection in the mirror as his model.

Today, Antonio considers carving almost meditative and said he can get so immersed in a piece he forgets everything around him. He told me with a smile that his wife will bring him breakfast and hours later it is untouched. Often, he will say to himself that he won’t get up from his work until a piece is finished.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico itinerary: Antonio Avilés Burgos is a fourth-generation master tallador, or wood carver, and proprietor of Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis. Photo Meg Pier

In 1978, Antonio was named Artisan of the Year by the governor of Puerto Rico. His pieces are in local collections as well as ones as far away as Japan and Switzerland. In 1983, Antonio carved a representation of Our Lady of Providence, the patroness of Puerto Rico, for the Cathedral of Brooklyn in New York. A smaller copy is also in the collection of the Vatican in Rome.

After he had selected the tree he intended to make the figure from, he spent a month contemplating it, almost as if in a trance, until he could see the Virgin within the wood. When he is commissioned to create a piece for a church, it is important for him to make a spiritual connection before beginning to carve. He often dreams vividly of the piece on which he is working on.

Our conversation was interrupted by the museum’s door swinging open. Two men entered, and Antonio excused himself and greeted his new visitors warmly, engaging in animated conversation with one of the men. The other smiled at us and stepped over to introduce himself as Jaime Collazo, asking us to call him Jimmy.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Meeting the Collectors

Jimmy was here with his friend and fellow former teacher Eduardo Rivera, who is an avid collector of santos. Eduardo was meeting with Antonio to discuss commissioning two saints on behalf of a nephew lawyer who works as an aide to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms. Jennifer González. The two pieces would both be of Saint Michael and made from photos Eduardo had taken of a beautiful statue on the main altar of the Catholic Church he attends. Jimmy said it is a difficult job, as the statue has lots of details to reproduce.

We learned that Eduardo has been fascinated with santos since he was a boy. There were wood carvings of saints in his home growing up that belonged to his father’s mother. For Eduardo’s parents, those santos were the object of heartfelt religious devotion, prayed to in the hopes the saints would intercede with God on their behalf. While today many collectors are drawn to santos solely as works of art, for Eduardo they are still objects of devotion. Whenever Eduardo asks an artesano to carve a saint for him, he tells the artist that the piece will have a religious significance.

Photo: Meg Pier

The door opened again and I met Val and Steve Laugtug of St. Paul, Minnesota, who expressed delight to find the museum open.

“It is very exciting for us to meet Antonio and we feel lucky to happen upon his museum,” Val said. “I knew there was a carver in Orocovis but didn’t know how to find him. I stopped into a store in another area of the city and asked if they knew him or any santos carvers and found out where to go.”

“We have been long-time collectors of American Folk art and enjoy searching for it on our trips,” said Val, age 61. “We always try to meet the artists and buy from them directly. We were looking for Puerto Rican folk art and quickly realized that santos carvings are the main expression of the genre here. Santos have a long history as religious objects and that is fascinating in itself.”

“We always try to incorporate our search for art into our trip planning,” Laugtug said. “I had researched artists and museums of Puerto Rico before we left. This is the type of adventure we like to experience, not the high-flying zip lining or rock climbing. Collecting art gives us another facet to explore, but I can tell you we also had just as much fun hanging out with the locals in Guavate at the pig roasts and watching them dance!”

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico itinerary: A rendition of the 11,000 Virgins at the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis. Photo Meg Pier

Laugtug said their collection of folk art centers around a genre called “outsider art” produced by untrained artists and done purely for expression, often times with a religious or sexual tone. She and Steve find of interest any artistic expression that comes from the heart and mind and does not have profit as its origin.

As the Laugtugs moved to introduce themselves to Antonio, I explored the museum, getting an introduction to imagery I was to learn more about over the course of my travels around Puerto Rico: the Eleven Thousand Virgins, Anima Sola, the All Powerful Hand of Christ, and the Three Kings.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Photo: Meg Pier

Completing my circuit of the exhibits, I re-joined Val and Steve.

“We commissioned a carving of the virgin de Guadalupe from Antonio, which is actually the patron saint of Mexico, but we saw a photo of one that he had carved previously and liked it,” Val said. “This is actually a present for our son, who has been the recipient of quite a few gifts of folk art over the years. Fun for him to receive and fun for us to search for!”

“There wasn’t much negotiation with Antonio, he was asking a fair price for his work and we paid it,” she continued. “We gave him half down and will pay him in full when he notifies us that it is finished.”

Antonio told me that prices for his works range from $150 for a piece that took a couple of hours to $2,050 for a santos created for a private collector. He said he has great difficulty in parting with some pieces, having invested so much of himself in them.

As we said our good-byes to Antonio, Jimmy shyly approached us, asking if we would be interested in seeing Eduardo’s collection at his home in neighboring Morovis. Tom and I exchanged glances, and after an instant’s unspoken conversation, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico itinerary: The fabulous gardens of santos collector Eduardo Rivera. Photo: Meg Pier

We followed Eduardo and Jimmy north and then west on a series of tiny rural roads, eventually pulling alongside a 1940s bungalow set back from the road. Entering the property through a wrought-iron gate, we found a patch of paradise. Eduardo had long supplemented his teacher’s salary with a side business as a florist and evidence of his green thumb was in abundance. The air was fragrant with the scent of an array of orchids and other exotic tropical flowers and a fountain pool tiled with colorful ceramics served as the focal point of the artfully landscaped lawn.

Eduardo grew up here with his nine siblings. Today the four-room cottage is a monument to Puerto Rico’s santos tradition, displayed throughout the house, along with magnificent pieces of hand-crafted furniture. He has about 150 santos in his collection, though not all are displayed in his house. Some of them are in his apartment in San Juan and others are kept in boxes.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Three Kings santos by Cabán, from Eduardo Rivera’s collection. Photo: Meg Pier

With classical music playing in the background, Eduardo proudly showed us his Three Kings santos by Cabán, the oldest of three distinguished santero brothers. The figures of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar were depicted astride horses, with the black king in the center atop a white horse. The Tres Santos Reyes holds a unique place in the hearts of Puerto Ricans, venerated widely across the island, both at personal altars and with widespread celebrations on January 6, with the Feast of the Three Kings.

The holiday is a beloved tradition of such significance that Puerto Rico is known as “The Land of Two Christmases.” Festivities include fireworks, church services, special meals, and gift-giving, particularly to children, for whom Melchior is a favorite, believed to be the most generous. On the eve of the Feast Day, tradition calls for parrandas, in which groups wind their way through neighborhoods singing and playing instruments.

Eduardo told me the Three Kings piece by Caban is about one hundred years old. When he was a child, it would be displayed on a table adorned with flowers whenever there was a “Three Kings’ promise” going on. He explained that people offered a promesa when they asked for a special favor from the saint, or gave thanks for a favor received. His father’s mother sometimes celebrated a promise just to please one of her grandchildren.

Eduardo emphasized that whether the request for divine intercession was for a matter of small or great significance, in Puerto Rican culture honoring the fulfillment of a promesa is taken very seriously. He offered an event from his childhood as an illustration.

One day, several strangers came to Eduardo’s house with the story that they were trying to fulfill a promise that their ancestors had made many years before. The promise had to be celebrated with the presence of the celebrated Cabán Three Kings on their altar at home. These people had been told that the wood carving could now be found in the Rivera’s home in Morovis.

They talked with Santa, Eduardo’s mother, who, although she had never met them, took a liking to them. She decided to lend the Three Kings to them, trusting that the piece would be returned safely. Santa’s family criticized her for what they thought it was an unfortunate decision. However, about a month later the Three Kings returned to Santa’s hand and the piece is still in the house.

Eduardo excused himself and returned bearing another carving of the Three Kings, which he told us is also very old and had belonged to his mother’s family who lived in the nearby town of Ciales. He pointed out that two of the kings are seated on mares and the third on a horse, an unusual representation—today, the tradition calls for only horses.

Eduardo next lovingly showed us his Virgin of Mount Carmel and said the piece was carved by Claudio Pacheco, another distinguished artist of old. He told us that the santos had belonged to his cousin and that it traveled with her whenever she went. In 2002, she visited Eduardo’s house and on seeing his other saints, decided to give him the piece.

I was struck by his cousin’s generosity and her willingness to part with an article of faith so dear that she kept it always at her side. It seemed to sum up the essence of what I had learned about Puerto Rican culture during my day in the mountain towns Orocovis and Morovis, where tradition, humility, and hospitality reside

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Ponce, the Island’s Second Largest City

Descending ever-so-gradually from the heights of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central Mountains, we eased into the flat expanse of the fertile alluvial plain that reached to the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Ahead, giant, one-story tall letters spanned the highway and exuberantly shouted out the good news—my husband Tom and I had arrived in Ponce. We drove through the “N” and “C” to enter a magical world where style and substance melded, light-hearted whimsy and deeply-held faith fused, and epochs in the city’s 500-year history were spelled out with a diverse assortment of symbolism.

Puerto Rico itinerary: The view along the drive from Old San Juan to Ponce. Photo: Meg Pier

We easily found our way to Ponce’s center, and its most emblematic image. The heartbeat of the city, the beloved landmark Parque de Bombas, pulsated with character and dramatic flair, a fitting proxy for its people. The unique red and black, century-old wooden firehouse was originally built in 1882 for an exposition and from 1883 to 1989 was headquarters of the Ponce Fire Corps. Today, it serves as a museum and the city’s tourism hub from its perch on the rim of Ponce’s Plaza Las Delicias or “Plaza of Delights.”

The square and the streets radiating from it are lined with iconic architecture that tells the story of the city’s days as the hub of the island’s rum, sugar cane, coffee and shipping industries. Between the late 1890s and 1930s, Ponce’’s elite made social statements with their considerable fortunes by building showcase structures in a wide spectrum of styles—Art Deco, Art Noveau, Spanish Colonial, Neoclassic, Modernism, Mudejar, Spanish Revival, and Victorian. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has allocated $440 million to restore a 66-block downtown area of Ponce, encompassing 1,046 buildings.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Parque de Bombas was Puerto Rico’s first ever fire station and was originally built as the main exhibit pavilion for the 1882 Exhibition Trade Fair. Today it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: Meg Pier

After wandering the city’s streets admiring its eclectic mix of architecture, we reached the “Lion’s Bridge.” We had not expected to find a pride of lions holding court in Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, but the majestic creatures seemed to be everywhere—one perched high above the banks of Rio Portugues on muscular back haunches, with a paw swiping the air; another reclining in a pool of cool water at Plaza Las Delicias, mouth hanging open; and another one, standing proud at La Guancha Beach, face wreathed in a billowing mane.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico itinerary: Ponce is known as La Ciudad de los Leones or “City of Lions,” and was founded in 1692 by the grandson of the great Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico. Photo: Meg Pier

Slow on the uptake, we eventually connected the dots and realized that these artistic effigies were homage to the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico’s first governor. De Leon had landed on this stretch of the island’s southern coast in 1508, met by Agüeybaná, chief of the indigenous Taino Indians.

We found tributes to more modern-era Poncenos across the street from the Lion’s Bridge in Tricentenary Park. A series of bronze plaques embedded along a trellised arcade honor residents who have contributed to the community in fields such as law, medicine, art, music and literature. We realized that the man with whom we had an afternoon appointment was among those distinguished citizens.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Master Santos Artisan Pedro Pablo Rinaldi of Ponce

After a short drive to the suburb Villa Dos Rios east of downtown Ponce, we found the Rinaldi residence and were welcomed warmly by Pedro, a robust, passionate man whose energy belied his 71 years of age. He ushered us into his office, which was a reflection of his vibrant personality, and teemed with carvings, colorful paintings and posters, plaques, and piles of papers. We settled in and the santero began to weave his spell, regaling us with Puerto Rico’s early history, and the evolution of the Puerto Rican santos tradition.

According to Pedro, the practice dates to 1508 and to the Barrio Espeino, a Franciscan settlement. He said the conquest of the island by the Spanish was two-fold, with the political battle waged with swords and the religious conversion conducted with symbolic santos. The Taino people were expert carvers with a profound knowledge of the Puerto Rican forests and its woods. The Spanish introduced Catholicism to the Taino through the religion’s pantheon of saints, cleverly designating that it must be the sons of chiefs, as nobles of stature, who could be allowed to carve the santos figures.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park offers insight into Puerto Rico’s earliest inhabitants, the Taino people, who are believed to have lived here from approximately 1000AD to the beginning of the 15th century when they were wiped out by the Spanish. Photo: Meg Pier

Popular Catholicism developed—based on church doctrine, but adapted to include the rituals of the Taino and, later, the influence of Africans brought to the island as slaves. The practice of the religion was imbued with the music, dance, and symbolism of these cultures, with festivities developing such as the “singing rosary,” “promises to the Three Kings” and Velorios Cantados, or “singing wake.”

Santos caught on in a meaningful way. Churches were few and far between and regular attendance at services was limited by the great distances needed to travel from remote settlements–yet it was against the law not to be Catholic. As a result, every home needed to have a santo to prove its inhabitants were among the faithful and household altars were developed around the resident santos. Life was hard and figures of saints were relied upon for relief from every ailment and all the daily difficulties.

When a bad situation was resolved by praying to a specific saint, an offering was made to the santo as a reward, called a milagro or “miracle,” or ex voto. These were small figurines usually carved in silver, symbolizing the part of the body that was cured. The milagro would have a tiny hole through which a wire could be threaded, and the piece would be hung from the santo that worked the miracle. In communities in which a specific santo was viewed as particularly powerful, it was not uncommon for that figure to be strung with hundreds of ex votos.

The santero was the person who made the santos, ex votos and households altars, fundamental to the Puerto Rican santos tradition. In the 1750s, a national identity started to develop as Puerto Rican santeros moved from copying the highly stylized icons brought from Spain by colonists to developing their own approach that was simpler and more naïve. Anatomical proportions often begin to appear distorted, not necessarily out of lack of artistic perspective but to reflect the characteristics the carver attribute to the santos. Enlarged heads, eyes and ears reminded the owner that he was being listened to and watched over by a powerful protector who would intercede with God on his behalf.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Santos created by master artisan Pedro Rinaldi. Photo: Meg Pier

“The santos became the perfect communicator between material and spiritual situations,” explained Pedro. “The santero became most likely our first psychologist. and knew which santo to use. With few priests on the island, a member of the community who could read or express himself would preside over religious rituals.”

If someone believed their ailment was cured as a result of the santero’s skill, faith in that carver’s ability as a healer and intermediary would grow. Rinaldi said that he observed as recently as the late 1990s the practice of a mother or grandmother taking a young pregnant woman to a santero so he could bless the pregnancy.

Despite the popularity of the Puerto Rican santos tradition–or perhaps because of it–santos have faced challenges historically and in recent times.

“As early as 1684 the bishops on the island began to criticize and censor these practices because they usually ended in drinking, dancing and uncontrolled festivity, which were contrary to the institutionalized religious rituals,” said Rinaldi. “In 1729, bishops began referring to the santos as an evil practice. Early in the 20th century an American bishop, William Jones, moved to ban the ex votos, which as symbolized parts of the human body, he considered indecorous. He ordered them to be removed and collected. They were melted and made into chandeliers and painting frames.”

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Santero Pedro Rinaldi of Ponce. Photo: Meg Pier

In the 1960s, another challenge to the Puerto Rican santos tradition came from the Catholic Church’s Reformation Movement. Figures of saints were removed from churches, leaving only images of Jesus Christ and the patron saint of the town.

“A Vatican Council removed many of their saints mostly because they did not have biographical information,” said Rinaldi. “Later, Pope Paul VI stated that popular religion well-oriented is of great value. Today, we see how the church as an institution welcomes Rosarios Cantados, Velorios Cantados, Fiestas de Cruz, within many other popular religious activities.”

According to Rinaldi, in the 1950s, anthropologist Yvonne Lange did a study of Puerto Rico’s santos tradition, identifying 120 santeros on the island between 1890 and the 1950s and making the controversial statement that the last santero, Zoila Cajiga, had died in 1962. Her report awakened people both locally and internationally to the tradition. Her work inspired a wave of collectors who were drawn to the tradition out of nostalgia or art appreciation, rather than veneration.

“If they could eliminate the last santero, they could begin to collect instead of reconnect,” observed Rinaldi.

When I asked Rinaldi to describe a santero, he was quick to reply.

“Unselfish, puts himself and his energy in the work he does, he knows about people, he respects nature and wastes nothing,” Rinaldi said emphatically. “He knows a lot of things, and is simple but proud.”

Rinaldi is doing his part to ensure the Puerto Rican santos tradition continues. He became interested in carving santos when he was 30 years old. He attended a fair in Ponce where he met Carlos Vazquez from Celias, who was in his 60s at the time and is now deceased. Rinaldi remembered seeing the man’s fragility and wondering how he could carve something with so much strength. He was inspired and sought out the tradition’s elders, meeting two dozen santeros that year. He took on his first student 35 years ago and began giving lectures at schools and social clubs on “Santos and Identity.”

Nonetheless, Rinaldi conceded the tradition is at risk of becoming extinct.

“We can never lose sight of the basis of the Puerto Rican santos tradition, which is people,” he declared. “Not rich people, but those who promote devotion. It is devotion which is the richness, not ‘George Washington’ richness. My greatest moments have been as a santero, not as an insurance agent. Anybody can pick up a tool and carve—very few will give you a sense of the responsibility involved in 500 years of history.”

Cheryl Hartup is someone who shares Pedro Pablo Rinaldi’s respect for the santos tradition, although from a different vantage point. From 2005 - 2012, Hartup was chief curator of Museo de Arte de Ponce, the largest art museum in the Caribbean. MAP, as it’s called locally, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 with a $30 million renovation. The Museum hosts a collection of approximately 4000 masterpieces in a building that itself is a piece of art, designed by architect Edward Durell Stone, also responsible for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

When Hartup assumed the role of curator in 2005, she sought to familiarize herself with Puerto Rico in part through learning about its santos tradition, leading to a 2007 exhibit.

“Visiting carvers in Puerto Rico is a great way to see the island–the mountains, the coast, urban centers, plazas, and small remote villages,” she said. “Visiting a carver is a lesson not only in his or her thoughts on the tradition but also technically how each individual works. Family is important. Sometimes various family members work together on a single santo or they work on their carvings in a communal setting.”

“While preparing for the exhibition ‘Hands and Souls: The Santos Tradition in Puerto Rico,’ I interviewed over twenty carvers across the island and with few exceptions they all emphasized that the act of carving is, for them, a spiritual one,” Hartup continued. “Some began carving in response to a blessing they received, others spoke about a spiritual connection they have with each piece they work on. They give themselves to the wood, and the wood responds–to their devotion, belief, meditation on good thoughts–sometimes in surprising ways. For many carvers of all ages and economic backgrounds, faith and art are one and the same.”

“Juan “Nito” Cruz Avilés from Lares who passed away at age 89 in 2009 carved santos every day for more than 70 years,” she explained. “When he was in the 8th grade, a beautiful woman appeared to him in a dream and told him not to worry that he didn’t have any money to buy a suit to wear to graduation. Money was available in Lares because there was a need for someone to continue carving santos. But she told Juan Cruz that he could not ask for money for his work, but only accept the donations of those who appreciated his carvings.”

“In conversing with carvers one also learns about the history of Puerto Rico, its economy, and gastronomy,” she concluded. “Some older carvers wanted to speak English with me because they had been part of the great economic migration to New York in the 1950s and 60s, and then they had come back to Puerto Rico. I never went away without receiving something—food, a carving, or the fulfillment that comes with enjoying another person’s company.”

As we left Ponce, in my lap I had a santo of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, carved by Pedro Pablo Rinaldi. In addition to returning home with this tangible reminder of our newfound connection to Ponce, both Tom and I also brought back to Boston a little of the city’s warm spirit, some insight into a centuries-old tradition and an appreciation for why Poncenos are so proud of their heritage.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Meet the Orta Family, a Santos Dynasty

West of Ponce, I drove under a massive stone arch spanning the rural road and into an El Tuque neighborhood of bungalows painted in shades of lemon, tangerine and lime. The palette of Puerto Rico’s architecture exudes exuberant good cheer and an aura of warmth that also emanates from the island’s people.

Santero dynasty matriarch Santia Rivera Martinez. Photo: Meg Pier

With a wide sunny smile, Santia Rivera Martinez waved me welcome, opening the gate to her home and the family’s workshop. Santia, 73, is a santero and the matriarch of a family of carvers. Her late husband Domingo Orta was a master santero as are Santia, her four sons, two daughters and a daughter-in-law, who all keep up the tradition.

Santia introduced me to her son Dom, a handsome, shy man who is her husband’s namesake. Together, they showed me around the workshop and told me the story of the Orta carving dynasty.

Santia met Dom in the barrio of Yaguecas de Adjuntas in the mountains about 20 miles from Ponce. Her father worked on a coffee plantation with Dom and when Santia would bring her father his lunch, she and Dom would exchange flirtatious glances. She was 14 years old and Dom was 21. Her father disapproved of the romance and so Santia and Dom eloped.

With a sparkle in her eye that may have been a tear of sadness, joy or both, Santia said in time her family came to love Dom more than they loved her. Santia told me that she and Domingo were married for 54 years, through good times and bad. He died in 2007 at age 78 on June 13–the birthday of their son Domingo. Santia, her husband and the younger Domingo spent many hours in their shop working together on pieces late into the night. Today, whenever she joins her son in carving, she thinks of her husband.

Santia Rivera Martinez’s first La Monserrate in ebony. Image courtesy of Hector Puig.

Santia said her husband’s parents had a santo of the Montserrat Virgin in the living room of their home, and people would often come and make a request. Dom first became interested in carving santos in 1942, when at the age of thirteen, he watched another santero from the town of Yauco repair his mother’s carving of the Virgin. Early in his career as a santero, he too would repair old saints for people.

Our Lady of Montserrat is a figure that holds special significance for many Puerto Ricans. Santia told me that, along with the Three Kings, the Montserrat Virgin is among the saints that receive the most “promises.” Also known as milagros, these are little silver or tin icons shaped in the image of body parts such as an arm or a leg. When a prayer for an ailment to be healed has been answered, the petitioner commissions a milagro, which is then hung from the interceding santos.

The devotion among Puerto Ricans to Our Lady of Montserrat dates to an 1815 declaration by Spain’s King Ferdinand VII, when he approved the Royal Decree of Graces. This edict allowed any citizen of a country politically friendly to Spain to settle in Puerto Rico–as long as they converted to the Catholic faith and agreed to work in the agricultural business. The Decree inspired a wave of immigrants to the island from Catalonia, the home of Montserrat and a monastery built around an icon of a black Madonna, said to have been carved by St. Luke around 50 A.D.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Dom Orta Jr in the family’s santos studio. Photo: Meg Pier

The affinity many Puerto Ricans feel for Our Lady of Montserrat goes deep also because of a belief that she interceded on behalf of one of their own in what is known as the Miracle of Hormigueros. Unique to the island’s culture is a local tradition that tells of the Virgin of Montserrat appearing to a peasant farmer named Gerardo González in 1599 near the town of Hormigueros in Puerto Rico’s southwest. Finding himself face to face with a wild bull, González invoked the Virgin of Montserrat for protection and the animal immediately fell to its knees, as if in prayer. Perhaps not surprisingly, Our Lady of Montserrat is the patron saint of Hormigueros, as well as the villages of Aguas Buenas, Jayuya and Salinas, with her feast day celebrated on September 8.

In the Orta’s hometown of Yaguecas de Adjuntas, Dom’s earliest work in traditional crafts started with making baskets used to collect coffee beans. He would go deep into the forests looking for bejuco, the type of wood used to make the containers. Santia helped by making straps of braided grass. Dom sold the baskets for 50 cents each. Later, following an illness that made it impossible for him to work as a laborer, Orta dedicated himself to carving santos and found that he could make a living at it.

The Three Kings was an image for which Domingo was especially well-known. In fact, he was responsible for a major innovation in the representation of the figures, in which the gifts each King carries is replaced by musical instruments — a set of maracas, a guiro–a serrated gourd played with a stick–and cuatro, a stringed instrument similar to a guitar. At the time Dom introduced this variation, it was considered a radical representation and caused a bit of a stir; today it is an accepted and much-beloved part of the iconography, widely copied by many santeros.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: A Three Kings santos by the Orta family. Photo: Meg Pier

Santia is the leading contemporary female carver in Puerto Rico and has been an inspiration to many other women. Initially, after she and Dom married, he would carve pieces and she would paint them. Then, after about ten years of marriage and the birth of her six children, she carved her very first saint. She took one of Dom’s pieces to use as a model and went into hiding, carving an image of the Virgin of Montserrat. When she showed Dom, he was pleased. Santia sold the piece, which gave her great encouragement. That was 40 years ago. Today, she and her daughters have figures of the Virgin of Montserrat that she made in her early days of carving, pieces of great sentimental value which they do not intend to sell.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico itinerary: The Orta family workshop, where Puerto Rican tradition of santos carving is carried on. Photo: Meg Pier

Santia told me that Dom Orta’s pieces ranged in price from $375 to up to $4,000. She said that santos carved by Domingo increased significantly in price after he died; one was sold for $7,000. Several of Domingo’s works are in the Ponce Museum of Art, as well as in the collections of the Vatican in Rome, the Museo Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Compostela in Spain, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

Little did I know that only a short while later I would hear from Santia's daughter that Santia, too, had passed away. It was a shock, as she had appeared the picture of health. I remain grateful for having had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her story.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: For Collector Hector Puig, Santos Are Bridge Back to Homeland

Dom Orta’s pieces are also prized by Florida businessman Hector Puig, 42, whose passion for santos has been a bridge back to Puerto Rico, where he lived until he was 13 years old. An avid collector of the art form since 1997, he returns to the island regularly to visit with the santeros who are themselves a source of immense inspiration for him, as well as a connection to his roots and culture.

“Santos are the one thing that unite and define Puerto Rico’s identity, a symbol of who we are as a people, an expression of our foundation of Spanish, Taíno and African heritages.” Puig said.

“Please understand that one doesn’t pray to the santo, but through them, as vehicles to God, a means of accessing a higher power,” he said. “My favorite santo is the Virgin of Montserrat. My father was a Mariano, a devout Catholic who had tremendous faith and love for the Virgin Mary. Perhaps, this memory of his unshakable conviction drove me to the Virgin of Montserrat, an image which comes from Mount Montserrat in Northern Spain and has been a presence in Puerto Rico since the Spaniards landed on the island. I regularly engage in meditation with La Montserrate, communicating with Her as if She was with me that very moment.”

Puig went on to describe first meeting the Orta family in 1998, when he visited them with another renowned santero, Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet, who had sharpened his skills and received much knowledge about the santo tradition from Domingo Orta.

“I had commissioned a Miracle of Hormigueros from several of the Ortas at that time: don Domingo, Domingo Jr., Wilfredo and Adrian Rodriguez, husband to one of Domingo’s daughters and a great carver himself.” Puig recalled. “There was a perception that any piece carved by a member of the Orta family was the same, and I sought to organize an exhibit demonstrating that each one of them has their very own style, or cut.”

“When I went to pick up the Miracles, I was in awe of meeting Domingo, who was considered a living legend,” he said. “Even though he was small in stature, he was an imposing figure, very stern and stoic, with a lot of charisma. The family was very proud of him and I was so impressed with their dynamics — very united and supportive, with no jealousy or unhealthy competition.”

“As soon as I began meeting the santeros, I was struck by their obvious mysticism and sincerity,” Puig declared. “I am not a religious person, but I am a spiritual man and as I have traveled across Puerto Rico meeting elder santeros and younger carvers, it has been a journey of discovery and faith.”

Puig described his encounter with the first santero he met, Ceferino Calderón Albaladejo of Morovis, whom he visited in 1998 with his aunt and a former college art professor.

“As we left, my professor, a worldly man in his sixties, said to me ‘That was one of the most special moments of my life,’ ”Puig recalled. “I knew exactly what he was talking about. Ceferino had such an incredible presence and aura you couldn’t help but feel his faith and devotion.”

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Santero Ceferino Calderón Albaladejo. Photo: Hector Puig.

Ceferino is particularly well-known for his figures of guardian angels. The first one he made was carved from the knot of a piece of male cedar, a very hardwood and he carried it in his pocket everywhere, continually caressing and praying to it.

One of Puig’s favorite pieces in his collection is a Virgin of Providence by Ceferino, another figure for which the santero was well-known. Ceferino first carved this image after his wife died, inspired by a series of vivid dreams. He left the Virgin unpainted and kept it at his bedside, referring to “Her” as his companion.

Puig credits the spirituality of the santeros he met in his early days of collecting with driving the focus of his avocation, which revolves not around a certain time period, but rather the personal meaning of a given figure to the artist who made it. Puig seeks out pieces that a santero holds truly special or considers highly personal, such as the first depiction of a particular santo he or she ever made. In addition to the Ceferino Virgin of Providence piece, Puig has in his collection the saints the santero kept on his personal altar, which Ceferino bequeathed to him.

Puig has participated in santos exhibits in many museums and venues throughout the United States & Puerto Rico. His collection encompasses approximately 1,500 figures of saints and includes very early pieces by the first santeros on record in Puerto Rico, Felipe de La Espada & his son Tiburcio, both from San Germán.

Roughly 300 of the Santos in Puig’s collection pre-date 1920 but he considers it a mission to support contemporary carvers –as long as they understand what it means to be a santero and have shown dedication, knowledge and respect to the tradition. Puig considers Domingo Junior, along with Antonio Aviles and Pedro Pabo Rinaldi Jovet (featured in Parts I and II, respectively) to be among the master carvers of today.

Hector Puig
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Florida businessman Hector Puig, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has been a santos collector for more than twenty years. Photo: Hector Puig

“The faith of these santeros is as profound as any of earlier eras,” Puig observed. “I encourage people visiting the island to meet these amazing artisans in person. For any individual with an open heart, to meet a santero is to experience the true essence of what this beautiful tradition is all about. The contemporary santeros deserve to be supported and this work must continue,” Puig declared.

While in Ponce, as elsewhere in Puerto Rico, I was welcomed by people both proud of their heritage and at the same time, without pretension. One of the many new Ponceno friends I made, Carmen A. Martínez Aja, spoke eloquently of the role filled by the santeros.

“Our artisans are humble people with deep roots in the community,’ she said. “They have raised their children in the craft tradition and are well loved by the city for various reasons; they are good, decent people who make a living making us proud of the cultural heritage they create. Their work, which is created with love, is considered an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage and we are very proud that the work of our Ponce citizens is held in such high esteem by collectors, tourists and common people. They are the best ambassadors we have because their work travels around the world presenting the best that Ponce has to offer. They represent the friendly spirit of Ponce because they open their homes and their workshops to strangers.”

Perhaps the only difference between the santeros of yesteryear and today is that now the universe of those seeking their artistic expression of faith extends far beyond the mountains and shores of Puerto Rico.

Editor’s Note: Santos dynasty matriarch Santia Rivera Martinez passed away not long after this piece was first published. It is a privilege to have had the opportunity to hear and share her story.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Meet Dr. Billy Torres, founder of Museo de los Santos in Santurce

Santos are carved wooden figures of the Roman Catholic celestial hierarchy and an integral part of the island’s culture, playing a role in not only religious worship, but family life, community celebrations, and national identity. The santos craft has survived despite challenges and today continues to inspire devotion among both the faithful as well as an ever-growing number of collectors. I am pleased to share the Puerto Rico I came to know through conversations with its santeros, and their advocates and aficionados.

“My first encounter with the santos was in 1962 when I was 10 years old and found a Christ on the cross carved in wood in a garbage container on the street,” said Dr. Billy Torres. “This Cristo was carved in 1875 and belonged to my great-grandmother and was a wedding gift from her mother. It had been thrown out due to damage by termites.”

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Dr. Billy Torres, founder of Museo de los Santos in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Photo: Meg Pier

“Later when I was attending the University of Puerto Rico, I had a Humanities course assignment to interview a santero in Orocovis, Don Celestino Avilés Meléndez,” Torres continued. “From him, I learned about my Cristo, as well as how the santeros prepared their altars, the different prayers they said. That started my interest in learning more about the santeros as part of the cultural heritage from my area of the island.”

Torres’ fledgling interest blossomed into a full-fledged passion — today, almost 50 years later, he owns more than 300 pieces, which he seeks to share with others through his Museo de los Santos. Housed in his Arts & Crafts-style bungalow in the San Juan suburb of Santurce, the collection can be seen by appointment, with Torres offering a fact-filled color commentary on individual pieces and the tradition’s history.

Among the pieces he owns are numerous renditions of the Virgin Mary, a beloved image throughout Puerto Rico. I asked him what particular characteristics he looked for in this representation.

“When a Virgin winks at you, you have to take her home,’ he said with a smile. He went on to say more seriously that it was often the equivalent of a proverbial twinkle in the eye of a figure that might prompt a purchase, an elusive quality that was hard to name but also hard to resist.

Billy showed me a piece made by Zoilo Cajigas about 1940, a representation of the Virgin’s escape to Egypt with Joseph and the infant Jesus. Torres went on to explain that Cajigas was considered part of the group of ‘spiritual’ santeros–a tradition that had been in decline for some time due to myriad factors.

Torres ticked off a handful of developments that contributed to the decline of the santos tradition. The 1898 U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico brought in its wake Protestant missionaries who called for converts to burn the santos. Later efforts to impose the use of the English language in classrooms had an impact on how items of countryside heritage were viewed. And in the 1960s, the march of progress presented shiny plastic versions of the saints, often seen as having a modern cache that the old santos did not.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: A santos carving from the collection of Dr. Billy Torres. Photo: Meg Pier

In 1956, Don Ricardo Alegria, an anthropologist and champion of Puerto Rican culture, made a documentary movie that featured Cajigas as an iconic santero, contrasting his approach to wood carving–inspired by God and nature–with the machine-made, mass-produced figures that had begun rolling off production lines. The film inspired a revival of santos and santeros in Puerto Rican culture.

According to Torres, the early santos were made using Puerto Rican woods which were moth and weather resistant and easy to carve, such as guaraguao–a close relative of mahogany, cedro hembra, or Spanish cedar–which has reddish wood and a fragrant odor, and roble or oak. Farmers cut the wood when conditions were dry and the moon was waning — it was believed at this time, the tree sap also “waned” down to the tree’s roots. Since they thought sap attracted termites, by cutting during the waning moon, they expected the wood to be termite free. When making a saint, generally the head, the body, and the clothing are carved from a single piece of wood.

Torres said the folk art is categorized in three distinct periods: Colonial, with the influence of Spanish tradition–a more sophisticated style that dates from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century; Autoctono or naïve, which uses local Puerto Rican colors and characteristic child-like faces; and Contemporary, made by modern santos and not necessarily reflecting religious or mystic influences.

“My collection is focused on the antique carvers,” he continued. “I have important examples of different santeros, like Cachetones, Espada, Arce, Genaro Rivera, Francisco Rivera Juanito Cartagena, Jose Ramos, Antonio Crespo, Claudio Pacheco.”

Francisco Claudio was known as “Pacheco,” and was a sculptor in the first half of the 20th century who lived in the barrio of Candelaria in Vega Alta, a town to the west of San Juan. He is said to have been jovial character whose stammer didn’t prevent him from being a ladies’ man — Pacheco is reputed to have had many affairs and children but there are no records indicating he was married.

Pacheco’s work is noted for its extreme minimalism, and naïve and simple carving and painting. Billy showed me a piece by the artisan that was a representation of the subject for which he was best known, Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes, or “Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.” The trademark imagery includes the eleven figures wearing wimples, a cloth wound around the head, framing the face, and drawn into folds beneath the chin, worn by women in medieval times and as part of the habit of certain orders of nuns.

While Pacheco is universally considered a master santero among all with an interest in the folk art, and widely identified with the 11,000 Virgins image in particular, collectors are driven by uniquely personal passions.

“Collectors have a tendency to discuss their collections and the strong elements and pieces within them,” said Hector Puig, a native of Puerto Rico and santos collector based in Gainesville, Florida. “I was aware of Dr. Torres’ collection and he knew of my 11,000 Virgins by Francisco Claudio. There are only about six to seven examples of the 11,000 Virgins by don Pacheco that I know of; only two to three of these have their original base, as both of mine did. This depiction is the most famous of don Pacheco, however, few intact examples survived, for two reasons.”

“First, don Pacheco used simple materials for the base–sometimes wood from cajas de bacalao or cod boxes,” Puig said. “Consequently, the bases would often get infested with termites or other damaging insects. The second reason is that when Santos became popular for the tourist market in the early ’60s, unscrupulous dealers and individuals would separate into pieces the 11,000 Virgins by don Pacheco, and make multiple santos of individual Virgins. Most often, they would usually make Virgins of Mount Carmel and have another santero make the baby and add a base to it. This way, they could make more money selling the individual pieces.”

“Dr. Billy invited me to his home. He had an 11,000 Virgins by contemporary carver don Carlos Vasquez, whom he had met personally and commissioned him to create the piece,” Puig continued. “I had been approached by several collectors on the island to purchase my don Pacheco 11,000 Virgin piece and offered a substantial amount of money for it. However, I opted to trade with Dr. Torres for the don Carlos Vasquez piece because I wanted to present my core belief that contemporary pieces are as significant as old pieces and real mysticism exists in the santos of today. It was ‘an even trade’ as such and no money was exchanged. He now has a beloved don Pacheco piece and I have the only depiction of the 11,000 Virgins by don Carlos Vasquez that I have ever seen.”

Don Carlos Vazquez was from the Barrio Cordillera in the town of Ciales and according to Puig became a huge inspiration to many contemporary carvers, among them don Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet. Don Carlos was very active from the 1950’s- 1980’s, an era erroneously labeled by some as the “end” of the years of the “true” santero in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Local Importance of Saint Ursula in Puerto Rico

“Vazquez’s work undoubtedly possesses the mysticism of the santeros of earlier days on the island,” declared Puig. “He influenced many carvers to pay attention to the essential elements needed to create a “true” Santo. Consequently, these master carvers were able to pass on his knowledge of what it signifies to be a santero, not just a talented carver producing an image from a block of wood.

The devotion to Saint Ursula and her handmaidens is a long-held tradition. According to legend, Ursula was the daughter of a Christian king in Britain and was granted a three-year postponement of a marriage she did not wish, to a pagan prince. With ten ladies in waiting, each attended by a thousand maidens, she embarked on a voyage across the North Sea, sailed up the Rhine to Basle, Switzerland, and then went to Rome. On their way back, they were all massacred by pagan Huns at Cologne in about 451 when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain.

The legend is pious fiction, but what is true is that a basilica in Cologne was built to honor a group of virgins who had been martyred there. They were evidently venerated enough to have had a church built in their honor, but who they were and how many of them there were, are unknown. From these meager facts, the legend of Ursula grew.

For Puerto Ricans, the lore of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins has a local significance. During the 1797 siege by the British of San Juan, the island’s Bishop Juan Bautista called for a rogativa or prayer procession through the city, dedicated to Saint Ursula and her handmaidens, and “…asking the God of Armies to humiliate that proud nation, an enemy of his Holy Name, and that he distances and eliminates it from our sight, so that we can worship his Divine Majesty with a relaxed spirit and in the peace of our altars…”

Puerto Rico Itinerary: Old San Juan statue commemorates 1797 prayer procession through the city, dedicated to Saint Ursula. Photo: Meg Pier

With the country’s men engaged in active battle, it was the island’s women who paraded through the city’s streets on the night of April 30 to the score of bells ringing from the towers of the Cathedral and other churches, carrying torches in their hands. The legend says that British commander General Abercromby mistook the throngs of women for troops of reinforcements, and May 1, the British ships set sail and retreated from the island.

The next day was Sunday and church bells were peeling as I explored historic Old San Juan. Atop ancient fortification walls 40 feet tall overlooking the turquoise Bay of Puerto Rico, I admired a sculpture called La Rogativa. Against a cornflower blue sky filled with gauzy clouds paraded the silhouettes of elongated, ghostly female figures and a man in regal robes and bishop’s headdress, all holding aloft blazing tapers.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: The sherbert colors of San Juan’s Colonial architecture. Photo: Meg Pier

Continuing on, I reached the massive wooden doors of la Puerta de San Juan — constructed in the 1630s, it was the main access point to the island for centuries. Past the city gate, the elegant Paseo de la Princesa or “promenade of the princess” curved around the waterline at the base of immense bastions.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Artisan restoring statue of Virgin and Child inside Catedral de San Juan. Photos: Meg Pier

Hiking up a tree-lined street, I reached Catedral de San Juan, which dates to 1521 and is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The cathedral contains the marble tomb of the island’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León. Inside, I admired a recessed altar with a life-size image of the Virgin and child standing in front of the Puerto Rican flag, flanked by gold Corinthian columns and images of white-robed angels, with tiers of white carnations at her feet.

I caught the soft chords of a familiar melody, so slight that at first, I thought I was imagining it. Straining to detect where the sound was coming from, I moved further into the church, trying to put a name to the piece of music. I saw a doorway and looked in a large room with a black and white tiled floor, on which a large statue of a Virgin Mary was flat on her back on top of two tires mounted on a dolly. At her feet, a tanned man with a pony-tail appeared to be lovingly giving her a pedicure of sorts, with a paint brush and what looked like a pumice stone in his hands. As the restorer looked up and smiled at me, I recognized the song as “What a Wonderful World It Is.”

Back outside, I wandered up one street and down the next with no pre-determined agenda, happy to soak up the Old World ambiance and Caribbean flavor. Old San Juan is a compact sun-drenched seven square block peninsula of Spanish Colonial architecture full of spacious squares and flanked by immense fortresses. More than 400 beautifully-restored 16th- and 17th-century buildings painted in sunny Crayola hues line narrow streets cobbled of adoquine, a bluestone brought over as ballast on Spanish galleons.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Photo: Meg Pier

Just when it seemed the heat and humidity were about to get the best of me, I magically came across a plaza where I could sit under some shade and people watch. In the leafy Plaza de Hostos, dominoes is a spectator sport and I joined a small crowd encircling old men engaged in intense matches, fueled by tiny cups of espresso and salsa music pulsing from a strategically-placed boom box. A few blocks away, below the bell tower of Parque de las Palomas, children of all ages were transfixed by a modern-day Dr. Doolittle who stretched out his arms and became one with the scores of pigeons who flocked to him. In Plaza del Quinto Centenario, created in 1992 in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World, the shapes of youngsters shimmered and almost disappeared in plumes of water spraying upward from a circular fountain.

Perhaps the biggest playground of all in Old San Juan is atop the 16th century defensive citadel of Castillo San Felipe del Morro. On 74 acres where once soldiers marched in formation, every Sunday extended families enjoy sprawling picnics and send flying chiringas, or kites, rather than cannon balls. El Morro means “promontory” and the headland lies at the northwestern-most point of the islet that is Old San Juan. What had been a military installation for more than four centuries was transformed in 1961 to an urban sanctuary, with a vast expanse of emerald grass enclosed by romantic-looking ramparts.

I carefully made my way across the huge swath of green, careful to avoid stepping on stray kite string or colliding with children running at full tilt trying to get their kites airborne. The wind off the water carried the scent of suntan lotion and the sound of the ice cream vendor’s carnival-like chords of old standards like “It’s a Small World After All.” I was heading for the sea of white crosses I had spotted from higher ground, sandwiched between the dramatic majesty of the El Morro fortress on the left and towering chalky limestone cliffs on the right, and backed by the great aquamarine expanse of the Atlantic extending to the horizon.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Kite-flying at Old San Juan’s Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Photo: Meg Pier

After crossing the esplanade, I reached a wall from where I could look down at Old San Juan Cemetery, a creamy alabaster acre of elaborate tombstones and crypts. The adjoining circular red-roofed chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene was set off by splashes of pink where roses of remembrance had been left. Beyond and around the still cemetery, life teemed–a speed boat screamed past the shoreline and on the surrounding grassy slopes, children laughed and cried with the fluttering fluctuations of their kites. As I watched the foaming whitecaps of the ever-advancing tide lap at the cemetery’s seawall, I thought the spot was an idyllic one to spend eternity.

Retracing my steps, I left El Morro and crossed the street to the Museum of the Americas, one of many cultural institutions founded by Ricardo Alegria, whose efforts to preserve Puerto Rican heritage have garnered awards by organizations such as the National Endowment for Humanities, the Smithsonian and UNESCO. The area in which the Museum is located was built by the Spanish army in the 1800s and served as a home to more than 1,000 soldiers and their families until 1898. The building the Museum is housed in is a stunning monument to symmetry, with three stories of elegant balconies overlooking a courtyard. The rooms in which the individual galleries are located at one time served as bedrooms, kitchens, and stables.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Old San Juan’s Museum of the Americas, one of many cultural institutions founded by Ricardo Alegria. Photo: Meg Pier

Finding the gallery that is home to the Museum’s santos collection, I met docent Maria Torres.

“I started working at the museum back in 1996,” said Maria. “In preparation for the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the preservation of the Puerto Rican folk arts and a specialized museum program for public schools the Museum docents had to take a lecture given by one of the historians and defender of our culture, Mr Walter Murray Chiesa.”

“In the lecture, Mr Murray presented a picture of my dad’s cousin, who used to make musical instruments, especially our national string instrument, the Cuatro Puertorriqueño,” she continued. “I got excited and told everyone that he was my cousin. The way Mr. Murray spoke caught my attention, making my interest in the folk arts grow more. At the end of the three-day workshop I had the urge to carve a saint. I didn’t know why I had that feeling, and I asked my supervisor to teach me how. She told me to buy an X-Acto knife and she would teach me how, so I did.”

“She gave me a little piece of wood 3/4″ wide and not more than 3″ tall; I asked ‘What do I do? And she replied ‘Carve.’ I asked again ‘How?’ to which she said ‘Just carve, just make sure you don’t cut your fingers’ and kept working. I was kind of astonished but gave some strokes to the wood and liked the feeling.”

A couple weeks later an artisan told Torres that the Puerto Rican Culture Institute was giving lessons for santos wood carving on Saturdays for free, an opportunity she pursued.

“Not long afterwards, one of my cousins told me that one of our uncles was also an artisan and he had a kiosk at the Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan,” she said. “He made pilones, or wooden mortars in a lathe, as well as jatacas–soup spoons made from coconut shells and higueras–musical instruments. That’s when I realized why I had the need to work with wood; it was calling me!”

“Becoming a wood artisan is something mystical, mysterious, sacred,” she declared. “Wood calls you like a mother calls her child. You just answer. Most of the old santeros started carving the wood due to a divine message. Some others as a request made by people who wanted to have a small altar in their homes. I started because my family worked and loves working with wood. My dad loved building houses and making knifes and machete’s handles.”

“I had to stop carving when I noticed that I was not doing my house work, eating, drinking water or even going to the bathroom,” she said. “I carve very little now but from time to time, the wood calls me.”

The Museum has a piece called Mano Poderosa or “the Holy Hand” by Luis Gonzalez of Toa Alta. Also called the “Powerful Hand,” the image symbolizes the hand of Christ, with members of the Holy Family perched on its fingertips: St. Anne, her husband Joachim, their daughter the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Infant Jesus. The Infant Jesus is typically located on the thumb, representing his importance, since much of a hand’s function depends on the thumb. The palm is depicted with red marks, representing Christ’s wounds on the cross.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Puerto Rico Itinerary: Mano Poderosa or “the Holy Hand”. Photo: Meg Pier

The Mano Poderosa is not part of the santoral, the established pantheon of Catholic saints but is a theme developed at the church margins. This symbolic image is considered a syncretism, meaning a mix of beliefs rooted in Catholic and espiritismo, the Latin American and Caribbean belief that good and evil spirits affect health, luck and other elements of human life. The inclusion of the extended family reflects the Latin American and Spanish regard for the family above the individual.

I was intrigued by another piece in the Museum’s collection called “Anima Sola,” or “Lonely Soul,” done by Celestino Quiles of Orocovis. In my travels I had only seen the representation a handful of times but the imagery was certainly memorable — and very different from the generally gentle and peaceful faces of the spectrum of santos I had encountered.

Billy Torres later educated me about the figure, explaining that in Puerto Rico and other areas of Latin America, Anima Sola represents souls in Purgatory–a basic concept of Catholic Church, in which a soul who died without confession or otherwise without being in a state of grace is purified and made ready for Heaven. The duration of this status depends of the quantity of prayers for such an individual by friends and relatives.

“The concept is generally represented by a naked woman covered by flames, with long hair and both hands in front of her chest, clasped in prayer,” he said. “Usually the chest is uncovered and the flames painted as if a skirt. According to the church the element of fire purifies the soul, making it worthy of entrance to Reino de los Cielos. The figure is always presented in frontal aspect and standing up.”

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Photo: Meg Pier

“The horrendous descriptions made in the Middle Ages about the Purgatory resulted in the proliferation of cofradies or groups dedicated to the redemption of the almas del purgatorio,” he continued. “We don’t know exactly when the popular devotion arrived to the island but the Anima Sola is considered a patron of unmarried people. Others in Puerto Rico suggest that the Anima Sola is more a symbol of patience — but is not a saint from whom you solicit miracles or the intercession of the Supreme Celestial Tribunal.”

Photo: Meg Pier

From the Museum, I meandered through the city’s streets, making my way to a main thoroughfare of the Hato Rey district, lined with high-end shops. To sidestep the masses swarming uphill from a newly-docked cruise ship, I opened the door of Galeria Botello, relieved to enter its air-conditioned interior.

I realized that perhaps a divine hand of some sort had guided me into the gallery, as it has long represented santos collectors. A handsome hand-made cabinet housed a significant collection–the majority of the santos that Galeria Botello carries are antique pieces created between 1880 and 1930 and ranging in price from $700 to $8,000. Currently, there are three contemporary pieces in the collection, two of which were created by Antonio Aviles in 1998 and the third was made by Luiso “Liso” Franqui at around the same time.

“Most of our collectors are off-island but we also work with local collectors who may be looking for a specific piece–for example, someone may be in the market for a ‘Powerful Hand’ by a certain artist,” said Nancy Elsasser, who has worked at the gallery for 25 years.

The gallery was founded by Angel Botello in 1960–now deceased, he had been a long-time restorer as well as a collector.

“Angel really got his start as a collector through restoration, which he did as a hobby,” said Elsasser. “He had hundreds and hundreds of pieces of odd legs, or hands, or the baby Jesus. He knew who had carved each piece and so when someone needed a santo by a particular artist restored and, say, a hand replaced, Angel would be able to supply a piece made by that santero.”

“Restorers are no longer restoring, it’s becoming a lost art” she said. “A young man who did restoration work for us stopped about five years ago because of all the chemicals. It’s a field that is no longer available. Now most people who are interested in restoration have to go through the Ponce Museum.”

There are differing views about restoring a piece. Often history is involved in the coats of paint. Some pieces may have twenty coats of paint–applying a fresh coat of paint to a santo was a common form of thanks to a saint that had successfully interceded on behalf of a petitioner and accomplished the requested “miracle.” Some collectors seek to restore a piece to the coat of paint applied by the santero who created it. To others, if you strip a piece down, you are stripping away some of its history.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Photo: Meg Pier

In the old days, santeros made their own paints at home. Black was made from soot mixed with linseed oil and boiled for a long period. Common red clay was the source of red. Indigo produced blue and green and yellow was created through pulverized stone. Santos were often painted with gold and silver details. Brushes were home-made, with the hair of pigs, dogs or cats fitted into a bird quill. Certain colors are typically associated with specific saints — St. Anthony’s robes are blue and St. Francis is always shown in brown; the Virgin of Carmen is depicted with a red dress and white cape.

Elsasser said that the condition of a piece is a primary factor in determining its worth — but that it is not necessarily a huge detriment if a santo is missing a hand, or a figure of St. Anthony is missing the book he is traditionally depicted as holding. What will take away from the value is if something is added to the piece that is not consistent with its creation.

“When a santo is so old that its paint is flaking, then it should be restored,” Elsasser asserted. “That condition would be viewed as questionable when assessing a piece’s worth.”

Elsasser pointed out pieces by several of the well-known santeros and the particular attributes for which their carvings are known. Florencio Caban is known for his tall, slim figures, with his signature crown — other carvers in the Caban family created more full-bodied pieces. Benigno Soto created beautiful faces but the hands of his santos aren’t in scale to the rest of the body. Both Francisco Rivera and his son Hernando were very fine carvers, with great attention to detail, such as the folds of a robe.

Elsasser has her own santos collection and began it with two initial purchases–a male and female piece. She chose the Virgin of Carmel, which she said she always had an affinity for, and a St. Joesph santo, which she selected as a companion to her Virgin, and because the piece was one she considered particularly beautiful.

When asked what she looked for in a santos, Nancy responded, “Like every art form, it is so personal–I look at the faces, the expressions.”

Elsasser said that nativity scenes are often passed down as family heirlooms, with each generation adding figures of the saints. She has started collections for each of her four children; her daughter now has 14 pieces. Her daughter bought a santo for her nephew upon his graduation from law school — he chose a figure of St. Raymond, who is the patron saint of those born by Caesarean section, as he had been.

“We’re Catholic, but my children are not church goers; their interest in santos is as antique fine art pieces, not religious items,” she said. “Church is different today — you don’t hear about things like praying for the lost souls in Purgatory like I did as a kid. Today, the emphasis is on doing good here and now, being kind to others, contributing to the community.”

Photo: Meg Pier

Leaving the gallery, I found myself climbing Calle San Justo and heard the pounding of a rousing rhythm come streaming down the street. The instrumentation was joined by a chorus, a rich blend of distinct voices that collectively were slightly off-key, almost imperceptibly so, but just enough to signal the sound was alive, and bubbling up from human beings, not the canned and produced perfection of a recording.

Puerto Rico Itinerary
Photo: Meg Pier

Following the joyful noise, I took a right on Calle del Sol and among all the brightly-painted buildings, I spotted a sign proclaiming “Iglesia Defensores de la Templo Hermosa” on a white-plastered façade. I stood at the church’s open doors and beheld a small interior with perhaps a dozen rows of pews on both sides of a center aisle, filled to capacity. A woman beamed from the altar’s pulpit as she sang; a man a few rows in front of me stepped into the aisle to take her picture. An old man banged the keys of a piano, with two younger men adding brass and percussion, one blowing a trumpet, and the other shaking a tambourine.

The small congregation swayed, clapped, and pointed their index fingers skyward as their voices rang out. The assembly was an amazing assortment of people — a tiny white-haired woman with a hunchback, a look-alike middle-aged mother and teenage daughter, young men with spiky hair gelled stiffly into place, a toddler with rollicking curls and tiny gold bracelets. The hymn reached its final crescendo and there was a miniscule pause as the parishioners took their seats and then broke into applause for themselves.

The woman at the altar came down the center aisle and joined her husband in his pew; he wrapped his arm around her and whispered in her ear, clearly proud. The music swelled again and the congregation rose to its feet, and this time jubilantly marched down the aisle toward the altar, clapping and singing. Moved to tears by the palpable energy emanating around the humble, high-ceilinged space, I too stood and joined my hands together, my heart singing a song for which I didn’t need to know the words or language.

The experience seemed to embody the sensations of my sojourn in Puerto Rico, on the santos trail. Throughout my travels on the island, I felt warmly welcomed and privileged with people’s generosity of spirit in sharing with me their heritage. A people’s mythology and symbols speak to who they are–where they came from, what they aspire to achieve, the challenges they face, the faith that sustains them. To this visitor, the essence of the santos tradition–humility, spirituality, love–is alive and well, and being transmitted by its artisans and the everyday people who adore them.

Logistics & Lodging

Transportation

You may need a rental car for your Puerto Rico trip. Check out the best options on Rentalcars.com for your Puerto Rico trip.

Lodging

Hotelscombined.com will help you find the best possible hotel prices no matter what your budget is.

San Juan

San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel

San Juan Water Beach Club
Seaview room @ San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel

This boutique hotel offers a rooftop pool, on-site dining, and rooms overlooking the beach and city. It is a 10-minute drive from San Juan's old town. Each stylish room at San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel has a flat-screen TV and iPod docking station. The Puerto Rico Museum of Art is 5 km away.

Click here for the latest prices and more information.

Hotel El Convento

Hotel El Convento
Beautiful room @ Hotel El Convento

Hotel El Convento is located in the heart of historic Old San Juan and housed in a restored 350-year old building. The hotel’s pool and hot tub overlook the San Juan Bay. Rooms at the El Convento have Spanish décor and are furnished with refrigerators.

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La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort

La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort
Gorgeous sea view room @ La Concha Resort

La Concha has an outdoor infinity pool overlooking Condado Beach. This 4-star resort that features a 24-hour casino and several fine dining restaurants. The large guest rooms have private sea-view balconies. The brightly decorated rooms at La Concha Resort have floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the balcony.

Click here for the latest prices and more information.

Ponce

Holiday Inn Ponce & El Tropical Casino

Holiday Inn Ponce & El Tropical Casino
Spacious Room @ the Holiday Inn Ponce

This mountain-top hotel features stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and the historic city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Hotel Inn Ponce & El Tropical Casino offers an on-site, 24-hour casino. Each air-conditioned room at this property comes with a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom.

Click here for the latest prices and more information.

Guánica

Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa

Copamarina Beach Resort
Attractive Room @ Copamarina Beach Resort

Copamarina Beach Resort hotel is a 20-acre tropical resort on a half-mile Caribbean beach. It offers two outdoor pools, an-onsite spa and rooms with beautiful ocean views.

Click here for the latest prices and more information.

Tours

We recommend GetYourGuide for Tours. They offer highly unique tours with Local Guides.

Recommended Excursions for Your Puerto Rico Trip

 

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance For Your Your Puerto Rico Trip

Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. I recommend  World Nomads Travel Insurance.

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