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PuertoRicoWOW News Service
Puerto Rican Craftsmanship Still Very Much Alive
by Melissa B. Gonzalez
July 14, 2001
They are not artists, according to art connoisseurs. However, their work is endowed with technical skill, aesthetic beauty, and a sense of personal style. They are responsible for perpetuating cultural traditions that go back to the "Taino's" or native Indians' custom of handmade beautiful household utensils out of raw materials.
They are "artesanos," and in Puerto Rico, they are a growing sector of the local working class, according to Milagros Solis, director of the Craftsmanship Development Office at the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Co. (PRIDCO).
One of these workers is Jamil Valentin Narvaez, a 30-year-old craftswoman from the municipality of Ponce, who this month was selected Young Craftswoman of the Year as part of the celebration to mark the Month of Craftsmanship Workers by PRIDCO, which is the government agency that certifies them on the island.
Valentin Narvaez is one of approximately 5,635 crafts workers in Puerto Rico who, according to the office's promoter Roberto Sosa, are comprised by a growing number of young, talented, and skillful people interested in keeping Puerto Rican craftsmanship alive.
"The majority of crafts workers on the island is mostly comprised of older people. However, we've noticed a growing interest among young people in developing these skills," Sosa said.
According to PRIDCO's annual report, more crafts workers are certified each year. As of 1997, the agency certified 520. In 1998, it certified another 682, and in 1999, an additional 705 were certified.
Solis said her office is preparing a list to know how many young crafts workers are on the island. However, since age has never been a requirement for certification, she said some are as young as 6 years old.
In the case of Valentin Narvaez, she was 10 when she started helping with her parents' and her sister's crafts work and accompanying them to many fairs around the island. By the age of 14, she was already selling her own creations at fairs and festivals.
She specializes in jewelry made of coconut, bamboo, seashells, seeds, and other natural materials found in the wild.
When asked what made her so interested in becoming a craftswoman, Valentin Narvaez said she believes in keeping Puerto Rican traditions alive. However, having the opportunity to meet new people, to expand her business connections, and just to enjoy the fairs and festivals is what really makes her love her job so much.
However, for Luis Rodriguez Ojeda, a 29-year-old woodcarver of saints and other religious themes, the freedom of working his crafts at home and selling them to clients by word of mouth are the reasons that makes him like his job so much.
Rodriguez Ojeda is proof that artistic skills are not always passed on to family generations. Unlike Valentin Narvaez, his family has never been inclined to the arts or crafts.
"Since I was a kid, I always liked drawing, and my parents paid for my drawing and painting lessons. But since nobody at home was ever inclined to the arts, it wasn't until I went to college that I looked for what really interested me," said Rodriguez Ojeda, who later became interested in learning to carve wooded saints.
PRIDCO currently runs three programs to help promote this type of self employment on the island. According to Solis, approximately $400,000 in government funds goes to a program that sponsors craftsmanship festivals, fairs, and contests in Puerto Rico, as well as in the United States. It also pays for workshops to help crafts workers develop and learn new skills.
Another program uses approximately $300,000 in funds to offer economic incentives for crafts workers. Through this program, PRIDCO provides them with up to $1,000 in materials, tools, and other equipment, or up to $2,000 in construction material for those who prefer to build their own workshop.
Plus, crafts workers receive a $6,000 exemption in their yearly income taxes and a tax exemption on heavy vehicles used for work.
Solis also said PRIDCO offers workshops with a $20,000 sponsorship by the National Endowment for the Arts to teach crafts workers interested in learning traditional techniques in Puerto Rico that are about to disappear.
For more information on any of these programs or on the calendar of craftsmanship festivals and fairs to be held on the island, please call 1-787-758-4747, ext. 2299.