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Roaring At The San Sebastian Festival

By J.A. del Rosario

January 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On Friday night, Ashford Avenue in Condado was flooded with cars. This is not uncommon for Condado. On Friday and Saturday nights, Ashford Ave. is a crawling parade of cars with booming sound systems, and a constant bustle of tourists and local pedestrians making their way to the street's popular restaurants, bars and nigh clubs.

But this past Friday Ashford's traffic jam had a different reason for being. Approximately 5 miles away, in Old San Juan, thousands of locals and tourists were making their way to the San Sebastian Street Festival, Puerto Rico's answer to Mardi Gras.

The San Sebastian Street Fest was started about 50 years ago, when then-San Juan Mayor Felisa Rincón insitituted the weekend-long celebration. The beginnings were humble. Old San Juan was not as much a tourist attraction, as a tourist curiosity -- and the festival was mostly attended by the local community.

With the passing of the years the festival grew. Local businesses saw great economic opportunity in it, and the municipal government increased its role in the organization. Today, it is the biggest party of the year. This year, more than 250,000 people made their way to the Old City to participate in the festivities.

As the festival grew, it split into two celebrations. During the day, thousands of families drive from all parts of the island to walk around and take a look at the latest offering from local artists and artisans who are selling their goods in the city.

Since the 1950s, when the government put the island's artists to work in public educational projects, reproductive forms like serigraphs, and lithographs have been local artists' preferred medium. The San Sebastian festival is the biggest venue for these artists to sell their work.

By 6 P.M., the artists put their works away, and the municipal cleanup crews run through the city streets cleaning up the litter left behind by the masses. There is a short lull before the second half of the day begins.

The night tme part of the festival is an all out raging party. Thousands flood San Sebastian Street, holding beers and drinks in their hands. To manage the volume of people, bars resort to putting one or two brands of beer on sale, filling endless trash cans with ice and moving cans of beer across the counter as fast as possible.

Less than a block away from the heart of the party, the municipal government sets up a large stage where the official entertainment of the evening will perform for the crowds. This year, the celebration included everything from rap music to classical offerings.

But the real musical celebration takes place in the streets. Those that come to celebrate bring their own instruments, and on every street corner a group of musicians starts off its own music, imploring the crowds around them to sing along.

Strangers dance together hand in hand, accompany each other with their instruments and sing together until nothing is left of their voices but the rasp of a whisper.

The festival is so popular with tourists, that those who experience it once often come back for more. Such is the case of the Amherst University swim team. For the past three years, the team has used Puerto Rico as its winter training location. The first time that the team came to the island, it was by chance that their 10-day stay coincided with the festival. But one visit to the festivities was all it took to convince the team, and its coach, that the rest of the trips would have to be scheduled with the festival in mind.

"Our coach discourages us from going out at night because we have morning practice," said Jamie Fisher, a senior on her third trip to the island.

"Except for the festival, we get to go out for that."

The challenge of the festival is getting there. Old San Juan is a sliver of land connected to the rest of Puerto Rico by a land passage no wider than 8-traffic lanes. During the festival, the traffic jams flow out of the Old City, down the boulevards and well into Condado's Ashford Avenue, where the regular weekend traffic gives way to anxious motorists on a sort-of mission journey to a promised land of songs, dance and drink.

Inevitably, most have to leave their cars several miles away from the city gates -- so walking shoes are a must.

If you must leave your car far away. Walk to the city using the Luis Muñoz Rivera Avenue, which runs along the shoreline. Using this route you will be able to see the waves of the ocean crash against the 500-year old walls of the Old City.

Along the way to Old San Juan using this route you will find the best place to fill your stomach enough to handle the drinking that awaits you inside the city walls.

El Hamburger is literally a burger shack frequented by artists, politicians, and bankers alike. The homemade grilled burgers, small in diameter but thick enough to make fitting it in your mouth a challenge, are the stuff of legend.

One burger, some fries and a soda should be enough to absorb the liquor that awaits you.

From this point, directions are completely unnecessary. Everyone you will meet on the road is headed to the same place, you need only to follow the crowd all around you to reach your destination.

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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