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July 16, 2004
The rumbling bomba music fills the air. The sun bakes the high-spirited crowd. The vivid colors swirl amid the laughter, rum and glitz. The evil vejigantes jolt away the wee ones. The caballeros, with their rosy cheeks, trample on blissfully on their makeshift paso fino cardboard horses. The locas, men in womens clothing, set off chortles from the crowd. While you savor a crab alcapurria and down it with a Medalla beer, your rump unwittingly starts swaying to some congueros beat. Yep, its that time of the year again.
Come July, Loíza, Puerto Ricos Capital of Tradition, flaunts its cultural feathers for its annual Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol (St. James Feast), one of the most unique fiestas patronales in Puerto Rico. Although the towns patron saint is St. Patrick, who never set foot in Loíza, it is St. James crusading fierceness that truly won their hearts.
Steeped in centuries-old traditions and redolent with a black-and-proud-of-it attitude, this carnival pretty much embodies Puerto Ricos African streak. One of the most colorful manifestations of the local party attitude, this celebration is a once-in-a-lifetime must.
From July 23-28, Loizas denizens will paint the town red and green and yellow, the colors of their flag. The peak of the pageantry will take place after Santiago Apóstol (St. James) Day (Sunday, July 25th ). The processions during the 26-28th start from noon on from the historic San Patricio Church after a mass takes place. Here youll hear the fabled chant of "Vejigante a la boya, pan y cebolla" while floats from all over the island burst on the scene with vibrant colors under the hot summer sun, blasting their own brand of Boricua Power. Look out for the champions of bomba, the Hermanos Ayala and their cousins, the Cepedas. Both groups put on quite an amazing show.
But you dont have to wait until then. The festivities begin right on Friday afternoon, the 23rd, when bomba musicians and dancers start strutting their stuff till the wee hours of the night. Revelers will certainly find the bars and streets hopping with excitement. Come Saturday, youll be able to finally get your hands on one of those authentic coconut vejigante masks. There will be plenty of fritters, crafts and quirky loonies to take your mind off the heat, but dont forego the water. Take a dip in one of the many beaches around, like Piñones, Aviones, Vacía Talega, or even hang a righteous ten at Chatarra Beach, and then come back into town for more booty shaking. So, giddy up and join the loiceños to the beat of the drum.
Legend says that many years ago, among the branches of a millenary cork tree, in Las Carreras sector of town, appeared a wooden statue of Santiago Apóstol, or Santiago Matamoros (the Moor-Killer). Baffled by the apparition, the fishermen threw it back to the sea to be swept away, but it kept washing ashore. After the third day, they took the persistent saint figure to their church to be sanctified. This is how the cult to Chaguito, the Childrens Santiago Apóstol, came to be.
There are three official Santiagos or "Chagos": Santiagón, Santiago and Santiaguito. One for the Men, (the biggest, of course), one for the women and one for the children (the smallest). There is also another unofficial, yet livelier "Chago": the one they call Quirindongo. Thats the well-endowed Santiago of the blacks. Theres even another Santiago for gays, the one they call Santo Cañandongo, which they baptize with cañita rum on the last Monday after the feasts are over.
Each statue has its keeper, the mantenedor. Only close friends of the family get to carry the statue around town, which is covered in multi-colored ribbons scribbled with the wishes of many. One day is dedicated to men, the other to women and so forth. They start from the towns plaza, stopping by different sectors of town until they arrive at the site of the centennial cork tree. The flags are then waved by the men on horseback. More rosaries are prayed. Then comes the bomba dancing till kingdom come.
The statue of the Apostle depicts a Spanish knight with sword unsheathed, ready for battle, mounted upon a white horse neighing on its hind legs, ready to strike fear upon the hearts of those that oppose him. As far as to how a marginalized African community took to such an oppressive Spanish icon, experts are still debating. Catholicism was big back in the day and Loíza, long considered a backwater, kept its traditions mainly intact, helped by lack of communication. But one thing we know for sure. Ogún, the Yoruba god of war, and Shango, the god of lighting, somehow got replaced by the fiercest of Catholic saints in the name of religious syncretism.
A bit about Loíza
Ah, Loíza -- even its name is shrouded in dark mystique. No one knows for sure if the town was named after Yuisa, the legendary cacica (Taíno woman chief) of the area who boldly changed her name to Luisa in order to marry her beloved mulatto Pedro Mejías, or named after Iñigo López de Cervantes y Loayza, an influential landowner in these parts during the time of the Spanish conquistadores.
Facing the Atlantic and bordered by Canóvanas on the south, Carolina on the west and Río Grande on the east, this bustling municipality with a population of 32,000 is slowly wizening up to the charms of tourism. Nicknames include the Capital of Tradition, the Capital of the Santeros (Saint Worshipers) and the Capital of the Cocoteros (Coconut Grovers). It consists mainly flat coastal land lined with sea grapes and palm trees galore. Through it flows the famed Río Grande de Loíza, the biggest on the island.
Loíza is one of the best places around to get your hands on juicy local pineapple, coconuts or mangos. It is also the heart of Puerto Ricos African heritage. Even though for the longest time it remained in the shadows to even other societal facets of the island, Loíza is now enjoying a well-deserved boom time.
Where else to go:
To escape the dancing crowds, head to these sites around town.
Artesanias Castor Ayala
The place to get your authentic coconut vejigante mask.
María de la Cruz Cave (Indians Cave)
Years ago excavations unearthed Igneri Indian pottery and shards inside this clear, wonderful and spacious cave. Eco lovers will certainly swoon.
Get your fritter fix in a jiffy while overlooking the Atlantic, listening to salsa on the jukebox. Stop by Vacía Talega Beach to work out all that grease, or at least wash it off before heading to town.
Paseo Julia de BurgosThis small park faces the Rio Grande de Loíza and its a great spot for loosing the crowds and staring at "nothing."
Aviones BeachPopular for surfing, here youll find the dudes chilling and the conch salad as fresh as they come.
Río Grande de Loíza
Be sure to sop by the beautiful view of the river from the bridge on Route 187.
San Patricio Church
Also known as the Espíritu Santo, this is the oldest church in continuous use in Puerto Rico. The sheer amount of santos will blow your mind; so will the different styles of Virgin Marys. Definitely worth a visit.
Samuel Lind Art Studio
Stop by this guys quaint art gallery to discover the colorful images and tradition of the vejigantes of Loíza, maybe grab one of those colorful paintings or two.
How to get to Loíza:
From San Juan: Take PR-26 East. Hop on PR-3 East from Carolina to Canóvanas. Take PR-198 North to the center of town. Follow the signs or the conga beats.
San Patricio Church
Artesanias Castor Ayala
Samuel Lind Art Studio
Loíza Tourism Office
Hermanos Ayala: Bomba de Loiza (CD)
The definitive album of the Loíza bomba sound. Check out the samples, and maybe let some bomba creep into your life.
These guys will help you get around:
Tel: 787-876-3628, 787-374-1056CL
Open: Daily 8am-5pm.
Taxi, van and school bus services for tours around Loíza.
Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org