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The Globe and Mail

Puerto Rico's Tiny Saints; You Can Buy A Lot More Than T-Shirts And Shell Necklaces In Old San Juan. Traditional Religious Carvings Such As The Three Kings Continue To Play A Prominent Role In Christmas Customs – And Attract Travellers With An Eye For Art


15 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Jose Ramon Rosario spreads his roll of carving tools next to a centuries-old stone wall in Old San Juan and begins to carefully chip away at a block of Puerto Rican mahogany.

Rosario is a santero, a carver of the rustic wooden saints that are so ubiquitous in Puerto Rico, whether you're visiting a tony art museum or a tacky tourist shop. Today, he's working on a favourite theme – the Three Kings, the wise men who followed the star from the East to the nativity 12 days after the very first Christmas. Like Rosario's trio, the black Balthazar is always flanked by his two bearded colleagues, Caspar and Malchior, bearing gifts and sitting, Puerto Rican-style, astride little wooden horses.

It doesn't take a visitor to Puerto Rico long to discern that, beyond the sandy beaches, swish hotels, gambling houses and cock fights, this is a deeply religious country with a fascinating history that melds native Indian traditions with Spanish maritime exploration, colonialism and slavery. And these little statues – depicting Christian religious figures from the Virgin Mary to Santa Barbara or the Magi – can explain a lot of it.

The tradition of worshipping saints is distinctly Catholic, imported to this Caribbean island with the first wave of colonialists after Christopher Columbus landed here and claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493. But before that, the native Tainos people worshipped their own gods, with icons called cemies carved from stone, wood and even gold. Santos carving began hundreds of years ago to give those living in the rural areas of Puerto Rico, far from priests and churches, a way to worship at home.

Families adopted their own personal saints, creating household shrines where they might ask for blessings, favours and advice. A family's carvings were cherished possessions – both the wooden icons themselves and the tradition of favouring a particular saint, passed down through generations.

But not all Puerto Ricans embraced the Catholicism imposed by their Spanish masters in the early 16th century. In fact, when African slaves arrived on the island around 1510, they took their Yoruba religion – the root of today's Santeria – underground, using the Christian santos in place of their own orishas. Today, both religions thrive in Puerto Rico and several saints have dual personalities, depending on where they are worshipped.

But whatever incarnation they represent, it's clear these figurines still play a prominent role in Puerto Rican life. You'll find them in museums and galleries in Old San Juan, in souvenir shops and antique stores. The best examples from revered carvers such as Don Zoilo Cajigas, Florencio Caban and Carmelo Soto are highly collectible works of art. The largest collection of Puerto Rican santos in the world is housed in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and in Old San Juan there is a small but important collection in the Museum of the Americas.

Here you can see devotional santos created by both famous and anonymous carvers, including the Black Virgin of Monserrate and the Virgin del Carmen.

But even in the souvenir shops and galleries of Old San Juan there are vintage and contemporary figurines to admire. And while santos are probably the most popular Puerto Rican souvenir, even rudimentary carvings are not cheap.

At El Galpon, Gustavo Lerner sells santos for $73 to $485 and up. A 10-centimetre modern version of the Kings on horseback, signed by Archilla of Dorado, goes for $465. Down the street at the late Angel Botello's stunning gallery, there is a case filled with antique santos. And at Ole, a crowded little souvenir shop around the corner, Heidi Jeffs can show you modern saints carved by artists such as Luis Rodriguez and Jose Negron ($120 to $485) or the vintage versions, with their layers of peeling paint and missing limbs ($725 to $1,450). "There are definitely two kinds of customers," she says, "the kind that are just devoted to St. Francis or the Virgin, or the ones who collect santos as art."

But it is the Three Kings – Los Tres Reyes Magos – who are among the most popular. Even at the new Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (with its huge permanent collection of Puerto Rican fine art, sculpture garden and chic Pikayo restaurant), the gift store is loaded with artistic renditions of the Kings – eclectic takes on the tradition in clay, steel and recycled objects.

The Three Kings represent the Epiphany, celebrated on Jan. 6 in various Christian traditions around the world, but with particular gusto in Puerto Rico. Like Christmas Day, Jan. 6 is a traditional gift-giving day for Puerto Ricans. Most families here adopt a particular saint for their own family prayers, and in Marta Albanese Bras's family, it is the Three Kings.

"January 6 is a very special day for us – on the eve of January 6, we still go to my mother's house, and we leave cookies and grass for the Kings and their horses to eat," says Bras, a Puerto Rican acquaintance. "If we are not at home, wherever we are in the world, she will call us and sing us the song of the Three Kings."

The Three Kings have been venerated in Puerto Rican lore for centuries. And in typical flamboyant island style, they've even created their own story about the Kings and their role as suitors to the Three Marys (The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleofas).

In the town of Juana Diaz, the annual festival is devoted to these regal saints, and Three Kings Day is celebrated with a procession of the Three Kings – three local men chosen to represent the country for the year, based on their "ethics and exemplary character," Bras says. Not only do they attend masses around the country and act as ambassadors around the world, the living kings of Juana Diaz hear children's wishes on this 12th day of Christmas when presents are also part of the scene.

The original carvers were not considered artists but spiritual men themselves, called to the work through divine inspiration. Today, the santeros of Puerto Rico have guilds and there are groups of female carvers too. Sometimes the art is passed down through families, but there are also courses at the local university where the craft is taught.

In Jose Ramon Rosario's skilled hands, a 10-centimetre block of wood soon takes on its saint-like proportions – a tiny crown, a stylized beard, and a pair of hands bearing a gift. "I just start by rounding the top, then cutting the face," he says, pulling a small blade fashioned from a steak knife from his kit and whittling away. "I sand them and smooth them with a base of gesso, then I paint them with acrylic paints. Some carvers like to leave the knife marks, but mine are a little more refined."

It will take a week for three new Kings to take their place among his inventory. A tiny trio, a few centimetres high and mounted side-by-side on a little base, will cost about $90. A tourist smitten by his slightly larger carving will have to shell out more than $300.

The Magi were the three wise men who followed the star, and following them today offers an interesting glimpse into Puerto Rico's colourful culture and traditions.

Pack your bags


Museo de las Americas: Calles Norzagaray and San Jose; (787) 724-5052; . Housed in the restored Ballaja Barracks (where Spanish soldiers once lived in Old San Juan). Here you can see all kinds of traditional folk art, including a collection of santos, many created by anonymous carvers more than a century ago.

Museo del Indio: Calle San Jose at the corner of Calle Luna; (787) 721-2864. Explores the history of Puerto Rico's indigenous people, with a good representation of the stone idols, or cemies.

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico: 299 De Diego Ave.; (787) 977-6277; / . Features Puerto Rican art from the 17th to the 21st century. The gift store has artists' interpretations of The Three Kings.


El Galpon: 154 Calle del Cristo, Old San Juan; (787)725-3945. A good selection of folk art, including santos carved by contemporary artisans.

Ole: 105 Calle Forteleza, Old San Juan; (787) 724-2445.


The Festival de los Tres Reyes Magos is a tradition that began in Juana Diaz in 1884. The Jan. 6 Three Kings Day procession through Juana Diaz is the largest in the country, with thousands of people from across Puerto Rico congregating to see the Three Kings in their magnificent robes riding their beautiful horses.


For visitor information, call (787) 721-2400.

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