Puerto Rican Heritage Embodied by Orta Family, a Santos Dynasty

| Published: | Last Updated: May 13, 2022 | ,

Puerto Rican Heritage Symbolized by Beloved Santos

The indigenous Taino people, as well as Spanish colonists and African slaves, all had an influence on Puerto Rican culture. Santos de palo is one of the oldest rituals in Puerto Rico, dating back over two centuries. Santeros, or woodcarvers, carve wooden representations of Roman Catholic saints in this folk craft. These ordinary people have played a significant part in religious worship, family life, communal celebrations, and national identity on the island.

Many santeros live in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s southernmost city, who represent the spirit of this treasured art. I’m pleased to tell you about one of Ponce’s most illustrious santeros!

Santia Rivera Martinez and Domingo Orta

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.

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.

Devotion to Montserrat Virgin

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.

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

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.

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

Miracle of Hormigueros

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.

Three Kings Hold a Special Place in Puerto Rican Heritage

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

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Santia Rivera Martinez, Standard Bearer of Puerto Rican Heritage

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: The Orta family workshop, where Puerto Rican heritage and 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 had passed away. It was a shock, as she had appeared to be the picture of health. I remain grateful for having had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her story.

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