Puerto Rican Santos Tradition as National Identity

| Published: | Last Updated: May 19, 2022 | ,

Puerto Rican Santos Inspires Collectors

Santos are carved wooden figures of the Roman Catholic celestial hierarchy that are an important element of Puerto Rico’s culture, appearing in religious service, family life, communal festivities, and national identity. Despite obstacles, the Puerto Rican Santos craft has survived and continues to inspire devotion among both the faithful and an ever-growing number of collectors. I am pleased to share the Puerto Rico I came to know through conversations with its santeros, and their advocates and aficionados.

Santos carving, a traditional Puerto Rican folk craft, represents national identity through the celebration of spiritual elements. Santos figures have symbolized the relevance of Roman Catholic traditions in Puerto Rico for over two centuries. They may be found anywhere, from a church’s altar to a family member’s shelf. They even play an important role in several community celebrations.

The significance of Puerto Rican Santos is not only acknowledged by religious folks, but also art historians and collectors. By amassing these items, collectors have been able to preserve and share Puerto Rican culture with the world. Keep reading as we look at the Santos tradition through the lens of two collectors, Hector Puig and Dr Billy Torres as well as Museum of the Americas docent, Maria Torres. All three have dedicated much of their lives to collecting and documenting this uniquely Puerto Rican tradition.

“In order for this tradition to continue strong, young carvers must be cultivated and supported,” Hector said, explaining one such way that collectors contribute to the sustainability of the Santos tradition.

Puerto Rican Santos As Bridge

Each Santos is a unique piece of Puerto Rican folk art. Each difference is recognizable by collectors, such as the craftsmanship of the original creator to the subject of the piece itself.

Florida businessman Hector Puig, 42, has a passion for Santos that has been a bridge back to Puerto Rico, where he lived until he was 13 years old. An avid collector of the art form since 1997, he returns to the island regularly to visit with the santeros who are themselves a source of immense inspiration for him, as well as a connection to his roots and culture.

“Santos are the one thing that unite and define Puerto Rico’s identity, a symbol of who we are as a people, an expression of our foundation of Spanish, Taíno and African heritages.” Puig said.

“Please understand that one doesn’t pray to the santo, but through them, as vehicles to God, a means of accessing a higher power,” he said. “My favorite santo is the Virgin of Montserrat. My father was a Mariano, a devout Catholic who had tremendous faith and love for the Virgin Mary. Perhaps, this memory of his unshakable conviction drove me to the Virgin of Montserrat, an image which comes from Mount Montserrat in Northern Spain and has been a presence in Puerto Rico since the Spaniards landed on the island. I regularly engage in meditation with La Monserrate, communicating with Her as if She was with me at that very moment.”

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

Connections with Famed Artisans

Puig went on to describe first meeting the Orta family, a famous family of Santos carvers, in 1998, when he visited them with another renowned santero, Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet, who had sharpened his skills and received much knowledge about the santo tradition from Domingo Orta.

“I had commissioned a Miracle of Hormigueros from several of the Ortas at that time: don Domingo, Domingo Jr., Wilfredo and Adrian Rodriguez, husband to one of Domingo’s daughters and a great carver himself.” Puig recalled. “There was a perception that any piece carved by a member of the Orta family was the same, and I sought to organize an exhibit demonstrating that each one of them has their very own style, or cut.”

“When I went to pick up the Miracles, I was in awe of meeting Domingo, who was considered a living legend,” he said. “Even though he was small in stature, he was an imposing figure, very stern and stoic, with a lot of charisma. The family was very proud of him and I was so impressed with their dynamics — very united and supportive, with no jealousy or unhealthy competition.”

“As soon as I began meeting the santeros, I was struck by their obvious mysticism and sincerity,” Puig declared. “I am not a religious person, but I am a spiritual man and as I have traveled across Puerto Rico meeting elder santeros and younger carvers, it has been a journey of discovery and faith.”

Hector’s First Santero

Puig described his encounter with the first santero he met, Ceferino Calderón Albaladejo of Morovis, whom he visited in 1998 with his aunt and a former college art professor.

Ceferino Calderon Albaladejo Santero
Santero Ceferino Calderón Albaladejo. Photo: Hector Puig.

“As we left, my professor, a worldly man in his sixties, said to me ‘That was one of the most special moments of my life,’ ”Puig recalled. “I knew exactly what he was talking about. Ceferino had such an incredible presence and aura you couldn’t help but feel his faith and devotion.”

Ceferino is particularly well-known for his figures of guardian angels. The first one he made was carved from the knot of a piece of male cedar, a very hardwood and he carried it in his pocket everywhere, continually caressing and praying to it.

One of Puig’s favorite pieces in his collection is a Virgin of Providence by Ceferino, another figure for which the santero was well-known. Ceferino first carved this image after his wife died, inspired by a series of vivid dreams. He left the Virgin unpainted and kept it at his bedside, referring to “Her” as his companion.

Spirituality and Santos, a Divine Connection

Puig credits the spirituality of the santeros he met in his early days of collecting with driving the focus of his avocation, which revolves not around a certain time period, but rather the personal meaning of a given figure to the artist who made it. Puig seeks out pieces that a santero holds truly special or considers highly personal, such as the first depiction of a particular santo he or she ever made. In addition to the Ceferino Virgin of Providence piece, Puig has in his collection the saints the santero kept on his personal altar, which Ceferino bequeathed to him.

Puig has participated in Santos exhibits in many museums and venues throughout the United States & Puerto Rico. His collection encompasses approximately 1,500 figures of saints and includes very early pieces by the first santeros on record in Puerto Rico, Felipe de La Espada & his son Tiburcio, both from San Germán.

Roughly 300 of the Puerto Rican Santos in Puig’s collection pre-date 1920 but he considers it a mission to support contemporary carvers –as long as they understand what it means to be a santero and have shown dedication, knowledge and respect to the tradition. Puig considers Domingo Junior, along with Antonio Aviles and Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet (featured in Parts I and II, respectively) to be among the master carvers of today.

Puerto Rican Santos | Hector Puig Santos Collector
Florida businessman Hector Puig, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has been a santos collector for more than twenty years. Photo: Hector Puig

“The faith of these santeros is as profound as any of earlier eras,” Puig observed. “I encourage people visiting the island to meet these amazing artisans in person. For any individual with an open heart, to meet a santero is to experience the true essence of what this beautiful tradition is all about. The contemporary santeros deserve to be supported and this work must continue,” Puig declared.

Santeros, Community of Artists

While in Ponce, as elsewhere in Puerto Rico, I was welcomed by people both proud of their heritage and at the same time, without pretension. One of the many new Ponceno friends I made, Carmen A. Martínez Aja, spoke eloquently of the role filled by the santeros.

“Our artisans are humble people with deep roots in the community,’ she said. “They have raised their children in the craft tradition and are well loved by the city for various reasons; they are good, decent people who make a living making us proud of the cultural heritage they create. Their work, which is created with love, is considered an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage and we are very proud that the work of our Ponce citizens is held in such high esteem by collectors, tourists and common people. They are the best ambassadors we have because their work travels around the world presenting the best that Ponce has to offer. They represent the friendly spirit of Ponce because they open their homes and their workshops to strangers.”

Perhaps the only difference between the santeros of yesteryear and today is that now the universe of those seeking their artistic expression of faith extends far beyond the mountains and shores of Puerto Rico.

Editor’s Note: Santos dynasty matriarch Santia Rivera Martinez passed away not long after this piece was first published. It is a privilege to have had the opportunity to hear and share her story.

Dr Billy Torres | Museo de los Santos

Dr Billy Torres is the founder of Museo de los Santos in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and advocate for the preservation of this Puerto Rican folk art. He was able to share his experience with Puerto Rican Santos.

“My first encounter with the Santos was in 1962 when I was 10 years old and found a Christ on the cross carved in wood in a garbage container on the street,” said Dr. Billy Torres. “This Cristo was carved in 1875 and belonged to my great-grandmother and was a wedding gift from her mother. It had been thrown out due to damage by termites.”

Puerto Rican Santos | Billy Torres Museo de los Santos
Dr. Billy Torres, founder of Museo de los Santos in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Photo: Meg Pier

“Later when I was attending the University of Puerto Rico, I had a Humanities course assignment to interview a Santero in Orocovis, Don Celestino Avilés Meléndez,” Torres continued. “From him, I learned about my Cristo, as well as how the santeros prepared their altars, the different prayers they said. That started my interest in learning more about the santeros as part of the cultural heritage from my area of the island.”

Passion Becomes Dedication | Puerto Rican Santos

Torres’ fledgling interest blossomed into a full-fledged passion — today, almost 50 years later, he owns more than 300 pieces, which he seeks to share with others through his Museo de los Santos. Housed in his Arts & Crafts-style bungalow in the San Juan suburb of Santurce, the collection can be seen by appointment, with Torres offering a fact-filled color commentary on individual pieces and the tradition’s history.

Among the pieces he owns are numerous renditions of the Virgin Mary, a beloved image throughout Puerto Rico. I asked him what particular characteristics he looked for in this representation.

“When a Virgin winks at you, you have to take her home,’ he said with a smile. He went on to say more seriously that it was often the equivalent of a proverbial twinkle in the eye of a figure that might prompt a purchase, an elusive quality that was hard to name but also hard to resist.

Billy showed me a piece made by Zoilo Cajigas about 1940, a representation of the Virgin’s escape to Egypt with Joseph and the infant Jesus. Torres went on to explain that Cajigas was considered part of the group of ‘spiritual’ santeros–a tradition that had been in decline for some time due to myriad factors.

Carlos Cajigas Santos
Carlos Cajigas, grandson of Zoilo Cajigas with his carving of The Three Kings on horses before applying paint, collection of Héctor Puig.

Torres ticked off a handful of developments that contributed to the decline of the Puerto Rican Santos tradition. The 1898 U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico brought in its wake Protestant missionaries who called for converts to burn the Santos. Later efforts to impose the use of the English language in classrooms had an impact on how items of countryside heritage were viewed. And in the 1960s, the march of progress presented shiny plastic versions of the saints, often seen as having a modern cache that the old Santos did not.

God as Muse for Puerto Rican Art

In 1956, Don Ricardo Alegria, an anthropologist and champion of Puerto Rican culture, made a documentary movie that featured Cajigas as an iconic santero, contrasting his approach to wood carving–inspired by God and nature–with the machine-made, mass-produced figures that had begun rolling off production lines. The film inspired a revival of Santos and santeros in Puerto Rican culture.

Puerto Rican Santos | Santos Carving Billy Torres
A santos carving from the collection of Dr. Billy Torres. Photo: Meg Pier

According to Torres, the early santos were made using Puerto Rican woods which were moth and weather resistant and easy to carve, such as guaraguao–a close relative of mahogany, cedro hembra, or Spanish cedar–which has reddish wood and a fragrant odor, and roble or oak. Farmers cut the wood when conditions were dry and the moon was waning — it was believed at this time, the tree sap also “waned” down to the tree’s roots. Since they thought sap attracted termites, by cutting during the waning moon, they expected the wood to be termite free. When making a saint, generally the head, the body, and the clothing are carved from a single piece of wood.

Torres said the folk art is categorized in three distinct periods: Colonial, with the influence of Spanish tradition–a more sophisticated style that dates from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century; Autoctono or naïve, which uses local Puerto Rican colors and characteristic child-like faces; and Contemporary, made by modern santos and not necessarily reflecting religious or mystic influences.

“My collection is focused on the antique carvers,” he continued. “I have important examples of different santeros, like Cachetones, Espada, Arce, Genaro Rivera, Francisco Rivera Juanito Cartagena, Jose Ramos, Antonio Crespo, Claudio Pacheco.”

Minimalism in Puerto Rican Santos

Francisco Claudio was known as “Pacheco,” and was a sculptor in the first half of the 20th century who lived in the barrio of Candelaria in Vega Alta, a town to the west of San Juan. He is said to have been jovial character whose stammer didn’t prevent him from being a ladies’ man — Pacheco is reputed to have had many affairs and children but there are no records indicating he was married.

Pacheco’s work is noted for its extreme minimalism, and naïve and simple carving and painting. Billy showed me a piece by the artisan that was a representation of the subject for which he was best known, Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes, or “Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.” The trademark imagery includes the eleven figures wearing wimples, a cloth wound around the head, framing the face, and drawn into folds beneath the chin, worn by women in medieval times and as part of the habit of certain orders of nuns.

While Pacheco is universally considered a master santero among all with an interest in the folk art, and widely identified with the 11,000 Virgins image in particular, collectors are driven by uniquely personal passions.

“Collectors have a tendency to discuss their collections and the strong elements and pieces within them,” said Hector Puig, a native of Puerto Rico and santos collector based in Gainesville, Florida. “I was aware of Dr. Torres’ collection and he knew of my 11,000 Virgins by Francisco Claudio. There are only about six to seven examples of the 11,000 Virgins by don Pacheco that I know of; only two to three of these have their original base, as both of mine did. This depiction is the most famous of don Pacheco, however, few intact examples survived, for two reasons.”

Hector Puig Santos Collector Puerto Rico
Photo: Hector Puig

“First, don Pacheco used simple materials for the base–sometimes wood from cajas de bacalao or cod boxes,” Puig said. “Consequently, the bases would often get infested with termites or other damaging insects. The second reason is that when Santos became popular for the tourist market in the early ’60s, unscrupulous dealers and individuals would separate into pieces the 11,000 Virgins by don Pacheco, and make multiple santos of individual Virgins. Most often, they would usually make Virgins of Mount Carmel and have another santero make the baby and add a base to it. This way, they could make more money selling the individual pieces.”

“Dr. Billy invited me to his home. He had an 11,000 Virgins by contemporary carver don Carlos Vasquez, whom he had met personally and commissioned him to create the piece,” Puig continued. “I had been approached by several collectors on the island to purchase my don Pacheco 11,000 Virgin piece and offered a substantial amount of money for it. However, I opted to trade with Dr. Torres for the don Carlos Vasquez piece because I wanted to present my core belief that contemporary pieces are as significant as old pieces and real mysticism exists in the santos of today. It was ‘an even trade’ as such and no money was exchanged. He now has a beloved don Pacheco piece and I have the only depiction of the 11,000 Virgins by don Carlos Vasquez that I have ever seen.”

Don Carlos Vazquez was from the Barrio Cordillera in the town of Ciales and according to Puig became a huge inspiration to many contemporary carvers, among them don Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet. Don Carlos was very active from the 1950’s- 1980’s, an era erroneously labeled by some as the “end” of the years of the “true” santero in Puerto Rico.

Local Importance of Saint Ursula

“Vazquez’s work undoubtedly possesses the mysticism of the santeros of earlier days on the island,” declared Puig. “He influenced many carvers to pay attention to the essential elements needed to create a “true” Santo. Consequently, these master carvers were able to pass on his knowledge of what it signifies to be a santero, not just a talented carver producing an image from a block of wood.

The devotion to Saint Ursula and her handmaidens is a long-held tradition. According to legend, Ursula was the daughter of a Christian king in Britain and was granted a three-year postponement of a marriage she did not wish, to a pagan prince. With ten ladies in waiting, each attended by a thousand maidens, she embarked on a voyage across the North Sea, sailed up the Rhine to Basle, Switzerland, and then went to Rome. On their way back, they were all massacred by pagan Huns at Cologne in about 451 when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain.

The legend is pious fiction, but what is true is that a basilica in Cologne was built to honor a group of virgins who had been martyred there. They were evidently venerated enough to have had a church built in their honor, but who they were and how many of them there were, are unknown. From these meager facts, the legend of Ursula grew.

For Puerto Ricans, the lore of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins has a local significance. During the 1797 siege by the British of San Juan, the island’s Bishop Juan Bautista called for a rogativa or prayer procession through the city, dedicated to Saint Ursula and her handmaidens, and “…asking the God of Armies to humiliate that proud nation, an enemy of his Holy Name, and that he distances and eliminates it from our sight, so that we can worship his Divine Majesty with a relaxed spirit and in the peace of our altars…”

Puerto Rican Santos | Old San Juan Statue
Old San Juan statue commemorates 1797 prayer procession through the city, dedicated to Saint Ursula. Photo: Meg Pier 

With the country’s men engaged in active battle, it was the island’s women who paraded through the city’s streets on the night of April 30 to the score of bells ringing from the towers of the Cathedral and other churches, carrying torches in their hands. The legend says that British commander General Abercromby mistook the throngs of women for troops of reinforcements, and May 1, the British ships set sail and retreated from the island.

Museum of the Americas | Preserving Puerto Rico

Retracing my steps, I left El Morro and crossed the street to the Museum of the Americas, one of many cultural institutions founded by Ricardo Alegria, whose efforts to preserve Puerto Rican heritage have garnered awards by organizations such as the National Endowment for Humanities, the Smithsonian and UNESCO. The area in which the Museum is located was built by the Spanish army in the 1800s and served as a home to more than 1,000 soldiers and their families until 1898. The building the Museum is housed in is a stunning monument to symmetry, with three stories of elegant balconies overlooking a courtyard. The rooms in which the individual galleries are located at one time served as bedrooms, kitchens, and stables.

Old San Juans Museum of the Americas
Old San Juan’s Museum of the Americas, one of many cultural institutions founded by Ricardo Alegria. Photo: Meg Pier

The Call of the Wood to Maria Torres

Finding the gallery that is home to the Museum’s Puerto Rican Santos collection, I met docent Maria Torres.

“I started working at the museum back in 1996,” said Maria. “In preparation for the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the preservation of the Puerto Rican folk arts and a specialized museum program for public schools the Museum docents had to take a lecture given by one of the historians and defenders of our culture, Mr Walter Murray Chiesa.”

“In the lecture, Mr Murray presented a picture of my dad’s cousin, who used to make musical instruments, especially our national string instrument, the Cuatro Puertorriqueño,” she continued. “I got excited and told everyone that he was my cousin. The way Mr. Murray spoke caught my attention, making my interest in the folk arts grow more. At the end of the three-day workshop I had the urge to carve a saint. I didn’t know why I had that feeling, and I asked my supervisor to teach me how. She told me to buy an X-Acto knife and she would teach me how, so I did.”

“She gave me a little piece of wood 3/4″ wide and not more than 3″ tall; I asked ‘What do I do? And she replied ‘Carve.’ I asked again ‘How?’ to which she said ‘Just carve, just make sure you don’t cut your fingers’ and kept working. I was kind of astonished but gave some strokes to the wood and liked the feeling.”

A couple weeks later an artisan told Torres that the Puerto Rican Culture Institute was giving lessons for santos wood carving on Saturdays for free, an opportunity she pursued.

“Not long afterwards, one of my cousins told me that one of our uncles was also an artisan and he had a kiosk at the Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan,” she said. “He made pilones, or wooden mortars in a lathe, as well as jatacas–soup spoons made from coconut shells and higueras–musical instruments. That’s when I realized why I had the need to work with wood; it was calling me!”

“Becoming a wood artisan is something mystical, mysterious, sacred,” she declared. “Wood calls you like a mother calls her child. You just answer. Most of the old santeros started carving the wood due to a divine message. Some others as a request made by people who wanted to have a small altar in their homes. I started because my family worked and loves working with wood. My dad loved building houses and making knifes and machete’s handles.”

“I had to stop carving when I noticed that I was not doing my house work, eating, drinking water or even going to the bathroom,” she said. “I carve very little now but from time to time, the wood calls me.”

Puerto Rican Santos Tradition | The Powerful Hand

The Museum has a piece called Mano Poderosa or “the Holy Hand” by Luis Gonzalez of Toa Alta. Also called the “Powerful Hand,” the image symbolizes the hand of Christ, with members of the Holy Family perched on its fingertips: St. Anne, her husband Joachim, their daughter the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Infant Jesus. The Infant Jesus is typically located on the thumb, representing his importance, since much of a hand’s function depends on the thumb. The palm is depicted with red marks, representing Christ’s wounds on the cross.

Mano Poderosa Santos
Mano Poderosa or “the Holy Hand”. Photo: Meg Pier

The Mano Poderosa is not part of the santoral, the established pantheon of Catholic saints but is a theme developed at the church margins. This symbolic image is considered a syncretism, meaning a mix of beliefs rooted in Catholic and espiritismo, the Latin American and Caribbean belief that good and evil spirits affect health, luck and other elements of human life. The inclusion of the extended family reflects the Latin American and Spanish regard for the family above the individual.

Puerto Rican Santos Tradition | Anima Sola

I was intrigued by another piece in the Museum’s collection called “Anima Sola,” or “Lonely Soul,” done by Celestino Quiles of Orocovis. In my travels I had only seen the representation a handful of times but the imagery was certainly memorable — and very different from the generally gentle and peaceful faces of the spectrum of santos I had encountered.

Billy Torres later educated me about the figure, explaining that in Puerto Rico and other areas of Latin America, Anima Sola represents souls in Purgatory–a basic concept of Catholic Church, in which a soul who died without confession or otherwise without being in a state of grace is purified and made ready for Heaven. The duration of this status depends of the quantity of prayers for such an individual by friends and relatives.

“The concept is generally represented by a naked woman covered by flames, with long hair and both hands in front of her chest, clasped in prayer,” he said. “Usually the chest is uncovered and the flames painted as if a skirt. According to the church the element of fire purifies the soul, making it worthy of entrance to Reino de los Cielos. The figure is always presented in frontal aspect and standing up.”

“The horrendous descriptions made in the Middle Ages about the Purgatory resulted in the proliferation of cofradies or groups dedicated to the redemption of the Almas del Purgatorio,” he continued. “We don’t know exactly when the popular devotion arrived to the island but the Anima Sola is considered a patron of unmarried people. Others in Puerto Rico suggest that the Anima Sola is more a symbol of patience — but is not a saint from whom you solicit miracles or the intercession of the Supreme Celestial Tribunal.”

History Lesson at Galeria Botello

From the Museum, I meandered through the city’s streets, making my way to a main thoroughfare of the Hato Rey district, lined with high-end shops. To sidestep the masses swarming uphill from a newly-docked cruise ship, I opened the door of Galeria Botello, relieved to enter its air-conditioned interior.

Galeria Botello Interior
Galeria Botello Interior – Photo: Galería Botello / Facebook

I realized that perhaps a divine hand of some sort had guided me into the gallery, as it has long represented santos collectors. A handsome hand-made cabinet housed a significant collection–the majority of the santos that Galeria Botello carries are antique pieces created between 1880 and 1930 and ranging in price from $700 to $8,000. Currently, there are three contemporary pieces in the collection, two of which were created by Antonio Aviles in 1998 and the third was made by Luiso “Liso” Franqui at around the same time.

“Most of our collectors are off-island but we also work with local collectors who may be looking for a specific piece–for example, someone may be in the market for a ‘Powerful Hand’ by a certain artist,” said Nancy Elsasser, who has worked at the gallery for 25 years.
The gallery was founded by Angel Botello in 1960–now deceased, he had been a long-time restorer as well as a collector.

“Angel really got his start as a collector through restoration, which he did as a hobby,” said Elsasser. “He had hundreds and hundreds of pieces of odd legs, or hands, or the baby Jesus. He knew who had carved each piece and so when someone needed a santo by a particular artist restored and, say, a hand replaced, Angel would be able to supply a piece made by that santero.”

Galeria Botello Santos
Photo: Galería Botello / Facebook

“Restorers are no longer restoring, it’s becoming a lost art” she said. “A young man who did restoration work for us stopped about five years ago because of all the chemicals. It’s a field that is no longer available. Now most people who are interested in restoration have to go through the Ponce Museum.”

There are differing views about restoring a piece. Often history is involved in the coats of paint. Some pieces may have twenty coats of paint–applying a fresh coat of paint to a santo was a common form of thanks to a saint that had successfully interceded on behalf of a petitioner and accomplished the requested “miracle.” Some collectors seek to restore a piece to the coat of paint applied by the santero who created it. To others, if you strip a piece down, you are stripping away some of its history.

In the old days, santeros made their own paints at home. Black was made from soot mixed with linseed oil and boiled for a long period. Common red clay was the source of red. Indigo produced blue and green and yellow was created through pulverized stone. Santos were often painted with gold and silver details. Brushes were home-made, with the hair of pigs, dogs or cats fitted into a bird quill. Certain colors are typically associated with specific saints — St. Anthony’s robes are blue and St. Francis is always shown in brown; the Virgin of Carmen is depicted with a red dress and white cape.

Elsasser said that the condition of a piece is a primary factor in determining its worth — but that it is not necessarily a huge detriment if a santo is missing a hand, or a figure of St. Anthony is missing the book he is traditionally depicted as holding. What will take away from the value is if something is added to the piece that is not consistent with its creation.

Puerto Rican Santos Examples
Left Photo – Virgen del Carmen by Anónimo, Right Photo – Virgen de Monserrate by Anónimo – Photo Credits: Galería Botello / Facebook

“When a Santo is so old that its paint is flaking, then it should be restored,” Elsasser asserted. “That condition would be viewed as questionable when assessing a piece’s worth.”

Elsasser pointed out pieces by several of the well-known santeros and the particular attributes for which their carvings are known. Florencio Caban is known for his tall, slim figures, with his signature crown — other carvers in the Caban family created more full-bodied pieces. Benigno Soto created beautiful faces but the hands of his santos aren’t in scale to the rest of the body. Both Francisco Rivera and his son Hernando were very fine carvers, with great attention to detail, such as the folds of a robe.

Collecting is Personal

Elsasser has her own santos collection and began it with two initial purchases–a male and female piece. She chose the Virgin of Carmel, which she said she always had an affinity for, and a St. Joesph santo, which she selected as a companion to her Virgin, and because the piece was one she considered particularly beautiful.

When asked what she looked for in a santos, Nancy responded, “Like every art form, it is so personal–I look at the faces, the expressions.”

Elsasser said that nativity scenes are often passed down as family heirlooms, with each generation adding figures of the saints. She has started collections for each of her four children; her daughter now has 14 pieces. Her daughter bought a santo for her nephew upon his graduation from law school — he chose a figure of St. Raymond, who is the patron saint of those born by Caesarean section, as he had been.

“We’re Catholic, but my children are not church goers; their interest in santos is as antique fine art pieces, not religious items,” she said. “Church is different today — you don’t hear about things like praying for the lost souls in Purgatory like I did as a kid. Today, the emphasis is on doing good here and now, being kind to others, contributing to the community.”

The cultural significance of santos goes far beyond religious symbolism. We learned from Hector Puig, a collector who has left his homeland only to find it again, that inspiration comes in many ways. Dr Billy Torres, who endeavors to share the santos with others through the museum he founded, reveals the power of symbols. Maria Torres describes what it’s like to get the call to carve. And Nancy Elsasser offers insight into the lost art of restoring santos, as well as affirming that the reasons for collecting are deeply personal. Santos have come to represent the cultural spirit of Puerto Rico. We hope you’ve enjoyed these glimpses into how the Puerto Rican santos tradition is being carried on and preserved.

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Header image – Coleccionistas de Santos de palo de Puerto Rico / Facebook

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