Master of Puerto Rican Tradition Shares Meaning of Santos

Updated on January 2, 2024 by Meg Pier

Ponce, the Island’s Second Largest City

Descending ever-so-gradually from the heights of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central Mountains, we eased into the flat expanse of the fertile alluvial plain that reached to the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Ahead, giant, one-story tall letters spanned the highway and exuberantly shouted out the good news—my husband Tom and I had arrived in Ponce. We drove through the “N” and “C” to enter a magical world where style and substance melded, light-hearted whimsy and deeply-held faith fused, and epochs in the city’s 500-year history were spelled out with a diverse assortment of symbolism.

Puerto Rican Tradition
The view along the drive from Old San Juan to Ponce. Photo: Meg Pier

We easily found our way to Ponce’s center and its most emblematic image. The heartbeat of the city, the beloved landmark Parque de Bombas, pulsated with character and dramatic flair, a fitting proxy for its people. The unique red and black, century-old wooden firehouse was originally built in 1882 for an exposition and from 1883 to 1989 was headquarters of the Ponce Fire Corps. Today, it serves as a museum and the city’s tourism hub from its perch on the rim of Ponce’s Plaza Las Delicias or “Plaza of Delights.”

The square and the streets radiating from it are lined with iconic architecture that tells the story of the city’s days as the hub of the island’s rum, sugar cane, coffee and shipping industries. Between the late 1890s and 1930s, Ponce’’s elite made social statements with their considerable fortunes by building showcase structures in a wide spectrum of styles—Art Deco, Art Noveau, Spanish Colonial, Neoclassic, Modernism, Mudejar, Spanish Revival, and Victorian. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has allocated $440 million to restore a 66-block downtown area of Ponce, encompassing 1,046 buildings.

Puerto Rican Tradition
Parque de Bombas was Puerto Rico’s first-ever fire station and was originally built as the main exhibit pavilion for the 1882 Exhibition Trade Fair. Today it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: Meg Pier

After wandering the city’s streets admiring its eclectic mix of architecture, we reached the “Lion’s Bridge.” We had not expected to find a pride of lions holding court in Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, but the majestic creatures seemed to be everywhere—one perched high above the banks of Rio Portugues on muscular back haunches, with a paw swiping the air; another reclining in a pool of cool water at Plaza Las Delicias, mouth hanging open; and another one, standing proud at La Guancha Beach, face wreathed in a billowing mane.

Puerto Rican Tradition
Ponce is known as La Ciudad de los Leones or “City of Lions,” and was founded in 1692 by the grandson of the great Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico. Photo: Meg Pier

Slow on the uptake, we eventually connected the dots and realized that these artistic effigies were homage to the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico’s first governor. De Leon had landed on this stretch of the island’s southern coast in 1508, met by Agüeybaná, chief of the indigenous Taino Indians.

We found tributes to more modern-era Poncenos across the street from the Lion’s Bridge in Tricentenary Park. A series of bronze plaques embedded along a trellised arcade honor residents who have contributed to the community in fields such as law, medicine, art, music and literature. We realized that the man with whom we had an afternoon appointment was among those distinguished citizens.

Master Santos Artisan Pedro Pablo Rinaldi of Ponce

After a short drive to the suburb Villa Dos Rios east of downtown Ponce, we found the Rinaldi residence and were welcomed warmly by Pedro, a robust, passionate man whose energy belied his 71 years of age. He ushered us into his office, which was a reflection of his vibrant personality, and teemed with carvings, colorful paintings and posters, plaques, and piles of papers. We settled in and the santero began to weave his spell, regaling us with Puerto Rico’s early history, and the evolution of the Puerto Rican santos tradition.

An intangible Puerto Rican tradition is santos carving, a form of Puerto Rican religious folk art that has been around for more than two centuries. Santos are carved wooden figures of the Roman Catholic celestial hierarchy. These play a major role in religious worship, as well as in family life, community celebrations, and national identity. Pedro Pablo Rinaldi is a master Santos carver based in Ponce, and I was able to speak with him about the ancient Puerto Rican tradition. Continue reading for an in-depth explanation of the famous santos carving tradition!

Taino People

According to Pedro, the practice dates to 1508 and to the Barrio Espeino, a Franciscan settlement. He said the conquest of the island by the Spanish was two-fold, with the political battle waged with swords and the religious conversion conducted with symbolic santos. The Taino people were expert carvers with a profound knowledge of the Puerto Rican forests and its woods. The Spanish introduced Catholicism to the Taino through the religion’s pantheon of saints, cleverly designating that it must be the sons of chiefs, as nobles of stature, who could be allowed to carve the santos figures.

Puerto Rican Tradition
The Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park offers insight into Puerto Rico’s earliest inhabitants, the Taino people, who are believed to have lived here from approximately 1000AD to the beginning of the 15th century when they were wiped out by the Spanish. Photo: Meg Pier

Popular Catholicism developed—based on church doctrine, but adapted to include the rituals of the Taino and, later, the influence of Africans brought to the island as slaves. The practice of the religion was imbued with the music, dance, and symbolism of these cultures, with festivities developing such as the “singing rosary,” “promises to the Three Kings” and Velorios Cantados, or “singing wake.”

A Puerto Rican Tradition Begins

Santos caught on in a meaningful way. Churches were few and far between and regular attendance at services was limited by the great distances needed to travel from remote settlements–yet it was against the law not to be Catholic. As a result, every home needed to have a santo to prove its inhabitants were among the faithful and household altars were developed around the resident santos. Life was hard and figures of saints were relied upon for relief from every ailment and all the daily difficulties.

When a bad situation was resolved by praying to a specific saint, an offering was made to the santo as a reward, called a milagro or “miracle,” or ex voto. These were small figurines usually carved in silver, symbolizing the part of the body that was cured. The milagro would have a tiny hole through which a wire could be threaded, and the piece would be hung from the santo that worked the miracle. In communities in which a specific santo was viewed as particularly powerful, it was not uncommon for that figure to be strung with hundreds of ex votos.

Intrigued by Puerto Rican folk art? Then you'll love the Vejigantes tradition!

Puerto Rican Tradition of Santos Develops Distinct Identity

The santero was the person who made the santos, ex votos and households altars, fundamental to the Puerto Rican santos tradition. In the 1750s, a national identity started to develop as Puerto Rican santeros moved from copying the highly stylized icons brought from Spain by colonists to developing their own approach that was simpler and more naïve. Anatomical proportions often begin to appear distorted, not necessarily out of lack of artistic perspective but to reflect the characteristics the carver attribute to the santos. Enlarged heads, eyes and ears reminded the owner that he was being listened to and watched over by a powerful protector who would intercede with God on his behalf.

Puerto Rican Tradition
Santos created by master artisan Pedro Rinaldi. Photo: Meg Pier

“The santos became the perfect communicator between material and spiritual situations,” explained Pedro. “The santero became most likely our first psychologist. and knew which santo to use. With few priests on the island, a member of the community who could read or express himself would preside over religious rituals.”

If someone believed their ailment was cured as a result of the santero’s skill, faith in that carver’s ability as a healer and intermediary would grow. Rinaldi said that he observed as recently as the late 1990s the practice of a mother or grandmother taking a young pregnant woman to a santero so he could bless the pregnancy.

Puerto Rican Tradition Faces Challenges

Despite the popularity of the Puerto Rican santos tradition–or perhaps because of it–santos have faced challenges historically and in recent times.

“As early as 1684 the bishops on the island began to criticize and censor these practices because they usually ended in drinking, dancing and uncontrolled festivity, which were contrary to the institutionalized religious rituals,” said Rinaldi. “In 1729, bishops began referring to the santos as an evil practice. Early in the 20th century an American bishop, William Jones, moved to ban the ex votos, which as symbolized parts of the human body, he considered indecorous. He ordered them to be removed and collected. They were melted and made into chandeliers and painting frames.”

In the 1960s, another challenge to the Puerto Rican santos tradition came from the Catholic Church’s Reformation Movement. Figures of saints were removed from churches, leaving only images of Jesus Christ and the patron saint of the town.

“A Vatican Council removed many of their saints mostly because they did not have biographical information,” said Rinaldi. “Later, Pope Paul VI stated that popular religion well-oriented is of great value. Today, we see how the church as an institution welcomes Rosarios Cantados, Velorios Cantados, Fiestas de Cruz, within many other popular religious activities.”

Puerto Rican Tradition Draws Collectors

According to Rinaldi, in the 1950s, anthropologist Yvonne Lange did a study of Puerto Rico’s santos tradition, identifying 120 santeros on the island between 1890 and the 1950s and making the controversial statement that the last santero, Zoila Cajiga, had died in 1962. Her report awakened people both locally and internationally to the tradition. Her work inspired a wave of collectors who were drawn to the tradition out of nostalgia or art appreciation, rather than veneration.

“If they could eliminate the last santero, they could begin to collect instead of reconnect,” observed Rinaldi.

When I asked Rinaldi to describe a santero, he was quick to reply.

“Unselfish, puts himself and his energy in the work he does, he knows about people, he respects nature and wastes nothing,” Rinaldi said emphatically. “He knows a lot of things, and is simple but proud.”

Rinaldi is doing his part to ensure the Puerto Rican santos tradition continues. He became interested in carving santos when he was 30 years old. He attended a fair in Ponce where he met Carlos Vazquez from Celias, who was in his 60s at the time and is now deceased. Rinaldi remembered seeing the man’s fragility and wondering how he could carve something with so much strength. He was inspired and sought out the tradition’s elders, meeting two dozen santeros that year. He took on his first student 35 years ago and began giving lectures at schools and social clubs on “Santos and Identity.”

Nonetheless, Rinaldi conceded the tradition is at risk of becoming extinct.

Puerto Rican Tradition is About People and Spirituality

“We can never lose sight of the basis of the Puerto Rican santos tradition, which is people,” he declared. “Not rich people, but those who promote devotion. It is devotion which is the richness, not ‘George Washington’ richness. My greatest moments have been as a santero, not as an insurance agent. Anybody can pick up a tool and carve—very few will give you a sense of the responsibility involved in 500 years of history.”

Puerto Rican Tradition
Ponce master santero Pedro Pablo Rinaldi in his studio. Photo: Meg Pier

Cheryl Hartup is someone who shares Pedro Pablo Rinaldi’s respect for the santos tradition, although from a different vantage point. From 2005 - 2012, Hartup was chief curator of Museo de Arte de Ponce, the largest art museum in the Caribbean. MAP, as it’s called locally, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 with a $30 million renovation. The Museum hosts a collection of approximately 4000 masterpieces in a building that itself is a piece of art, designed by architect Edward Durell Stone, also responsible for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

puerto rican tradition
MAP continues to feature exhibits and demonstrations by santeros. Photo: Museo de Arte de Ponce

When Hartup assumed the role of curator in 2005, she sought to familiarize herself with Puerto Rico in part through learning about its santos tradition, leading to a 2007 exhibit.

“Visiting carvers in Puerto Rico is a great way to see the island–the mountains, the coast, urban centers, plazas, and small remote villages,” she said. “Visiting a carver is a lesson not only in his or her thoughts on the tradition but also technically how each individual works. Family is important. Sometimes various family members work together on a single santo or they work on their carvings in a communal setting.”

“While preparing for the exhibition ‘Hands and Souls: The Santos Tradition in Puerto Rico,’ I interviewed over twenty carvers across the island and with few exceptions they all emphasized that the act of carving is, for them, a spiritual one,” Hartup continued. “Some began carving in response to a blessing they received, others spoke about a spiritual connection they have with each piece they work on. They give themselves to the wood, and the wood responds–to their devotion, belief, meditation on good thoughts–sometimes in surprising ways. For many carvers of all ages and economic backgrounds, faith and art are one and the same.”

“Juan “Nito” Cruz Avilés from Lares who passed away at age 89 in 2009 carved santos every day for more than 70 years,” she explained. “When he was in the 8th grade, a beautiful woman appeared to him in a dream and told him not to worry that he didn’t have any money to buy a suit to wear to graduation. Money was available in Lares because there was a need for someone to continue carving santos. But she told Juan Cruz that he could not ask for money for his work, but only accept the donations of those who appreciated his carvings.”

The Gift of Puerto Rican Tradition

“In conversing with carvers one also learns about the history of Puerto Rico, its economy, and gastronomy,” she concluded. “Some older carvers wanted to speak English with me because they had been part of the great economic migration to New York in the 1950s and 60s, and then they had come back to Puerto Rico. I never went away without receiving something—food, a carving, or the fulfillment that comes with enjoying another person’s company.”

As we left Ponce, in my lap I had a santo of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, carved by Pedro Pablo Rinaldi. In addition to returning home with this tangible reminder of our newfound connection to Ponce, both Tom and I also brought back to Boston a little of the city’s warm spirit, some insight into a centuries-old tradition and an appreciation for why Poncenos are so proud of their heritage.

More on Puerto Rico

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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