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!
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.
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.
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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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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