On Puerto Rico’s Santos Trail: Antonio Avilés Burgos of Orocovis
This is the first in a four-part series on the Puerto Rican santos tradition, a form of religious folk art believed to be at least two centuries old, and possibly even more ancient.. Santos are carved wooden figures of the Roman Catholic celestial hierarchy and an integral part of the island’s culture, playing a role in not only religious worship, but family life, community celebrations, and national identity. The santos craft has survived despite challenges and today continues to inspire devotion among both the faithful as well as 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. ~MP
Ascending steep inclines and then plummeting down into deep valleys, we rode the backbone of the Cordillera Central Mountains far into the jungle. The blacktop of the curving, narrow road shimmered in the intense heat as it cut a path through densely-packed towering trees of cedar, oak and palm. With each swoop we made above the emerald canopy, we saw the surrounding peaks draped in thick, swollen clouds. Making our way back down to the jungle floor, occasionally we heard the roar of rushing water seconds before passing cascading plumes spilling over the tops of sheer cliffs far above.
We were heading toward one of the island’s most remote towns. Orocovis had taken its name from the language of the native Taino Indians, and means “remembrance of the first mountain.” Our destination is also known as Corazón de Puerto Rico, or the island’s heart, where we traveled in search of its soul.
Cresting another hill, on the side of the road I spotted a tall, thin man, a distinctive figure with a long black pony-tail falling down his back almost to his waist.
“There he is!” I yelled excitedly.
My husband Tom swerved over to the side of the road and I jumped out of the car to meet the santero.
Antonio Avilés Burgos, 59, is a fourth-generation tallador, or wood carver. He learned the art of creating santos from his father, Don Celestino Avilés Meléndez, a renowned artisan who died in 2004 at the age of 79. Antonio’s grandfather Damartis was a carpenter and his great-grandfather was Francisco Rivera Avilés, an important 19th century santos carver.
Santos de palo are a Puerto Rican tradition, small wooden statues that represent the pantheon of Catholic saints. Christianity was introduced to Puerto Rico after the island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The Spanish outpost was sparsely settled until 1815, when there was an influx of colonists from Catalonia and the Canary Islands, most of whom settled inland in the mountains to work on coffee plantations. Due to the remoteness of settlements and a dearth of clergy, a home-based cult of devotion to the saints flourished among the largely poor, rural dwellers, known as jibaros.
The original santeros were often carpenters without any training and the earliest statues were rough-hewn likenesses of the saints. Favored woods were those that were soft and easy to work with such as guaraguao, a relative of mahogany, and Spanish cedar which has a fragrant odor. Santeros made the icons for members of the community in exchange for chickens, rum, rice and sometimes cash. Families displayed their favorite saint in sacred space within their home, usually in a niche. Antonio later told us his grandmother had a room in her house that was reserved for prayer, where she kept about 50 santos.
Antonio welcomed us and unlocked the museum’s doors. In the early 1980s, the Avilés opened the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis, exhibiting artwork and teaching classes to promote and preserve the culture of Puerto Rico.
Entering the rustic, barn-like structure, I was struck by the magical imagery of the scene in front of us. We were greeted by the countenance of a smiling bearded man depicted in a huge finely-drawn charcoal portrait—a likeness of Don Celestino created by a friend. Below him on the unfinished wooden plank flooring stood life-size statues of the Virgin Mary, Joseph and other saintly figures. At their feet were half-dozen smaller, more primitive carvings, each figure’s eyes closed and hands clasped as though in prayer.
Antonio told us his father carved saints for more than sixty years and is best known for his unpainted figures with closed eyes, in what he called “a position of absolute religious solemnity.” Don Celestino received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Award in 2001 in recognition of his work as a carver of santos and his contributions to the preservation of Puerto Rican history and culture.
Don Celestino began his carving career in the 1960s by making rings from corozo, the nut of a palm tree. This type of jewelry was very traditional in Puerto Rico and was worn by older generations as wedding rings. Antonio said he and his father went to craft fairs around the island to sell the pieces, and met Ricardo Alegria, an anthropologist and advocate of Puerto Rican traditional arts who founded the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1955. Alegria encouraged Don Celestino to apply his talents to the santos tradition.
Antonio told me that if his father had not been an artisan, he probably never would have known he could carve, but he feels it is in his blood. He created his first piece when he was 12 years old—his father thought he was too young to handle a knife and would cut himself, so Antonio stole a knife and piece of wood from him and hid in the bathroom to carve. He laughingly said that first piece looks like him, because he used his own reflection in the mirror as his model.
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