On Puerto Rico’s Santos Trail: Ponce & Pedro Rinaldi
Welcome to Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city! Enjoy a glimpse of the history of Puerto Rico’s santos tradition through Ponce’s artisan Pedro Rinaldi. This piece also explores the growing appreciation for the santos tradition among collectors, and offers a peek at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, the largest art museum in the Caribbean.
This is the second 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 Puerto Rican santos tradition is a craft that 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
Descending ever-so-gradually from the heights of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central Mountains, we eased into the flat expanse of a 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to Rinaldi 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.”
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