On Puerto Rico’s Santos Trail: 11,000 Virgins, the Powerful Hand, and Anima Sola
This is the final piece 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. This installment of “On Puerto Rico’s Santos Trail” offers insight into both the tradition’s spirit and history, and looks at three iconic images in particular–Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, the Powerful Hand, and Anima Sola. The story delves into the mindset of collectors through visits to Museo de los Santos, the Museum of the America, as well as Galeria Botello, which has specialized in santos for more than 50 years. The article also offers an armchair tour of some of Old San Juan’s scenic attractions, and seeks to convey the sense of belonging this visitor found in the warm welcome of Puerto Rico’s people.
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.
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.”
“Later when I was attending 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.”
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.
Torres ticked off a handful of developments that contributed to the decline of the 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.
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.
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.
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