Religious folk art tradition an integral part of the island’s culture and national identity
This is the third 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.
Meet the Orta Family
West of Ponce, I drove under a massive stone arch spanning the rural road and into an El Tuque neighborhood of bungalows painted in shades of lemon, tangerine and lime. The palette of Puerto Rico’s architecture exudes exuberant good cheer and an aura of warmth that also emanates from the island’s people.
With a wide sunny smile, Santia Rivera Martinez waved me welcome, opening the gate to her home and the family’s workshop. Santia, 73, is a santero and the matriarch of a family of carvers. Her late husband Domingo Orta was a master santero as are Santia, her four sons, two daughters and a daughter-in-law, who all keep up the tradition.
Santia introduced me to her son Dom, a handsome, shy man who is her husband’s namesake. Together, they showed me around the workshop and told me the story of the Orta carving dynasty.
Santia met Dom in the barrio of Yaguecas de Adjuntas in the mountains about 20 miles from Ponce. Her father worked on a coffee plantation with Dom and when Santia would bring her father his lunch, she and Dom would exchange flirtatious glances. She was 14 years old and Dom was 21. Her father disapproved of the romance and so Santia and Dom eloped.
With a sparkle in her eye that may have been a tear of sadness, joy or both, Santia said in time her family came to love Dom more than they loved her. Santia told me that she and Domingo were married for 54 years, through good times and bad. He died in 2007 at age 78 on June 13–the birthday of their son Domingo. Santia, her husband and the younger Domingo spent many hours in their shop working together on pieces late into the night. Today, whenever she joins her son in carving, she thinks of her husband.
Santia Rivera Martinez’s first La Monserrate in ebony. Image courtesy of Hector Puig.
Santia said her husband’s parents had a santo of the Montserrat Virgin in the living room of their home, and people would often come and make a request. Dom first became interested in carving santos in 1942, when at the age of thirteen, he watched another santero from the town of Yauco repair his mother’s carving of the Virgin. Early in his career as a santero, he too would repair old saints for people.
Our Lady of Montserrat is a figure that holds special significance for many Puerto Ricans. Santia told me that, along with the Three Kings, the Montserrat Virgin is among the saints that receive the most “promises.” Also known as milagros, these are little silver or tin icons shaped in the image of body parts such as an arm or a leg. When a prayer for an ailment to be healed has been answered, the petitioner commissions a milagro, which is then hung from the interceding santos.
The devotion among Puerto Ricans to Our Lady of Montserrat dates to an 1815 declaration by Spain’s King Ferdinand VII, when he approved the Royal Decree of Graces. This edict allowed any citizen of a country politically friendly to Spain to settle in Puerto Rico–as long as they converted to the Catholic faith and agreed to work in the agricultural business. The Decree inspired a wave of immigrants to the island from Catalonia, the home of Montserrat and a monastery built around an icon of a black Madonna, said to have been carved by St. Luke around 50 A.D.
The affinity many Puerto Ricans feel for Our Lady of Montserrat goes deep also because of a belief that she interceded on behalf of one of their own in what is known as the Miracle of Hormigueros. Unique to the island’s culture is a local tradition that tells of the Virgin of Montserrat appearing to a peasant farmer named Gerardo González in 1599 near the town of Hormigueros in Puerto Rico’s southwest. Finding himself face to face with a wild bull, González invoked the Virgin of Montserrat for protection and the animal immediately fell to its knees, as if in prayer. Perhaps not surprisingly, Our Lady of Montserrat is the patron saint of Hormigueros, as well as the villages of Aguas Buenas, Jayuya and Salinas, with her feast day celebrated on September 8.
In the Orta’s hometown of Yaguecas de Adjuntas, Dom’s earliest work in traditional crafts started with making baskets used to collect coffee beans. He would go deep into the forests looking for bejuco, the type of wood used to make the containers. Santia helped by making straps of braided grass. Dom sold the baskets for 50 cents each. Later, following an illness that made it impossible for him to work as a laborer, Orta dedicated himself to carving santos and found that he could make a living at it.
The Three Kings was an image for which Domingo was especially well-known. In fact, he was responsible for a major innovation in the representation of the figures, in which the gifts each King carries is replaced by musical instruments — a set of maracas, a guiro–a serrated gourd played with a stick–and cuatro, a stringed instrument similar to a guitar. At the time Dom introduced this variation, it was considered a radical representation and caused a bit of a stir; today it is an accepted and much-beloved part of the iconography, widely copied by many santeros.
Santia is the leading contemporary female carver in Puerto Rico and has been an inspiration to many other women. Initially, after she and Dom married, he would carve pieces and she would paint them. Then, after about ten years of marriage and the birth of her six children, she carved her very first saint. She took one of Dom’s pieces to use as a model and went into hiding, carving an image of the Virgin of Montserrat. When she showed Dom, he was pleased. Santia sold the piece, which gave her great encouragement. That was 40 years ago.Today, she and her daughters have figures of the Virgin of Montserrat that she made in her early days of carving, pieces of great sentimental value which they do not intend to sell.
Santia told me that Dom Orta’s pieces ranged in price from $375 to up to $4,000. She said that santos carved by Domingo increased significantly in price after he died; one was sold for $7,000. Several of Domingo’s works are in the Ponce Museum of Art, as well as in the collections of the Vatican in Rome, the Museo Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Compostela in Spain, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
For Collector Hector Puig, Santos Are Bridge Back to Homeland
Dom Orta’s pieces are also prized by Florida businessman Hector Puig, 42, whose passion for santos has been a bridge back to Puerto Rico, where he lived until he was 13 years old. An avid collector of the art form since 1997, he returns to the island regularly to visit with the santeros who are themselves a source of immense inspiration for him, as well as a connection to his roots and culture.
“Santos are the one thing that unite and define Puerto Rico’s identity, a symbol of who we are as a people, an expression of our foundation of Spanish, Taíno and African heritages.” Puig said.
“Please understand that one doesn’t pray to the santo, but through them, as vehicles to God, a means of accessing a higher power,” he said. “My favorite santo is the Virgin of Montserrat. My father was a Mariano, a devout Catholic who had tremendous faith and love for the Virgin Mary. Perhaps, this memory of his unshakable conviction drove me to the Virgin of Montserrat, an image which comes from Mount Montserrat in Northern Spain and has been a presence in Puerto Rico since the Spaniards landed on the island. I regularly engage in meditation with La Montserrate, communicating with Her as if She was with me that very moment.”
Puig went on to describe first meeting the Orta family in 1998, when he visited them with another renowned santero, Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet, who had sharpened his skills and received much knowledge about the santo tradition from Domingo Orta.
“I had commissioned a Miracle of Hormigueros from several of the Ortas at that time: don Domingo, Domingo Jr., Wilfredo and Adrian Rodriguez, husband to one of Domingo’s daughters and a great carver himself.” Puig recalled. “There was a perception that any piece carved by a member of the Orta family was the same, and I sought to organize an exhibit demonstrating that each one of them has their very own style, or cut.”
“When I went to pick up the Miracles, I was in awe of meeting Domingo, who was considered a living legend,” he said. “Even though he was small in stature, he was an imposing figure, very stern and stoic, with a lot of charisma. The family was very proud of him and I was so impressed with their dynamics — very united and supportive, with no jealousy or unhealthy competition.”
“As soon as I began meeting the santeros, I was struck by their obvious mysticism and sincerity,” Puig declared. “I am not a religious person, but I am a spiritual man and as I have traveled across Puerto Rico meeting elder santeros and younger carvers, it has been a journey of discovery and faith.”
Puig described his encounter with the first santero he met, Ceferino Calderón Albaladejo of Morovis, whom he visited in 1998 with his aunt and a former college art professor.
“As we left, my professor, a worldly man in his sixties, said to me ‘That was one of the most special moments of my life,’ ”Puig recalled. “I knew exactly what he was talking about. Ceferino had such an incredible presence and aura you couldn’t help but feel his faith and devotion.”
Ceferino is particularly well-known for his figures of guardian angels. The first one he made was carved from the knot of a piece of male cedar, a very hard wood, and he carried it in his pocket everywhere, continually caressing and praying to it.
One of Puig’s favorite pieces in his collection is a Virgin of Providence by Ceferino, another figure for which the santero was well-known. Ceferino first carved this image after his wife died, inspired by a series of vivid dreams. He left the Virgin unpainted and kept it at his bedside, referring to “Her” as his companion.
Puig credits the spirituality of the santeros he met in his early days of collecting with driving the focus of his avocation, which revolves not around a certain time period, but rather the personal meaning of a given figure to the artist who made it. Puig seeks out pieces that a santero holds truly special or considers highly personal, such as the first depiction of a particular santo he or she ever made. In addition to the Ceferino Virgin of Providence piece, Puig has in his collection the saints the santero kept on his personal altar, which Ceferino bequeathed to him.
Puig has participated in santos exhibits in many museums and venues throughout the United States & Puerto Rico. His collection encompasses approximately 1,500 figures of saints and includes very early pieces by the first santeros on record in Puerto Rico, Felipe de La Espada & his son Tiburcio, both from San Germán.
Roughly 300 of the Santos in Puig’s collection pre-date 1920 but he considers it a mission to support contemporary carvers –as long as they understand what it means to be a santero and have shown dedication, knowledge and respect to the tradition. Puig considers Domingo Junior, along with Antonio Aviles and Pedro Pabo Rinaldi Jovet (featured in Parts I and II, respectively) to be among the master carvers of today.
“The faith of these santeros is as profound as any of earlier eras,” Puig observed. “”I encourage people visiting the island to meet these amazing artisans in person. For any individual with an open heart, to meet a santero is to experience the true essence of what this beautiful tradition is all about. The contemporary santeros deserve to be supported and this work must continue,” Puig declared.
While in Ponce, as elsewhere in Puerto Rico, I was welcomed by people both proud of their heritage and at the same time, without pretension. One of the many new Ponceno friends I made, Carmen A. Martínez Aja, spoke eloquently of the role filled by the santeros.
“Our artisans are humble people with deep roots in the community,’ she said. “They have raised their children in the craft tradition and are well loved by the city for various reasons; they are good, decent people who make a living making us proud of the cultural heritage they create. Their work, which is created with love, is considered an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage and we are very proud that the work of our Ponce citizens is held in such high esteem by collectors, tourists and common people. They are the best ambassadors we have because their work travels around the world presenting the best that Ponce has to offer. They represent the friendly spirit of Ponce because they open their homes and their workshops to strangers.”
Perhaps the only difference between the santeros of yesteryear and today is that now the universe of those seeking their artistic expression of faith extends far beyond the mountains and shores of Puerto Rico.
Editor's Note: Santos dynasty matriarch Santia Rivera Martinez passed away not long after this piece was first published. It is a privilege to have had the opportunity to hear and share her story.