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.
“My collection is focused on the antique carvers,” he continued. “I have important examples of different santeros, like Cachetones, Espada, Arce, Genaro Rivera, Francisco Rivera Juanito Cartagena, Jose Ramos, Antonio Crespo, Claudio Pacheco.”
Francisco Claudio was known as “Pacheco,” and was a sculptor in the first half of the 20th century who lived in the barrio of Candelaria in Vega Alta, a town to the west of San Juan. He is said to have been jovial character whose stammer didn’t prevent him from being a ladies’ man -- Pacheco is reputed to have had many affairs and children but there are no records indicating he was married.
Pacheco’s work is noted for its extreme minimalism, and naïve and simple carving and painting. Billy showed me a piece by the artisan that was a representation of the subject for which he was best known, Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes, or “Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.” The trademark imagery includes the eleven figures wearing wimples, a cloth wound around the head, framing the face, and drawn into folds beneath the chin, worn by women in medieval times and as part of the habit of certain orders of nuns.
While Pacheco is universally considered a master santero among all with an interest in the folk art, and widely identified with the 11,000 Virgins image in particular, collectors are driven by uniquely personal passions.
“Collectors have a tendency to discuss their collections and the strong elements and pieces within them,” said Hector Puig, a native of Puerto Rico and santos collector based in Gainesville, Florida. “I was aware of Dr. Torres' collection and he knew of my 11,000 Virgins by Francisco Claudio. There are only about six to seven examples of the 11,000 Virgins by don Pacheco that I know of; only two to three of these have their original base, as both of mine did. This depiction is the most famous of don Pacheco, however, few intact examples survived, for two reasons.”
“First, don Pacheco used simple materials for the base--sometimes wood from cajas de bacalao or cod boxes,” Puig said. “Consequently, the bases would often get infested with termites or other damaging insects. The second reason is that when Santos became popular for the tourist market in the early 60's, unscrupulous dealers and individuals would separate into pieces the 11,000 Virgins by don Pacheco, and make multiple santos of individual Virgins. Most often, they would usually make Virgins of Mount Carmel and have another santero make the baby and add a base to it. This way, they could make more money selling the individual pieces.”
“Dr. Billy invited me to his home. He had an 11,000 Virgins by contemporary carver don Carlos Vasquez, whom he had met personally and commissioned him to create the piece,” Puig continued. “I had been approached by several collectors on the island to purchase my don Pacheco 11,000 Virgin piece and offered a substantial amount of money for it. However, I opted to trade with Dr. Torres for the don Carlos Vasquez piece because I wanted to present my core belief that contemporary pieces are as significant as old pieces and real mysticism exists in the santos of today. It was 'an even trade' as such and no money was exchanged. He now has a beloved don Pacheco piece and I have the only depiction of the 11,000 Virgins by don Carlos Vasquez that I have ever seen.”
Don Carlos Vazquez was from the Barrio Cordillera in the town of Ciales and according to Puig became a huge inspiration to many contemporary carvers, among them don Pedro Pablo Rinaldi Jovet. Don Carlos was very active from the 1950's- 1980's, an era erroneously labeled by some as the "end" of the years of the "true" santero in Puerto Rico.
“Vazquez's work undoubtedly possesses the mysticism of the santeros of earlier days on the island,” declared Puig. “He influenced many carvers to pay attention to the essential elements needed to create a "true" Santo. Consequently, these master carvers were able to pass on his knowledge of what it signifies to be a santero, not just a talented carver producing an image from a block of wood.”
The devotion to Saint Ursula and her handmaidens is a long-held tradition. According to legend, Ursula was the daughter of a Christian king in Britain and was granted a three year postponement of a marriage she did not wish, to a pagan prince. With ten ladies in waiting, each attended by a thousand maidens, she embarked on a voyage across the North Sea, sailed up the Rhine to Basle, Switzerland, and then went to Rome. On their way back, they were all massacred by pagan Huns at Cologne in about 451 when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain.
The legend is pious fiction, but what is true is that a basilica in Cologne was built to honor a group of virgins who had been martyred there. They were evidently venerated enough to have had a church built in their honor, but who they were and how many of them there were, are unknown. From these meager facts, the legend of Ursula grew.
For Puerto Ricans, the lore of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins has a local significance. During the 1797 siege by the British of San Juan, the island’s Bishop Juan Bautista called for a rogativa or prayer procession through the city, dedicated to Saint Ursula and her handmaidens, and “…asking the God of Armies to humiliate that proud nation, an enemy of his Holy Name, and that he distances and eliminates it from our sight, so that we can worship his Divine Majesty with a relaxed spirit and in the peace of our altars…”
With the country’s men engaged in active battle, it was the island’s women who paraded through the city’s streets on the night of April 30 to the score of bells ringing from the towers of the Cathedral and other churches, carrying torches in their hands. The legend says that British commander General Abercromby mistook the throngs of women for troops of reinforcements, and May 1, the British ships set sail and retreated from the island.
The next day was Sunday and church bells were peeling as I explored historic Old San Juan. Atop ancient fortification walls 40 feet tall overlooking the turquoise Bay of Puerto Rico, I admired a sculpture called La Rogativa. Against a cornflower blue sky filled with gauzy clouds paraded the silhouettes of elongated, ghostly female figures and a man in regal robes and bishop’s headdress, all holding aloft blazing tapers.
Continuing on, I reached the massive wooden doors of la Puerta de San Juan -- constructed in the 1630s, it was the main access point to the island for centuries. Past the city gate, the elegant Paseo de la Princesa or “promenade of the princess” curved around the waterline at the base of immense bastions.
Hiking up a tree-lined street, I reached Catedral de San Juan, which dates to 1521 and is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The cathedral contains the marble tomb of the island's first governor Juan Ponce de León. Inside, I admired a recessed altar with a life-size image of the Virgin and child standing in front of the Puerto Rican flag, flanked by gold Corinthian columns and images of white-robed angels, with tiers of white carnations at her feet.
I caught the soft chords of a familiar melody, so slight that at first I thought I was imagining it. Straining to detect where the sound was coming from, I moved further into the church, trying to put a name to the piece of music. I saw a doorway and looked in a large room with a black and white tiled floor, on which a large statue of a Virgin Mary was flat on her back on top of two tires mounted on a dolly. At her feet, a tanned man with a pony-tail appeared to be lovingly giving her a pedicure of sorts, with a paint brush and what looked like a pumice stone in his hands. As the restorer looked up and smiled at me, I recognized the song as “What a Wonderful World It Is.”
Back outside, I wandered up one street and down the next with no pre-determined agenda, happy to soak up the Old World ambiance and Caribbean flavor. Old San Juan is a compact sun-drenched seven square block peninsula of Spanish Colonial architecture full of spacious squares and flanked by immense fortresses. More than 400 beautifully-restored 16th- and 17th-century buildings painted in sunny Crayola hues line narrow streets cobbled of adoquine, a blue stone brought over as ballast on Spanish galleons.
Just when it seemed the heat and humidity were about to get the best of me, I magically came across a plaza where I could sit under some shade and people watch. In the leafy Plaza de Hostos, dominoes is a spectator sport and I joined small crowds encircling old men engaged in intense matches, fueled by tiny cups of expresso and salsa music pulsing from a strategically-placed boom box. A few blocks away, below the bell tower of Parque de las Palomas, children of all ages were transfixed by a modern-day Dr. Doolittle who stretched out his arms and became one with the scores of pigeons who flocked to him. In Plaza del Quinto Centenario, created in 1992 in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World, the shapes of youngsters shimmered and almost disappeared in plumes of water spraying upward from a circular fountain.
Perhaps the biggest playground of all in Old San Juan is atop the 16th century defensive citadel of Castillo San Felipe del Morro. On 74 acres where once soldiers marched in formation, every Sunday extended families enjoy sprawling picnics and send flying chiringas, or kites, rather than cannon balls. El Morro means “promontory” and the headland lies at the northwestern-most point of the islet that is Old San Juan. What had been a military installation for more than four centuries was transformed in 1961 to an urban sanctuary, with a vast expanse of emerald grass enclosed by romantic-looking ramparts.
I carefully made my way across the huge swath of green, careful to avoid stepping on stray kite string or colliding with children running at full tilt trying to get their kites airborne. The wind off the water carried the scent of suntan lotion and the sound of the ice cream vendor’s carnival-like chords of old standards like “It’s a Small World After All.” I was heading for the sea of white crosses I had spotted from higher ground, sandwiched between the dramatic majesty of the El Morro fortress on the left and towering chalky limestone cliffs on the right, and backed by the great aquamarine expanse of the Atlantic extending to the horizon.
After crossing the esplanade, I reached a wall from where I could look down at Old San Juan Cemetery, a creamy alabaster acre of elaborate tombstones and crypts. The adjoining circular red-roofed chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen was set off by splashes of pink where roses of remembrance had been left. Beyond and around the still cemetery, life teemed--a speed boat screamed past the shoreline and on the surrounding grassy slopes, children laughed and cried with the fluttering fluctuations of their kites. As I watched the foaming whitecaps of the ever-advancing tide lap at the cemetery’s seawall, I thought the spot was an idyllic one to spend eternity.
Retracing my steps, I left El Morro and crossed the street to the Museum of the Americas, one of many cultural institutions founded by Ricardo Alegria, whose efforts to preserve Puerto Rican heritage have garnered awards by organizations such as the National Endowment for Humanities, the Smithsonian and UNESCO. The area in which the Museum is located was built by the Spanish army in the 1800s and served as a home to more than 1,000 soldiers and their families until 1898. The building the Museum is housed in is a stunning monument to symmetry, with three stories of elegant balconies overlooking a courtyard. The rooms in which the individual galleries are located at one time served as bedrooms, kitchens, and stables.
Finding the gallery that is home to the Museum’s santos collection, I met docent Maria Torres.
“I started working at the museum back in 1996,” said Maria. “In preparation for the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the preservation of the Puerto Rican folk arts and a specialized museum program for public schools the Museum docents had to take a lecture given by one of the historians and defender of our culture, Mr. Walter Murray Chiesa.”
“In the lecture, Mr. Murray presented a picture of my dad's cousin, who used to make musical instruments, especially our national string instrument, the Cuatro Puertorriqueño,” she continued. “I got excited and told everyone that he was my cousin. The way Mr. Murray spoke caught my attention, making my interest in the folk arts grow more. At the end of the three-day workshop I had the urge to carve a saint. I didn't know why I had that feeling, and I asked my supervisor to teach me how. She told me to buy an X-Acto knife and she would teach me how, so I did.”
“She gave me a little piece of wood 3/4" wide and not more than 3" tall; I asked ‘What do I do? And she replied ‘Carve.’ I asked again ‘How?’ to which she said ‘Just carve, just make sure you don't cut your fingers’ and kept working. I was kind of astonished but gave some strokes to the wood and liked the feeling.”
A couple weeks later an artisan told Torres that the Puerto Rican Culture Institute was giving lessons for santos wood carving on Saturdays for free, an opportunity she pursued.
“Not long afterwards, one of my cousins told me that one of our uncles was also an artisan and he had a kiosk at the Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan,” she said. “He made pilones, or wooden mortars in a lathe, as well as jatacas--soup spoons made from coconut shells and higueras--musical instruments. That's when I realized why I had the need to work with wood; it was calling me!”
“Becoming a wood artisan is something mystical, mysterious, sacred,” she declared. “Wood calls you like a mother calls her child. You just answer. Most of the old santeros started carving the wood due to a divine message. Some others as a request made by people who wanted to have a small altar in their homes. I started because my family worked and loves working with wood. My dad loved building houses and making knifes and machete's handles.”
“I had to stop carving when I noticed that I was not doing my house work, eating, drinking water or even going to the bathroom,” she said. “I carve very little now but from time to time, the wood calls me.”
The Museum has a piece called Mano Poderosa or "the Holy Hand" by Luis Gonzalez of Toa Alta. Also called the “Powerful Hand,” the image symbolizes the hand of Christ, with members of the Holy Family perched on its fingertips: St. Anne, her husband Joachim, their daughter the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Infant Jesus. The Infant Jesus is typically located on the thumb, representing his importance, since much of a hand's function depends on the thumb. The palm is depicted with red marks, representing Christ's wounds on the cross.
The Mano Poderosa is not part of the santoral, the established pantheon of Catholic saints but is a theme developed at the church margins. This symbolic image is considered a syncretism, meaning a mix of beliefs rooted in Catholic and espiritismo, the Latin American and Caribbean belief that good and evil spirits affect health, luck and other elements of human life. The inclusion of the extended family reflects the Latin American and Spanish regard for the family above the individual.
I was intrigued by another piece in the Museum’s collection called "Anima Sola," or "Lonely Soul," done by Celestino Quiles of Orocovis. In my travels I had only seen the representation a handful of times but the imagery was certainly memorable -- and very different from the generally gentle and peaceful faces of the spectrum of santos I had encountered.
Billy Torres later educated me about the figure, explaining that in Puerto Rico and other areas of Latin America, Anima Sola represents souls in Purgatory--a basic concept of Catholic Church, in which a soul who died without confession or otherwise without being in a state of grace is purified and made ready for Heaven. The duration of this status depends of the quantity of prayers for such an individual by friends and relatives.
“The concept is generally represented by a naked woman covered by flames, with long hair and both hands in front of her chest, clasped in prayer,” he said. “Usually the chest is uncovered and the flames painted as if a skirt. According to the church the element of fire purifies the soul, making it worthy of entrance to Reino de los Cielos. The figure is always presented in frontal aspect and standing up.”
“The horrendous descriptions made in Middle Ages about the Purgatory resulted in the proliferation of cofradies or groups dedicated to the redemption of the almas del purgatorio,” he continued. “We don’t know exactly when the popular devotion arrived to the island but the Anima Sola is considered a patron of unmarried people. Others in Puerto Rico suggest that the Anima Sola is more a symbol of patience -- but is not a saint from whom you solicit miracles or the intercession of the Supreme Celestial Tribunal.”
From the Museum, I meandered through the city’s streets, making my way to a main thoroughfare of the Hato Rey district, lined with high-end shops. To sidestep the masses swarming uphill from a newly-docked cruise ship, I opened the door of Galeria Botello, relieved to enter its air-conditioned interior.
I realized that perhaps a divine hand of some sort had guided me into the gallery, as it has long represented santos collectors. A handsome hand-made cabinet housed a significant collection--the majority of the santos that Galeria Botello carries are antique pieces created between 1880 and 1930 and ranging in price from $700 to $8,000. Currently there are three contemporary pieces in the collection, two of which were created by Antonio Aviles in 1998 and the third was made by Luiso "Liso" Franqui at around the same time.
"Most of our collectors are off-island but we also work with local collectors who may be looking for a specific piece--for example, someone may be in the market for a 'Powerful Hand' by a certain artist," said Nancy Elsasser, who has worked at the gallery for 25 years.
The gallery was founded by Angel Botello in 1960--now deceased, he had been a long-time restorer as well as a collector.
“Angel really got his start as a collector through restoration, which he did as a hobby,” said Elsasser. “He had hundreds and hundreds of pieces of odd legs, or hands, or the baby Jesus. He knew who had carved each piece and so when someone needed a santo by a particular artist restored and, say, a hand replaced, Angel would be able to supply a piece made by that santero.”
"Restorers are no longer restoring, it’s becoming a lost art" she said. "A young man who did restoration work for us stopped about five years ago because of all the chemicals. It’s a field that is no longer available. Now most people who are interested in restoration have to go through the Ponce Museum."
There are differing views about restoring a piece. Often history is involved in the coats of paint. Some pieces may have twenty coats of paint--applying a fresh coat of paint to a santo was a common form of thanks to a saint that had successfully interceded on behalf of a petitioner and accomplished the requested "miracle." Some collectors seek to restore a piece to the coat of paint applied by the santero who created it. To others, if you strip a piece down, you are stripping away some of its history.
In the old days, santeros made their own paints at home. Black was made from soot mixed with linseed oil and boiled for a long period. Common red clay was the source of red. Indigo produced blue and green and yellow was created through pulverized stone. Santos were often painted with gold and silver details. Brushes were home-made, with the hair of pigs, dogs or cats fitted into a bird quill. Certain colors are typically associated with specific saints -- St. Anthony’s robes are blue and St. Francis is always shown in brown; the Virgin of Carmen is depicted with a red dress and white cape.
Elsasser said that the condition of a piece is a primary factor in determining its worth -- but that it is not necessarily a huge detriment if a santo is missing a hand, or a figure of St. Anthony is missing the book he is traditionally depicted as holding. What will take away from the value is if something is added to the piece that is not consistent with its creation.
“When a santo is so old that its paint is flaking, then it should be restored,” Elsasser asserted. “That condition would be viewed as questionable when assessing a piece’s worth.”
Elsasser pointed out pieces by several of the well-known santeros and the particular attributes for which their carvings are known. Florencio Caban is known for his tall, slim figures, with his signature crown -- other carvers in the Caban family created more full-bodied pieces. Benigno Soto created beautiful faces but the hands of his santos aren't in scale to the rest of the body. Both Francisco Rivera and his son Hernando were very fine carvers, with great attention to detail, such as the folds of a robe.
Elsasser has her own santos collection and began it with two initial purchases--a male and female piece. She chose the Virgin of Carmel, which she said she always had an affinity for, and a St. Joesph santo, which she selected as a companion to her Virgin, and because the piece was one she considered particularly beautiful.
When asked what she looked for in a santos, Nancy responded, "Like every art form, it is so personal--I look at the faces, the expressions.”
Elsasser said that nativity scenes are often passed down as family heirlooms, with each generation adding figures of the saints. She has started collections for each of her four children; her daughter now has 14 pieces. Her daughter bought a santo for her nephew upon his graduation from law school -- he chose a figure of St. Raymond, who is the patron saint of those born by Caesarean section, as he had been.
“We’re Catholic, but my children are not church goers; their interest in santos is as antique fine art pieces, not religious items,” she said. “Church is different today -- you don’t hear about things like praying for the lost souls in Purgatory like I did as a kid. Today, the emphasis is on doing good here and now, being kind to others, contributing to the community.”
Leaving the gallery, I found myself climbing Calle San Justo and heard the pounding of a rousing rhythm come streaming down the street. The instrumentation was joined by a chorus, a rich blend of distinct voices that collectively were slightly off key, almost imperceptibly so, but just enough to signal the sound was alive, and bubbling up from human beings, not the canned and produced perfection of a recording.
Following the joyful noise, I took a right on Calle del Sol and among all the brightly-painted buildings, I spotted a sign proclaiming “Iglesia Defensores de la Templo Hermosa” on a white-plastered façade. I stood at the church’s open doors and beheld a small interior with perhaps a dozen rows of pews on both sides of a center aisle, filled to capacity. A woman beamed from the altar’s pulpit as she sang; a man a few rows in front of me stepped into the aisle to take her picture. An old man banged the keys of a piano, with two younger men adding brass and percussion, one blowing a trumpet, and theother shaking a tambourine.
The small congregation swayed, clapped, and pointed their index fingers skyward as their voices rang out. The assembly was an amazing assortment of people -- a tiny white-haired woman with a hunch back, a look-alike middle-age mother and teenage daughter, young men with spiky hair gelled stiffly into place, a toddler with rollicking curls and tiny gold bracelets. The hymn reached its final crescendo and there was a miniscule pause as the parishioners took their seats and then broke into applause for themselves.
The woman at the altar came down the center aisle and joined her husband in his pew; he wrapped his arm around her and whispered in her ear, clearly proud. The music swelled again and the congregation rose to its feet, and this time jubilantly marched down the aisle toward the altar, clapping and singing. Moved to tears by the palpable energy emanating around the humble, high-ceilinged space, I too stood and joined my hands together, my heart singing a song for which I didn’t need to know the words or language.
The experience seemed to embody the sensations of my sojourn in Puerto Rico, on the santos trail. Throughout my travels on the island, I felt warmly welcomed and privileged with people's generosity of spirit in sharing with me their heritage. A people's mythology and symbols speak to who they are--where they came from, what they aspire to achieve, the challenges they face, the faith that sustains them. To this visitor, the essence of the santos tradition--humility, spirituality, love--is alive and well, and being transmitted by its artisans and the everyday people who adore them.