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.
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 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.
Today, Antonio considers carving almost meditative and said he can get so immersed in a piece he forgets everything around him. He told me with a smile that his wife will bring him breakfast and hours later it is untouched. Often, he will say to himself that he won’t get up from his work until a piece is finished.
In 1978, Antonio was named Artisan of the Year by the governor of Puerto Rico. His pieces are in local collections as well as ones as far away as Japan and Switzerland. In 1983, Antonio carved a representation of Our Lady of Providence, the patroness of Puerto Rico, for the Cathedral of Brooklyn in New York. A smaller copy is also in the collection of the Vatican in Rome.
After he had selected the tree he intended to make the figure from, he spent a month contemplating it, almost as if in a trance, until he could see the Virgin within the wood. When he is commissioned to create a piece for a church, it is important for him to make a spiritual connection before beginning to carve. He often dreams vividly of the piece on which he is working on.
Our conversation was interrupted by the museum’s door swinging open. Two men entered, and Antonio excused himself and greeted his new visitors warmly, engaging in animated conversation with one of the men. The other smiled at us and stepped over to introduce himself as Jaime Collazo, asking us to call him Jimmy.
Jimmy was here with his friend and fellow former teacher Eduardo Rivera, who is an avid collector of santos. Eduardo was meeting with Antonio to discuss commissioning two saints on behalf of a nephew lawyer who works as an aide to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms. Jennifer González. The two pieces would both be of Saint Michael and made from photos Eduardo had taken of a beautiful statue on the main altar of the Catholic Church he attends. Jimmy said it is a difficult job, as the statue has lots of details to reproduce.
We learned that Eduardo has been fascinated with santos since he was a boy. There were wood carvings of saints in his home growing up that belonged to his father’s mother. For Eduardo’s parents, those santos were the object of heartfelt religious devotion, prayed to in the hopes the saints would intercede with God on their behalf. While today many collectors are drawn to santos solely as works of art, for Eduardo they are still objects of devotion. Whenever Eduardo asks an artesano to carve a saint for him, he tells the artist that the piece will have a religious significance.
The door opened again and I met Val and Steve Laugtug of St. Paul, Minnesota, who expressed delight to find the museum open.
“It is very exciting for us to meet Antonio and we feel lucky to happen upon his museum,” Val said. “I knew there was a carver in Orocovis, but didn't know how to find him. I stopped into a store in another area of the city and asked if they knew him or any santos carvers and found out where to go.”
“We have been long-time collectors of American Folk art and enjoy searching for it on our trips,” said Val, age 61. “We always try to meet the artists and buy from them directly. We were looking for Puerto Rican folk art and quickly realized that santos carvings are the main expression of the genre here. Santos have a long history as religious objects and that is fascinating in itself.”
“We always try to incorporate our search for art into our trip planning,” Laugtug said. “I had researched artists and museums of Puerto Rico before we left. This is the type of adventure we like to experience, not the high-flying zip lining or rock climbing. Collecting art gives us another facet to explore, but I can tell you we also had just as much fun hanging out with the locals in Guavate at the pig roasts and watching them dance!”
Laugtug said their collection of folk art centers around a genre called "outsider art" produced by untrained artists and done purely for expression, often times with a religious or sexual tone. She and Steve find of interest any artistic expression that comes from the heart and mind and does not have profit as its origin.
As the Laugtugs moved to introduce themselves to Antonio, I explored the museum, getting an introduction to imagery I was to learn more about over the course of my travels around Puerto Rico: the Eleven Thousand Virgins, Anima Sola, the All Powerful Hand of Christ, and the Three Kings.
Completing my circuit of the exhibits, I re-joined Val and Steve.
“We commissioned a carving of the virgin de Guadalupe from Antonio, which is actually the patron saint of Mexico, but we saw a photo of one that he had carved previously and liked it,” Val said. “This is actually a present for our son, who has been the recipient of quite a few gifts of folk art over the years. Fun for him to receive and fun for us to search for!”
“There wasn't much negotiation with Antonio, he was asking a fair price for his work and we paid it,” she continued. “We gave him half down and will pay him in full when he notifies us that it is finished.”
Antonio told me that prices for his works range from $150 for a piece that took a couple of hours to $2,050 for a santos created for a private collector. He said he has great difficulty in parting with some pieces, having invested so much of himself in them.
As we said our good-byes to Antonio, Jimmy shyly approached us, asking if we would be interested in seeing Eduardo’s collection at his home in neighboring Morovis. Tom and I exchanged glances, and after an instant’s unspoken conversation, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.
We followed Eduardo and Jimmy north and then west on a series of tiny rural roads, eventually pulling alongside a 1940s bungalow set back from the road. Entering the property through a wrought-iron gate, we found a patch of paradise. Eduardo had long supplemented his teacher’s salary with a side business as a florist and evidence of his green thumb was in abundance. The air was fragrant with the scent of an array of orchids and other exotic tropical flowers and a fountain pool tiled with colorful ceramics served as the focal point of the artfully landscaped lawn.
Eduardo grew up here with his nine siblings. Today the four-room cottage is a monument to Puerto Rico’s santos tradition, displayed throughout the house, along with magnificent pieces of hand-crafted furniture. He has about 150 santos in his collection, though not all are displayed in his house. Some of them are in his apartment in San Juan and others are kept in boxes.
With classical music playing in the background, Eduardo proudly showed us his Three Kings santos by Cabán, the oldest of three distinguished santero brothers. The figures of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar were depicted astride horses, with the black king in the center atop a white horse. The Tres Santos Reyes holds a unique place in the hearts of Puerto Ricans, venerated widely across the island, both at personal altars and with widespread celebrations on January 6, with the Feast of the Three Kings.
The holiday is a beloved tradition of such significance that Puerto Rico is known as “The Land of Two Christmases.” Festivities include fireworks, church services, special meals, and gift-giving, particularly to children, for whom Melchior is a favorite, believed to be the most generous. On the eve of the Feast Day, tradition calls for parrandas, in which groups wind their way through neighborhoods singing and playing instruments.
Eduardo told me the Three Kings piece by Caban is about one hundred years old. When he was a child, it would be displayed on a table adorned with flowers whenever there was a “Three Kings’ promise” going on. He explained that people offered a promesa when they asked for a special favor from the saint, or gave thanks for a favor received. His father’s mother sometimes celebrated a promise just to please one of her grandchildren.
Eduardo emphasized that whether the request for divine intercession was for a matter of small or great significance, in Puerto Rican culture honoring the fulfillment of a promesa is taken very seriously. He offered an event from his childhood as an illustration.
One day, several strangers came to Eduardo’s house with the story that they were trying to fulfill a promise that their ancestors had made many years before. The promise had to be celebrated with the presence of the celebrated Cabán Three Kings on their altar at home. These people had been told that the wood carving could now be found in the Rivera’s home in Morovis.
They talked with Santa, Eduardo’s mother, who, although she had never met them, took a liking to them. She decided to lend the Three Kings to them, trusting that the piece would be returned safely. Santa’s family criticized her for what they thought it was an unfortunate decision. However, about a month later the Three Kings returned to Santa’s hand and the piece is still in the house.
Eduardo excused himself and returned bearing another carving of the Three Kings, which he told us is also very old and had belonged to his mother’s family who lived in the nearby town of Ciales. He pointed out that two of the kings are seated on mares and the third on a horse, an unusual representation—today, the tradition calls for only horses.
Eduardo next lovingly showed us his Virgin of Mount Carmel, and said the piece was carved by Claudio Pacheco, another distinguished artist of old. He told us that the santos had belonged to his cousin, and that it traveled with her whenever she went. In 2002, she visited Eduardo’s house and on seeing his other saints, decided to give him the piece.
I was struck by his cousin’s generosity, and her willingness to part with an article of faith so dear that she kept it always at her side. It seemed to sum up the essence of what I had learned about Puerto Rican culture during my day in the mountain towns Orocovis and Morovis, where tradition, humility, and hospitality reside.