Christmas is almost over for many Americans. Just yesterday they were tearing open their presents, and in 5 more days they’ll be counting down the hours to 2014. Then it’ll be back to work.
Not in Puerto Rico! In Puerto Rico the party is just beginning. Christmas on the Island kicks off on Thanksgiving Day and extends all the way to the San Sebastian Street Fiestas. When’s that? The third weekend in January. Wow!
Like everyone else around the world Puerto Ricans will count down the hours, minutes and seconds to usher in 2014. Then they’ll go on to January 6, when the Island celebrates “El Día De Los Tres Reyes Magos” (3 Wise Men Day).
Puerto Rico was originally colonized by Spain. And like many other Latin American countries the most important day during the Christmas season was “3 Wise Men Day”, not Christmas Day; and certainly not Santa Claus.
Things have changed after the United States invaded the Island in 1898. Today Puerto Rico celebrates Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day (with Santa Claus and all), new Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, 3 Wise Men Day and the San Sebastian Street Fiestas. So it’s one looooooooooooooong party that goes on for close to two months.
So what are the San Sebastian Street fiestas, or “Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastían” like the locals call them?
Some historians argue that the San Sebastian Street Fiestas have been going on since the 19th century, but officially they were established in 1954 by father Juan Manuel Madrazo, who at the time was the parish priest at San José Church in Old San Juan. The original purpose of the fiestas was to collect funds for the church and to repair the streets that surrounded the temple.
Later on father Madrazo was transferred to another parish and the fiestas went into a hiatus. In the mid 1970’s historian “Ricardo Alegría” asked “Rafaela Balladares de Brito” (a resident of San Sebastian Street) to rescue the tradition of the San Sebastian Street Fiestas, this time as a way to help fund the “Colegio de Párvulos” (elementary school) located near the eastern end of San Sebastian Street.
In the early years a small group of musicians called a “comparsa” would walk up the street followed by “cabezudos” (local children wearing huge masks) and local townspeople carrying the image of a saint all the way to San Jose Church, where a religious service would take place.
Later on local artists started lining the street selling everything from serigraphs and leather goods to bijouterie and wooden saints. The event kept growing and growing until it became the largest event in the world of its kind, taking place during the month of January.
Today the San Sebastian Street Fiestas start at the eastern end of San Sebastian Street and extend all the way to the Ballajá Military Barracks, right in front of El Morro grounds. Last year the event went on for four consecutive days and it attracted close to half a million people from Puerto Rico and abroad.
This year the Municipal Government of San Juan has announced that the San Sebastian Street Fiestas will take place from January 16th to the 19th, and they will honor Raymond Arrieta, a local comedian and humanitarian. They also announced that they are considering stricter security measures, especially as it pertains to the traffic of people and vehicles in and out of the old city.
Entering and leaving Old San Juan during the San Sebastian Street Fiestas can be a nightmare. That’s why many people —including me— leave their vehicles at a remote location and use the public transportation system to reach and leave the city.
But last year things got out of hand when the citizenry blocked the bus lanes going in and out of the old city and patrons were stranded for hours at the Covadonga Bus Terminal. The whole thing could have ended in a riot if it weren’t for the direct intervention of Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had only been major of San Juan for a couple of days when the event took place.
Another event that could have escalated into something a lot more serious was the shooting of a young man right next to the “Totem Telúrico”, a huge monument that sits right in the middle of Quincentennial Square”, just to the west of San José Church. Thank Goodness that most people didn’t hear the shot through all the hustle and bustle, but that one shot could have initiated a human stampede and resulted in dozens —if not hundreds— of injuries and deaths.
It would have been nice to contact the appropriate government figures and learn about what measures —if any— municipal and state officials are putting in place this year to avoid such incidents, but we never received any answer to our emails and phone calls. So we can only hope for the best.
Today’s San Sebastian Street Fiestas practically take over the entire old city. There are artisanss everywhere, music at almost every plaza, local cuisine of every kind and lots and lots of beer. The “cabezudos comparsa” takes place several times a day and the party goes on for four straight days.
Can something go wrong? Sure it can. Like it can go wrong at the “Río de Janeiro” festival, at “Las Fiestas De San Fermín”, at “Mardi Gras” and anywhere else where you have a large gathering of people in a very small area.
But if you really want to see what a party is like in Puerto Rico there’s no place better than the “San Sebastian Street Fiestas”. So come on, join the party!
Happy New Year,
©2013,Orlando Mergal, MA
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