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The 2014 San Sebastian Street Fiestas Are Underway!

Published on January 17, 2014, by in Blog.
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Yes­ter­day was a great day in Old San Juan.  Despite a lit­tle rain a few min­utes before com­mence­ment, the 2014 edi­tion of the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas started right on time about 5:00pm.

Writ­ing a whole new post about the 2014 San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas (or SanSe 2014, like the younger crowd has come to call them) would be redun­dant.  So instead I shot this short video that shows the first “com­parsa” led by this year’s hon­oree Mr. Ray­mond Arrieta.

So give us four min­utes of your time and wit­ness the kick­off of “Las Fies­tas De La Calle San Sebastián 2014”.  Enjoy!

The Old San Juan Walking Tour
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San Sebastian Street Fiestas 2014… Let The Party Begin!

Published on December 26, 2013, by in Blog.
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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.

There are artisans everywhere. Click to enlarge.

There are arti­sans every­where. Click to enlarge.

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.

"Cabezudo" leading a “comparsa". Click to enlarge.

Cabezudo” lead­ing a “com­parsa”. Click to enlarge.

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.

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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.

Cabezudos

Cabezu­dos

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.

There's something for everyone at “la San Sebastian". Click to enlarge

There’s some­thing for every­one at “la San Sebas­t­ian”. Click to enlarge

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.

The Old San Juan Walking Tour

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,

Orlando Mer­gal

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