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The 2014 San Sebastian Street Fiestas Are Underway!

Published on January 17, 2014, by in Blog.

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

San Sebastian Street Fiestas 2014… Let The Party Begin!

Published on December 26, 2013, by in Blog.

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.


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.

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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