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Meet The Cabezudos… San Sebastian Street Fiestas 2014

Published on January 11, 2014, by in Blog.
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Original cabezudos at San Sebastian Street Fiestas 2006

I shot this image on Jan­u­ary 20, 2006 with­out real­iz­ing that I was cap­tur­ing all the orig­i­nal “cabezu­dos” except one. From left to right: Don Cholito, El Coquí, La Puerca, Juan Bobo, Max­im­ina La Loca, Toribio, la Jíbara, Diplo, El Gen­eral and Maso Rivera. Alfonsa Vil­la­m­onte Vera “La Bil­letera” died in 2008 and her cabezudo was made later.

The 2014 edi­tion of the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas is about to start. Next Thurs­day, Jan­u­ary 16, 2013, mayor Car­men Yulín Cruz will be cut­ting the tra­di­tional rib­bon and the 44th edi­tion of the world’s largest event, tak­ing place dur­ing the month of Jan­u­ary, will commence.

I could write for hours about the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas. I could tell you about the arti­san fairs, the music at most of the old city’s squares, the artists that line San Sebas­t­ian Street, the fact that it all started with a reli­gious event, and even about the SanSe 2014 con­trac­tion, that has become so pop­u­lar among the cit­i­zenry, but is totally dis­fa­vored by the event orga­niz­ers. But all of that has been said before and it’s all over the Internet.

Instead I’m going to write about the faces of the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas. After all, every major event in the world has them. At the “San Fer­mines” it’s all about the bulls. At “la Tomatina” it’s all… well, about throw­ing toma­toes. At Río it’s all about gor­geous women and cos­tumes. At Mardi Gras it’s all about food and music. And at the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas the cen­ter­piece are the Cabezudos.

Carmen Julia Díaz with her favorite “cabezudo” masks: “Maximina La Loca” and “La Billetera”.

Car­men Julia Díaz with her favorite “cabezudo” masks: “Max­im­ina La Loca” and “La Billetera”.

Just go to the “pic­tures” sec­tion in Google and write “Fies­tas de la Calle San Sebas­t­ian” and you’ll see the Cabezu­dos in almost every pic­ture. They are —with­out a doubt— the face of the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fiestas.

This morn­ing I spent a cou­ple of hours talk­ing with Mrs. Car­men Julia Díaz, a mem­ber of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee who is in charge of los Cabezu­dos. And while I’ve been attend­ing the “fies­tas” for over 20 years, I have to admit that I learned a lot.

Car­men Julia is a retired math teacher born in the munic­i­pal­ity of Fajardo, about 30 miles east of San Juan. She has been a part of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee for over 17 years and this year she is proud to be in charge of los Cabezudos.

The orig­i­nal San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas started in 1954 as a fund rais­ing event, cre­ated by father Juan Manuel Madrazo. Even­tu­ally they went into a hia­tus until the mid 1970’s when Rafaela Bal­ladares de Brito, a for­mer teacher, res­cued them —once again as a fundraiser— for the “Cole­gio de Párvu­los” (ele­men­tary school) located at the east­ern end of San Sebas­t­ian Street.

Car­men Julia met Bal­ladares at a “Dis­cov­ery of Puerto Rico” cel­e­bra­tion. “She was the guest of honor and our prin­ci­pal chose me to be in charge of the event”, said Car­men Julia. The two women imme­di­ately dis­cov­ered that they had mul­ti­ple inter­ests in com­mon. They were both teach­ers, they were both arti­sans and they were both pro­foundly in love with Puerto Rico. So they became friends for life.

The Old San Juan Walking Tour

“Bal­ladares was the cre­ative mind that gave birth to the Cabezu­dos”, said Car­men Julia. She was also a stern woman who led the fes­tiv­i­ties with a watch­ful eye almost ’til the time of her death in the month of Sep­tem­ber, 2011. She was 97.

When father Madrazo started the orig­i­nal fies­tas there were only two fig­ures in the entire parade. They rep­re­sented the king and queen of Spain and they were the kind that you see in Spain; effi­gies at the end of a long pole.

But Bal­ladares wanted some­thing truly Puerto Rican, so she came up with the idea of cre­at­ing large masks resem­bling pop­u­lar fig­ures from Old San Juan. Hence the word “cabezu­dos” (peo­ple with big heads).

The first cabezudo was “el gen­eral” (the gen­eral). “El gen­eral” was an actual “san­juanero” (Old San Juan res­i­dent) who used to dress up in mil­i­tary cloth­ing, medals and all, and directed traf­fic at one of the city’s intersections.

Then came “Diplo” and “Toribio”. Diplo’s full name was Ramón Rivero. He was a come­dian, actor, com­poser and a pio­neer in Puerto Rico’s radio, tele­vi­sion and cin­ema industries.

My wife insisted and I posed.

My wife insisted and I posed.

Toribio’s full name was Patri­cio Rijos Morales. He was a hum­ble black man that never learned to read or write. But he had one spe­cial tal­ent. He was called “el rey del güícharo”. A “güícharo” (pro­nounced gweecharo) is the Puerto Rican name for a guiro, which is a Latin-American per­cus­sion instru­ment con­sist­ing of an open-ended, hol­low gourd with par­al­lel notches cut in one side. It is played by rub­bing a stick or tines along the notches to pro­duce a ratchet-like sound. And Toribio was truly the best player that Puerto Rico has ever had.

Pretty soon Bal­ladares real­ized that she would run out of pop­u­lar San Juan res­i­dents so she widened her scope to include fig­ures from all walks of Puerto Rican folklore.

The first cabezudo in this sec­ond tier was “Max­im­ina La Loca”, a lady from the neigh­bor­ing town of Loíza who loved to dance and wore dozens of small bowties in her hair. In case you’re won­der­ing, “Max­im­ina La Loca” means Max­im­ina the crazy one.

Then she looked at Puerto Rican lit­er­a­ture and cre­ated the cabezu­dos for “Juan Bobo”, “La Puerca” and “La Jíbara”. “Juan Bobo” is the most beloved folk­loric char­ac­ter on the island of Puerto Rico. (learn more on Wikipedia). “La Puerca” was actu­ally a char­ac­ter in one of the “Juan Bobo” books and “La Jíbara” rep­re­sents the rural woman of the 19th century.

After that Bal­ladares looked at Puerto Rican nature. And what could be more Puerto Rican than the “Eleuthero­dacty­lus Por­tor­ri­cense” or “coquí”, small lit­tle frog that is native to Puerto Rico and pro­duces a pecu­liar sound that resem­bles its name. You can lis­ten to an actual “coquí” on the player below.

Coquí

The last three cabezu­dos were “Don Cholito”, Maso Rivera” and “La Bil­letera”. “Don Cholito’s” real name was José Miguel Agrelot and he was one of the great­est and most beloved come­di­ans in Puerto Rican history.

Maso Rivera’s full name was Tomás Rivera Morales. He was a Puerto Rican musi­cian (cua­tro player) and a major expo­nent of Puerto Rico’s Jibaro (folk­loric) music. Rivera com­posed over 1,000 instru­men­tal com­po­si­tions for the Cua­tro, Puerto Rico’s national instrument.

La Billetera

La Bil­letera

Finally, “la bil­letera” was Alfonsa Vil­la­m­onte Vera, a res­i­dent of Old San Juan who sold lot­tery tick­ets at one of the city’s street cor­ners. After her death, her rel­a­tives approached the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee to ask if they would cre­ate a cabezudo in here memory.

So what are the cabezu­dos? They’re actu­ally chil­dren —for the most part— who lead a com­parsa, sev­eral times a day, danc­ing down San Sebas­t­ian Street from one end to the other. Behind them you’ll see thou­sands of party-loving Puerto Ricans who sing and dance to the tunes of a group of “pleneros”.

Plena is one of three music styles that orig­i­nated in Puerto Rico. The other two are Bomba and Danza. Bomba and Plena are folk­loric in nature, whereas danza is of a for­mal nature.

Pleneros

Plen­eros

Plena is played on a series of hand drums called “plen­eras” and often includes trom­bones and trumpets.

The word “com­parsa” comes from Cuba and it refers to a group of per­cus­sion­ists —usu­ally play­ing con­gas— accom­pa­nied by brass instru­ments and singers that per­form at carnivals.

Actu­ally, the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee in charge of the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas doesn’t refer to the com­parsa as “the com­parsa”. They call it a des­file (parade). But the peo­ple —with­out a doubt— refer to it as “la comparsa”.

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Finally, the cabezu­dos are the lifeblood of the San Sebas­t­ian Street Fies­tas. With­out them we’d be left with a large group of arti­sans and thou­sands of peo­ple drink­ing beer. They are truly the life of the party.

Orlando Mer­gal

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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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