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A Guide to Puerto Rico's Carved Saints

Hand carving wooden santos (saints), is one of Puerto Rico's oldest traditional art forms, and the practice has survived for centuries. But you wouldn't know it to walk into one of the local souvenir shops, which often line their shelves with imported pieces. Authentic santos carving thrives today—you just have to know where to find the artisans—and their handiwork.

History of the Santos

Influenced by its African, Spanish, and American roots, as well as its Caribbean neighbors and Latin American ties, Puerto Rico has achieved a unique artistic identity through its continual willingness to integrate many traditions. Its artists have worked hard to preserve their culture, and nowhere is their effort more evident than in their hand-carved santos statues.

The history of the santos is traced back to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The missionaries spread God's word by telling stories animated and illustrated with carved santos. According to carver Miguel Diaz, missionaries left santos behind with prospective converts so they could pray at home. Churches were few and far between, but santos placed on home altars could help keep the spirit of God alive between missionaries' visits. Though missionaries no longer visit homes, and churches are more abundant, santos still enjoy a place of honor in many Puerto Ricans' homes and have become a popular art form, highly prized by collectors on the island and abroad.

About the Saints

Santos are not entirely unique to Puerto Rico; just as Spanish missionaries brought them to the island, they also carried them to many other countries. Each country, though, personalized the santos to its own culture over the years. In Puerto Rico the most common figures are the Three Kings, Saint Barbara, Saint Francis, and The Powerful Hand (La Mano Poderosa—a member of the Holy Family tops each finger of a hand bearing the stigma). The santos are typically carved in cedar. Once carved, they are brushed with a coat of gesso and then painted. Santos can also be found in ceramic.

Where to Find Them

Once you stop looking in souvenir shops, it just takes a little scouting to find santos, as well as the artisans who carve them.

The best place to find santos during business hours in Old San Juan is Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts (204 Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan 787/725–5596 www.puertoricanart-crafts.com). The store, which ensures that its entire stock comes from the hands of artisans who live on the island, carries the santos of the late, self-taught carver Domingo Orta, and Antonio Aviles Burgos, who was once recognized as artisan of the year and is the third generation of carvers in his family.

After hours, artisans can often be found working wood and selling their santos during craft fairs held along Old San Juan's Plaza Dársena, located between the cruise piers and Paseo de la Princesa. Friday and Saturday evenings are sure bets, as are Sunday afternoons.

Prices

As with most art and handicrafts, prices depend on several factors, including the carver's history, the quality of craftsmanship, the setting where the pieces are sold, the amount of decoration or elaboration, and the size of the piece. The average size of a santo is 7 to 8 inches, though some are smaller and many carvers produce larger pieces for commissions and other special occasions.

In general, expect prices for santos to begin at $40 and to go up considerably. Some santos fetch as much as several hundred dollars.

Bargaining is not considered as permissible in Puerto Rico as it is in other Spanish-speaking countries. A carver's stated price is likely the lowest he or she is willing to go.

Updated: 2013-10-04

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