Ponce Carnival, EFR
Island-Fest > Events > Puerto Rico
Year-round festivals—featuring music, arts, crafts, patron saints, local foods, or agricultural products—make up a big part of the lifeblood of Puerto Rico. Summer festivals are particularly popular, especially in the smaller mountain towns which burst with activity, music and folklore during the summer.
Being a cosmopolitan island, Puerto Rico has embraced a few festivals that have an international appeal. The legendary Spanish cellist, don Pablo Casals, lived his final years in Puerto Rico and established the renowned Casals Festival. It is dedicated to Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and other classical masters. The two-week festival opens in February. In early June, the Heineken JazzFest pays homage to the New World’s gift of jazz music and the Island’s Latin-jazz variations. Held in an outdoor amphitheater, the festival showcases a great natural setting and great jazz musicians. In November, the San Juan Cinemafest treats residents and visitors alike to the best international films of the past year.
Most local festivities are deeply rooted in the Island culture and personality, and nothing is too small or too large to contain the joyful fervor of the Puerto Rican spirit. By attending these festivals, you can get to know the Puerto Rican culture, hear typical music, and eat local foods. You can also get to know the “mi casa es su casa” (“my house is your house”) sense of Island hospitality.
The festivities are as varied as they are lively. Some honor the Spanish language and its best exponents. Others, like the Semana de la Danza pay homage to the stately danza, the 19th century salon dance similar to the waltz. The event takes place in Ponce in mid-May.
Still other festivals take up banners for the pulsating bomba y plena, a legacy of African descent originating on the Island. The Fiestas Tradicionales in Loíza in July recall the African traditions with parades of brilliant costumes, masks made from coconut husks and shells, and the rhythms of the bomba y plena.
The Qué Viva la Salsa! Event in Isla Verde at the end of July celebrates the even more rebellious urban salsa. Each of these forms represents the confluence of Puerto Rico’s three ethnic roots – Indian, African and Spanish. Other festivals, such as the Fiesta Nacional del Güiro in Peñuelas in mid-May, focus on an instrument itself, the percussive güiro,which, dates back to Taíno Indian times. Morovis celebrates its Festival de Cuatristas y Trobadores in mid-July to honor the cuatro, a close relative to the Spanish guitar.
Music festivals are only dashes of the many seasonings in the Island’s cauldron of celebrations. Many town festivals feature local attractions distinctive to the towns, such as agricultural products—coffee and sugar, pineapples and mangoes, and fish and, to go on the table, flowers. Typical foods often blend products that come from the Taíno, African and Spanish heritages. One favorite is mofongo, a singular mixture of mashed plantains and meat or seafood in a garlic and tomato-based sauce. Among the best-known agricultural celebrations are the coffee harvest festivals in the town of Maricao in mid-February and the flower festival in Aibonito in June/July.
Equally popular are the craft festivals, highlighting musical instruments, wooden saint figures (santos), hammocks, bobbin lace (mundillo), baskets, ceramics, jewelry and other items fashioned in Puerto Rico. The Island’s oldest crafts fair is held in the lovely mountain town of Barranquitas in July. The largest, the Bacardi Artisans Festival at the Bacardi Rum Plant in Cataño in early December, marks the official start of the Christmas season with vivid displays of arts and crafts, troubadour competitions and performances by some of the Island’s top pop singers.
The Christmas season in Puerto Rico is one very long running festival of parties, hotel galas, concerts, lights, nativity scenes, and family get-togethers. The season runs from the Bacardi Artisans Festival through Three Kings Day (January 6th - Puerto Rico’s traditional gift-giving day for children, who put out grass for the kings’ camels), to the annual San Sebastián Street Festival in Old San Juan at the end of January. Throngs of people, young and old from throughout the Island and from the cruise ships harbored for the holidays at the old city’s piers, pack the historic cobblestone streets to enjoy San Sebastián’s music, art, crafts and street-fair atmosphere.
It is the year-round patron saint festivals that reaffirm the devotion of this predominantly Catholic island. Patron saints represent the spiritual protectors and guardians of each of the Island’s 78 towns. A centuries-old church custom, patron saints were conceived as intercessors in important everyday activities of secular societies. Believers and non-believers alike participate enthusiastically in the traditional celebrations, which can last from three to ten days. Opening masses, colorful processions, fireworks, coronations, rides, live music, typical foods, and traditional games often take place in the towns’ plazas.
The patron saint of Puerto Rico’s capital city is St. John the Baptist. An imposing statue of this saint stands authoritatively facing the Capitol building. At midnight on the eve of June 24, the official saint day, San Juan revelers gather at the beaches to take seven steps backwards into the ocean for a ritualistic plunge into the waters to fend off bad luck. The legendary San Juan mayor, the late Felisa Rincón de Gautier, was often the first one to take her dip of fortune in the cool waters.
Although Puerto Rico’s festivals seem almost impromptu with their crowds and merrymaking, they actually begin months in advance. Fashion mavens and seamstresses begin to design and sew the flamboyant costumes used in the colorful parades, town officials organize the shows, and leading citizens of each town set out to seek donations from wealthy residents, prominent merchants, pharmaceuticals and other companies to fund the pageantry. And so, the titans of technology join hands with the totems of tradition in praising saints, music, crafts, foods, and today’s people.