The traditional “Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián” bring more than just music to the festivities that nowadays mark the close of Christmas in Puerto Rico. On the 40th anniversary of their reincarnation, the festival honors this year two great Puerto Rican musicians who happen to celebrate major milestones. Percussionist Roberto Roena and trumpet player and band leader Luis “Perico” Ortiz where given the “Premio San Sebastián” to honor their musical careers. Roberto Roena was also celebrating his 70th birthday, and Luis “Perico” Ortiz recently celebrated his 60th.
Music and much more at the Calle San Sebastian
The importance of this festival is that it keeps some of our cultural traditions alive, right in the heart of Puerto Rico’s metro area. We need this cultural injection every year as a reminder of our great cultural traditions, and there couldn’t be a better time than right at the end of the Christmas season.
Over 50 groups of music, dance, and theater performed during the 4-day Calle San Sebastian festival. In addition, over 300 craftmen display and sell their art, there was a book fair, with over 20 publishers participating, and there was a “Baile de Epoca” where special guests dress formally to dance “Danza”, and there are also performances by folkloric dance groups, showcasing Puerto Rican “bomba” and “plena” dances. And one of the highlights is the traditional parade headed by the “Cabezudos”, which are people wearing giant head made of peppier maché.
Musically, there are always some good groups performing on stage. A mix of Salsa groups with some plena and bomba groups is the norm. But one of the main sources of fun is participating in the improvised street “rumbón de plena”, where attendees bring their “panderos” and start playing, with anyone around joining in the singing.
To give you a flavor of what this is like, here is a video of members of the plena group Batukealo playing in the Calle San Sebastian. You can notice the people in the street singing and dancing along the music.
Short History of the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián
The festival is said to have its origin in the mid 20th century, when a Spainard priest of the San Jose Church in San Juan by the name of Juan Madrazo, decided to start festivities similar to the ones done to patron saints (“Fiestas Patronales”) in the other towns of Puerto Rico. As he was thinking of the idea, he traveled to Spain where he saw some “cabezudos” and decided to bring some to Puerto Rico for the festival he was planning. The festival would have some music, traditional dances, and a parade with the “cabezudos” along the San Sebastian street. Sometimes they would go all the way to “La Fortaleza” where then governor Luis Muñoz Marín and his wife Doña Inés would receive them. San Juan’s mayor, Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier (a.k.a. Doña Fela) supported the activities. The neighbors help to organize the festival and clean up the street afterwards. Father Madrazo continued doing this every January for 5 years, until he was re-assigned. His replacement did not continue with the festival and it was temporarily lost.
By 1970, a local San Juan resident, Doña Rafael Balladares, decided to rescue the festival. She seeked volunteers from her neighbors, and had some new “cabezudos” done, this time of local characters which would be more familiar to the public. El Gran Combo played for free on the first reincarnation of the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián that year.
My memories of the San Sebastian Street Festival
If by this part of reading this blog you think the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian are a great cultural event, you are not mistaken, but it’s not the whole story. If you are after the cultural aspect, try to attend the many day time activities. Things change quite a bit at night. Good Salsa groups will probably be performing in the evening, but the crowds are such that you can barely walk. Drinking is rampant, although the city has clamped down on that much more these past years than when I used to attend some 30 years ago.
One year, a bottle throwing fight broke out at the main Plaza San José, and I quickly sought refuge in one of the nearby bars, which upon noticing the quick influx of people, decided to quickly close its doors. We were trapped inside, at least until things calmed down outside, but safe. A group of guys started to play plena inside the bar, and no other than Andy Montañez started singing, as he was one of the fellow “refugees”. Needless to say, when the doors re-opened, I did not move from that place, and enjoyed a close encounter “rumbón de plena” with the great Puerto Rican signer.
Tribute to Roberto Roena and Luis “Perico” Ortiz
This year’s tribute to Roberto Roena en Luis “Perico” Ortiz was well deserved, and I’m glad it coincided with them celebrating milestone birthdays. These are two of my favorite musicians as I grew up listening to their music. I will dedicate the next couple of blogs to sharing my experience with their music.
The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian bring great memories, and I hope they continue as a tradition for many years to come.