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Historical Background

Origins of the veneration and carving of Puerto Rican wooden saints, or "santos de palo"

Text in Spanish

The tradition of venerating Santos probably arrived on the Island around 1493, when Spanish colonists introduced Catholicism to the new world, via Catholic priests. Santos – or wooden representations of celestial beings -- were an essential didactic component of the Spanish colonists drive to evangelize and convert two main groups in Puerto Rico: initially the indigenous Taíno inhabitants and -- later -- slaves from Western Africa.

From the late 18th century to the late 19TH century, Santo carving flourished significantly in Puerto Rico, due to the island’s isolation, low population, depressed economic conditions and lack of control by the Catholic Church. Religious sentiment was very strong at this time and the roles for Santos as powerful intermediaries was crucial to the Island’s inhabitants who lived in isolated rural areas. Indeed, Puerto Rican peasants were forced to construct a reality with few resources and little or no external influence. During this period, Santo veneration and carving was a deeply religious practice, given that these “wooden objects” were physical representations of the believers’ patron saint and more importantly, intermediaries to God.

The 20th century introduced a dramatic change to the Santo worshipping tradition on the island. In 1898, Puerto Rico became -- and still remains -- a "non incorporated territory", a colony of the United States. For the first time in over 400 years, the Catholic Church was not in control of the island. However, the new colonial authority introduced new social, economic, educational and political changes, including a new faith -- Protestantism.

Protestant missionaries traveled the Island stressing the conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism – the religion of the new political order. This campaign played a significant role in weakening Santo veneration. Missionaries argued that venerating Santos was idolatry and unacceptable under God’s eyes. During the early 20th century, thousands of carved Santos were burned publicly, buried, or destroyed.

By the 1940's, the veneration of Santos had diminished considerably. In addition to the influence of the new religion and political order, Santos made of plaster and plastic were introduced to the island. The popular perception was that the new Santos (plastic and plaster) were superior in quality to the wooden Santos carved by peasants from the countryside. These socio-cultural elements joined to exploit Santo veneration’s demise and relegated the practice to rural areas of the island.

Beginning in the early 1950’s, a new era of cultural affirmation began to take shape on the Island. Vocal cultural leaders promoted the relevance and importance of preserving elements of daily Puerto Rican life and documenting the island’s art and culture -- especially cultural art from rural areas -- at a time when it was devalued and ignored by the popular culture and the colonial power. It was in this context that the art of carving Santos de Palo was rescued.

Today, Santo carving shows great force and vitality thanks to cultural and political leaders who promoted and preserved the essence of this popular art form. Interestingly, the carving tradition gradually reduced its intrinsic religious value and evolved into a strong secular cultural force, to the point that a number of today's distinguished Santo carvers are Protestants, or Evangelicals. Moreover, we find Santos in non-religious settings like markets, galleries and in museums like the Smithsonian Institute.

For Puerto Ricans, Santos have become objects of Puerto Rican affirmation, a folk art tradition with broad appeal that attracts Puerto Ricans and non Puerto Ricans alike.