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Music and 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 traditions. In addition, there couldn’t be a better time for them than right at the end of the Christmas season.
Usually, over 50 groups of music, dance, and theater perform during the 4-day Calle San Sebastian festival. In addition, over 300 craftsmen display and sell their art. A book fair also takes place during the event, with over 20 publishers participating. Additionally, they now have a “Baile de Epoca”, where special guests dress formally to dance “Danza”. Finally, there are also performances by folkloric dance groups, showcasing Puerto Rican “bomba” and “plena”.
One of the most popular highlights of the “Fiestas de la Sanse” is the traditional parade headed by the “Cabezudos”. In it, people wearing giant heads made of peppier maché march down San Sebastian street.
Musically, there are always good groups performing on stage. A mix of Salsa groups with some plena and bomba groups is the norm.
On top of that, one of the main sources of fun is participating in the improvised street “rumbón de plena”. Here attendees bring their “panderos” and start playing, with anyone around joining in the singing or by playing their own instruments.
To give you a flavor of what this is like, here is a video of with music from plena group Plenealo. The video captures the essence of these festivities. You can notice the people in the street singing and dancing along with the music.
Short History of the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian
The festival is said to have its origin in the mid 20th century, when a Spaniard 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 festivities using “cabezudos” and decided to bring the concept 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 calle San Sebastian. Sometimes they would go all the way to “La Fortaleza” (the Governor’s mansion) 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 helped to organize the festival and clean up the street afterward. Father Madrazo continued doing this every January for 5 years until he was re-assigned to a different location. His replacement did not continue with the festival and it was temporarily lost.
By 1970, a local San Juan resident, Doña Rafaela Balladares, decided to rescue the festival. She sought volunteers from her neighbors and had some new “cabezudos” done. However, this time the “cabezudos” were made resembling local popular people, making them more familiar to the public. El Gran Combo played for free on the first reincarnation of the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian that year.
This time the tradition stuck, and eventually, the municipal government of the city of San Juan took over its planning and financial support. The “Fiestas de la Sanse” is one of the most anticipated festivities in Puerto Rico, where people from many countries travel here specifically to enjoy them.
[Note: you can read more on the history of the “cabezudos” on the blog HERE.]
My Memories of the Calle San Sebastian Festival
By now you know that the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian is a great cultural event. However, that’s not the whole story. If you are seeking the cultural aspect of the festival, it is best to attend the many daytime activities it offers. But take note that things change quite a bit at night.
Good Salsa groups will probably be performing in the evening. At this time, the crowds are so big 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. 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” in the bar.
Needless to say, when the doors re-opened, I did not move from that place. I wanted to keep enjoying a close encounter “rumbón de plena” with the great Puerto Rican signer.
The “Fiestas de la Sanse” Today
Today the “Fiestas de la Sanse” have evolved to better accomodate the bigger crowds. Porta-potties are placed in several places to avoid people having to use the bathrooms of local commerce or worst, use street alleys as improvised urinals. Parking areas have been designated for early arrivals. Other transportation choices include the bus shuttles from the last Urban Train station in nearby Santurce into Old San Juan or taking the “Lancha de Cataño” boat from across the bay.
To avoid the bottle-throwing issues of the past, bars only serve drinks in plastic cups. The crowds are still big, so families tend to plan to go early on Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the arts & crafts and the early shows before the big crowds start arriving for the late afternoon and evening shows.
The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian bring great memories to me and million of Puerto Ricans. I hope they continue as a tradition for many years to come.