Saint Sebastian, whose day is commemorated on January 20, was born in Narbonne, France. The saint was an officer for Roman emperor Maximian in mid-third century. The martyr, who was accused of being a Christian, refused to abandon his faith, for which he was sentenced to death by the emperor. In Catholic imagery, this saint is represented as being tied to a tree and wounded by arrows.
These festivities in honor of Saint Sebastian began in the 1950s. They were organized by Father Madrazo, parish priest of the San José Church in Old San Juan with the purpose of raising funds in order to repair various church buildings. Some years later, this celebration was discontinued.
In 1970, Ricardo Alegría, anthropologist and historian, suggested to Rafaela Balladares de Brito, resident of San Sebastián Street, to resume the festival celebration. With the help of neighbors, Balladares organized the festivities, this time to benefit Colegio de Párvulos, elementary school directed by sisters of charity and also located on San Sebastián Street.
During the first years, a group of musicians would walk through San Juan's streets announcing the festivity early in the morning. There was a procession from San Sebastián Street to San José Church in which they carried the saint's image. Cabezudos —people in costumes and wearing masks of enormous proportions which represented the Catholic King and Queen— participated in the procession.
As part of the activities, neighbors decorated the street and their home's balcony. They prepared dresses for the traditional dances and typical foods. They also served as hosts of the musical shows. Additionally, in front of José Campeche's house, Puerto Rican painter of the eighteenth century, there was a small exhibit of paintings. Later on, an artisan fair was included in the festival; it still takes place.
Today, the procession reaches San Juan Bautista Cathedral, located on Cristo Street. The Cabezudos parade, which now includes characters of Puerto Rican folklore such as Juan Bobo, the General, and Diplo, goes through the streets of the islet, followed by the public, which sings and dances to the beat of the music. There is also a formal dance as well as conferences.
In time, the San Sebastián Street Festival has become very popular. More than 200,000 people participate in it. Its fame has transcended the island; it is now internationally renowned.
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: December 30, 2009.