Traditional Puerto Rican Saint Sebastian Street Festival Fills Every Corner of Old San Juan

Calle San Sebastián

San Sebastián Street, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Every third weekend of January the legendary San Sebastián (Saint Sebastian) Street Festival is celebrated in the old part of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. For many people, this definitively marks the end of the Christmas season. Those who aren’t familiar with this Puerto Rican tradition may think that it deals with a festival only celebrated in San Sebastián Street. The reality is that as time has passed, the celebrations have gained an impressive boom, overtaking the limits of the street and now including practically all of Old San Juan, as this video demonstrates:

The Festival began originally as a celebration in honor of Saint Sebastian, born in Narbonne, France and who, during the 3rd Century CE, was martyred for not renouncing the Christian faith. In Catholic imagery, he is commonly represented as pierced by several arrows and tied to a tree.

In the 1950s, the tradition of celebrating the festivals in honor of Saint Sebastian began as a way of collecting funds for repairing the buildings of the church of San José in Old San Juan. After several years, the tradition was discontinued until 1970, when the archeologist, historian, and anthropologist Ricardo Alegría suggested to Rafaela Balladares, a resident of San Sebastián Street, that they resume the tradition. This is how the Festival was born, and this year it celebrated its 44th edition.

Currently, the festival has lost much of its religious character, and has transformed more into a city festivity that attracts more than 300,000 people annually.

Here I’m sharing some of the photos that I took during my visit to this year's Festival:

Mirada a la Calle del Cristo, por donde subían muchas personas a la Calle San Sebastián.

This is Calle del Cristo (Christ Street), where many people pass on the way to San Sebastián Street.

Fachada del Centro de Estudios Avanzados, sede del Comité Organizador de las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián y donde se podían encontrar libros, artesanías, comida y diferentes actividades.

Front of the Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in Calle del Cristo, headquarters of the Organizing Committee for the San Sebastián Street Festival, and where books, handicrafts, food, and different activities can be found.

Los cabezudos son un tipo de máscara utilizada en las procesiones tradicionales de las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián. Estos cabezudos fueron hechos por el colectivo de teatro Agua, Sol y Sereno.

Cabezudos (Big Heads) are a type of mask used in the traditional processions of the San Sebastián Street Festival. These cabezudos were made by the theater collective Agua, Sol y Sereno (Water, Sun and Calm), who offered a presentation in the Plaza de la Barandilla.

Estos son pedazos de caña de azúcar recién cortados. De aquí se saca...

These are pieces of sugar cane recently cut in one of the kiosks located in the Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

El guarapo es una bebida refrescante hecha del jugo de la caña de azúcar. Es difícil de conseguir, ya que exprimir las cañas de azúcar cuesta mucho trabajo.

Guarapo is a refreshing drink made from sugar cane juice. It is difficult to attain, since squeezing the canes takes a lot of time.

En las Fiestas también se estaban recogiendo firmas solicitando la excarcelación del prisionero político Oscar López Rivera.

La Plaza Colón (Columbus Square) was one of the places where people gathered to collect signatures for the release of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.

All images were taken by the author.

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