By Elsa Fernández-Miralles

Photos: Supplied

Enjoy the unique San Sebastián Street festival

If you are planning to come to the island in January, you shouldn’t miss one of Puerto Rico’s most emblematic celebrations: the San Sebastián Street Festival. On Jan. 14-17, 2016, youngsters and adults will attend this festival that attracts thousands of people to Old San Juan—particularly to San Sebastián Street and surrounding areas—for a weekend full of customs, traditions, and numerous events.

It’s been said that this festival began in the 19th century. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century— specifically in 1954—that Father Juan Manuel Madrazo, the parish priest of San José Church in Old San Juan, organized it to raise funds intended to restore the church and the street itself.

When Father Madrazo was transferred to another parish outside San Juan, the festivities were suspended until Rafaela Balladares, who along with painter Antonio“Tony” Maldonado created the San Sebastián Street Residents Steering Committee, whose aim was to generate funds to help improve area residents’ quality of life.p-25-cred-pr-tourism-co

Balladares met with Ricardo Alegría, director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, who told her to revive Father Madrazo’s former celebration. Balladares heeded the advice and in 1970 street residents held the first contemporary festival—which included a reveille, a Mass, the procession of the saint, a paintings exhibit, and a period ball. Local dishes and beverages were sold, and neighbors built the stage where musical acts were performed and the kiosks for the arts and crafts fair.

The cabezudos (festive big papier maché heads) seen during Father Madrazo’s time were replaced by others with closer links to Puerto Rican culture. Over the years, these festive heads—which represent different characters in popular culture—have become the symbol of the San Sebastián Street Festival.

Forty-five years later, the once-modest neighborhood celebration has become a grand annual event that attracts more than 500 artists and artisans and nearly half a million visitors. This year’s proceeds will go toward the cathedral’s restoration fund.

The festival begins on Thursday with a Mass in honor of San Sebastián. On Friday there is a cabezudos parade where historical tableaus come to life and we see representations of public figures as well as characters from our traditional stories. The parade ends at the San Juan Cathedral. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday there are shows featuring popular singers and bands. During the weekend you can also enjoy all kinds of family-oriented entertainment—including arts and crafts exhibits, dancing, shows, and food and drink kiosks, among other options.

Since the festival’s attendance is just massive, local authorities provide transportation from specific spots near parking structures and lots, so people can hop on a trolley or other type of public transportation that will take them straight to the festival site. Your hotel can tell you what to do to avoid the dreaded traffic jams and provide tips on the best way to get to the festival.

We invite you to experience a unique celebration in Old San Juan. Wear cool clothing and comfortable shoes, and enjoy the eagerly awaited San Sebastián Street Festival with us!