For most of us, the holidays ended a few weeks ago. Christmas trees and decorations have been put away by many and reality has sunk in by now. But this is not the case for Puerto Rico. In actuality, La Isla del Encanto just finished their holiday festivities this past Sunday as it’s accustomed to their largest street festival, Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián.
Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, or SanSe as it’s also known, is the definitive mark of the end of the holidays for Puerto Ricans. During SanSe, craftspeople, artists, and vibrant music inundate the streets of the picturesque town of Old San Juan for four days.
Though its inception didn’t generate too much popularity, it now has been going strong for decades. In fact, this year’s SanSe was supposed to be notably prodigious — but it didn’t pan out that way. This wasn’t due to anything pertaining to the San Sebastián Street Festival, though. Instead, it was based on the unpredictability of the recent earthquakes that have been affecting southern Puerto Rico. This stirred up a bit of controversy.
Many people were urging San Juan’s famed mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, to postpone the festival. The reasons for postponing SanSe this year differed from person to person. Some wanted to move them to a later date to show solidarity for those affected in the south of Puerto Rico. However, others wanted to avoid any unnecessary panic should an earthquake occur during the festival, especially since that’d be a perfect recipe for disaster. All of these points were valid, but there were other people who wanted Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián to go on.
The pro-SanSe people argued that postponing it would affect Puerto Rico’s struggling economy even more. It was understood that many were suffering due to the earthquakes, but postponing SanSe meant hurting the locals who also needed the festival to survive. For many, SanSe allows them to bring in a generous income that will keep them afloat for many weeks. This type of income is not the norm in Puerto Rico, so it was also understandable why some people wanted the festival to continue.
Amidst the uncertainty of SanSe and the earthquakes, Governor Wanda Vázquez, expressed her disapproval of Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián to take place on the original date. Like many, she stated that this was due to safety and to stand in solidarity with the part of the island that was hurting. During this uncertainty, many artists who had been called to participate in SanSe cancelled, and the craftspeople fair that was usually integrated within the festival was postponed for February. Nevertheless, this didn’t mean that SanSe was cancelled or postponed. Since this was a municipal-based decision, it fell on San Juan’s Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, to decide what was going to happen with Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián.
Ultimately, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz opted to continue with SanSe as it had been originally planned. Cruz stated her decision was merely based on the economic factor that the festival represented. It is important to keep in mind that SanSe brings in thousands of passengers from different cruise lines to experience its colorful atmosphere. At this point, cruise ships had said that they weren’t going to cancel any of their trips. With that, she urged people to go and that their safety would not be jeopardized in any way. Even if it wasn’t the case, many called her action heartless.
Prior to the launch of the festival, many were saying that they weren’t going to participate. Local news organizations also kept reporting that SanSe was going to be empty this year and that holding it was counterproductive for the island’s wellbeing.
So, I went to the SanSe to see what it was going to be like.
To be fair, this is the first SanSe I’ve ever attended. I knew about it, I just hadn’t had the chance to experience it. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit worried at first, but everything seemed safe when I got there.
I was met with music that grabbed your hips and urged you to rhythmically move your feet. The sun was beaming over the colorful streets of Old San Juan and laughter was echoed all over as I made my way inside the festival. It was surprising to see so many craftspeople selling their work, especially since many had said they weren’t going to participate — but a lot showed up. There were tents lined up alongside El Paseo de la Princesa, with peculiar items that you knew you could only get there. I’m talking about handmade masterpieces, artwork made out of wood, and jewelry that would be envied by others in the world. Let’s not forget the food and the drinks. The scent from a recently fried empanadilla de pizza (pizza turnover) was almost heavenly as the cheese oozed out of it and the grease marred my fingertips. Washing it down with a large cup of Puerto Rican beer, Medalla, added to this wonderful experience. It was truly like a dream.
Since I went with my Puerto Rican friend, she was able to shine light on the festival. Even though it seemed packed, she told me that a true SanSe is one where you can barely make your way through because of all the magnitude of people. I didn’t experience this at all. It was actually walkable. Also, the Ballajá Barracks, where many craftspeople and artists would usually gather, didn’t have anyone being featured in its center as in past years.
I spoke to some of the vendors and regular artists of the event as well. Many stated that their sales are not what they are used to experiencing. A woman, whom my friend purchased majestic earrings from, said that her shop would typically be bombarded with many people, but it was different this year.
To showcase how important this festival is to many people, artists from the southern areas of Puerto Rico where the earthquakes are occurring
I, showed up. There even was a craftsman who had lost everything due to the earthquakes. All he had left was his two dogs and car. He had come to the festival in order to acquire much-needed income.
The local and esteemed artist Carlos Diaz expressed his views about this year’s SanSe:
“My views are not political, they are cultural. If following Hurricane Maria the festival [took place], then there was no excuse this year. In the year that Hurricane Maria happened, people were still without light, many were still looking for food and water, and a lot of the locals didn’t have roofs. But it still happened. It allowed people to experience joy, provide money to the artists, and give hope. You have to understand that there are craftspeople and artists that live on this [SanSe]. So, how are you going to compare that to what is happening now? If fear is created, then people don’t come. This is an injection for Puerto Rico. Everything is linked, from the beer you’re drinking now to tourism. I’m usually in Ballajá, but now I’m in a corner here. People know I’m here because I’ve texted them, yet not many are coming. So, yes. SanSe continues on, but it isn’t the same.”
I quickly realized that SanSe was not just a party, it was a job and a part of the livelihood for many on the island.
Without a doubt, the San Sebastián Street Festival was a heated topic this year and rightfully so. But sometimes every factor needs to be taken into consideration. A lot of Puerto Ricans live off tourism and events such as these. Sadly, the expected amount of people and tourists didn’t show up, thus hurting the bottomline for many on the island.
All in all, I enjoyed SanSe. Thankfully, no earthquakes occurred. The only thing that happened was that many Puerto Ricans were able to reacquaint themselves with joy while sharing this moment with tourists such as me. I’m hoping SanSe gets more traffic next year because its people definitely deserve it. Will you be joining me?