The historic city of Old San Juan commenced its 500th anniversary celebrations last weekend, gathering locals and visitors alike in an environment of cultural enrichment with a colorful array of the city’s folkloric enchantment. The celebrations, named “San Juan 500,” were orchestrated by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP by its Spanish initials) in collaboration with a series of cultural groups and organizations.
ICP Executive Director Carlos R. Ruiz Cortés discussed the background for this event, which featured art and farmer’s markets, educational tours, musical numbers and other miscellanea, with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL. Ruiz Cortés explained that the initiative began around mid-2017 between the ICP and various cultural organizations in the Barrio Ballajá area of Puerto Rico’s colonial vestige. These included the School of Plastic Arts and Design, the Museum of the Americas, the Puerto Rican Academy of History and the Puerto Rican Foundation of Humanities, among others.
After more than a year of planning, the ICP and the San Juan 500 Committee kicked-off a series of activities at Cuartel de Ballajá on the morning of Friday, Sept. 13 with a display of Kamishibai, a form of Japanese street theater and storytelling, performed by Colectivo ConTarte Inc., and a screening of “Raíces Eternas” by Puerto Rican director Noel Quiñones at Casa Blanca Street.
Between Saturday and Sunday, roughly 80 artists set up their displays, which showcased a broad variety of Puerto Rican art forms. People of all ages gasped in wonder at the colorful sight of vejigante masks—horned demonic figures that have been a staple in folkloric carnivals and festivities for centuries. Other artisans exhibited their prowess in craftsmanship with wooden maracas engraved with multiple symbols that were illustrative of Puerto Rico’s Spanish, African and taíno influences; while others engraved sceneries in wooden planks or designed intricate masks and figurines with clay.
Paintings and drawings seemed to captivate older visitors, while children gravitated toward toys and masks. The art market was also had intricate jewelry, embossed metal, African dolls, handcrafted musical instruments, delicate clothing, accessories sewn by hand, and more.
On Saturday, as visitors marveled at Puerto Rico’s artistic talent on display, the Plaza del Quinto Centenario was home to a stage, which hosted the performances of semifinal contestants of the National Competition of Trovadores, or troubadours, who write, compose and perform their own songs—in the poetic structure of the trova musical genre. Following this competition, the musical offer diversified with Taller Tamboricua—specialized in the Puerto Rican genre of bomba y plena—the Puerto Rico Philharmonic Orchestra and Plenéalo, also dedicated to bomba y plena.
Moreover, the musical offer for Sunday included performances by Bomba Jarana Jaguar, of the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Carolina campus; the UPR Arecibo Band; Ballet Folklórico Guateque; the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra; the Tuna (musical group) of the Inter-American University; and Pirulo y la Tribu, a highly popular salsa and timba group.
For more educational entertainment, there was a reference point in the Plaza Norte de Ballajá at which visitors were offered historical tours led by architects. In addition, there were multiple expositions and workshops in Plaza de Armas, the Casa Blanca Museum and multiple checkpoints in Cuartel de Ballajá.
Apart from these activities held last weekend, the cultural organizations will hold their own individual endeavors throughout the remainder of the year.
“Little by little there will be more activities emerging throughout the week and we will make the announcement. But yes, this is a situation in which everybody will be joining in, so they will gradually be adding up [to the overall celebration],” Ruiz cortés said.
A Historic Overview of Old San Juan
Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León founded the original settlement of what later came to be known as the island of Puerto Rico in the northern area in 1508 and named it Caparra, which is presently known as the Pueblo Viejo sector of the metropolitan municipality of Guaynabo.
Ruiz Cortés explained that the celebrations that just transpired were in commemoration of these settlers’ relocation to the islet of San Juan, then called simply Puerto Rico, whose literal translation is Rich Port. In 1521, the Spaniards formally named the area “San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico” to honor John the Baptist in recognition of Spain’s institutionalized Catholicism; this is why “San Juan 500” will be extended until 2021.
As the city began to flourish, settlers began to construct a fort to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay and officially named it Castillo San Felipe del Morro, but colloquially referred to it as El Morro. In 1983, El Morro was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations and a San Juan National Historic Site by the National Park Service in Old San Juan.
With its imposing military structure of a centuries-old citadel; the picturesque and colorful buildings designed in classic Spanish architecture; the blue cobblestones that pave its streets; the vast assortment of folkloric, artistic, and culinary curiosities; and Puerto Rican hospitality, Old San Juan has charmed millions of tourists and cultural enthusiasts from every corner of the Earth.
Following multiple discussions regarding its historic and national significance, then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed Executive Order 2018-038 to create the San Juan 500 Committee, tasked with organizing the activities for “San Juan 500.” This committee is comprised of the Ruiz Cortés; the secretary of State; the secretaries of Treasury, Education, and Economic Development and Commerce; the directors of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.; the Federal Affairs Administration of Puerto Rico; the executive directors of the Puerto Rico Corporation for Public Dissemination and the Puerto Rico State Historical Conservation Office.