Essays

The Quiet Strength of Saints Carved from Puerto Rico’s Fallen Trees

The saints demonstrate our ability to transform broken wood into something new.

A house in western Puerto Rico damaged by the 1918 San Fermín earthquake (courtesy Eduardo Goyco)

On Sunday night, in thousands of homes across northern Puerto Rico, the lights suddenly went out. A fiery explosion at the Guanacillos electricity station temporarily left San Juan without power.

Five months after Maria, the hurricane continues to interrupt daily life. But these disruptions are nothing new to people who have lived for centuries at the mercy of earthquakes, tsunamis, and cyclones. Our island has its own art form that symbolizes our will to carry on, natural disaster after natural disaster: for centuries, Puerto Rican santeros have carved sculptures of Catholic saints from fallen trees. They stand watch even where there are no churches. Carefully crafted and brightly painted, they keep us company and light our way through the darkness.

“Angel” (courtesy Ortiz-Murias family)

Religious art captures a distinctively Puerto Rican story of survival. My great-grandmother was five when she survived the 1918 tsunami in Mayagüez, one century ago. Her mother, my tatarabuela, ran like a madwoman to retrieve my great-grandmother from school. After the first shocks, the sea pulled back into itself, as if swallowed by the sand. As fishermen ran to pick up the fish and lobsters left behind, the ocean came back in full force, and the massive 20-foot tidal waves could be witnessed from my tatarabuela’s home in coastal Barrio Guanajibo. But she felt a little safer because she had placed a rosary on a tree in their garden. The home did not flood. We like to think that the prayer beads helped.

My other tatarabuela, on the other side of town, placed a statue of San Antonio in the front garden and waited for the sea to come. The waters reached the Calle Méndez Vigo, the road at the heart of Mayagüez where my family lived. But the turbulent waves stopped at the statue that was sitting peacefully in the yard.

My relatives sometimes say that the house was saved by the passionate and furious devotion that existed within its walls. Mayagüez was devastated — the local mayagüezanos had to use garbage trucks to remove the fallen towers of the cathedral — but the natural disaster invested that statue with new significance. The question of who would receive the statue became a point of contention, considering its apparent magical abilities to stop tidal waves. It currently sits in my victorious uncle Toñito’s home.

I carry stories like these with me, literally, wherever I go. On the day I was born, my mother strung a thin gold chain around my neck. It is full of small medals I have received over the years. A Virgen de Covadonga has the date of my baptism, 17-8-98, inscribed on the back. What was once the scallop of Santiago became my teething toy when I was two, so it now looks like a wrinkly gold raisin. I consider the chain my makeshift, mobile sanctuary. Sometimes I wondered whether my family could trust me to walk the earth without a repertoire of divinities pressed against my chest.

“Saint Joseph” (17th century, courtesy Ortiz-Blanes family)

Hurricane Maria struck almost 100 years after the San Fermín earthquake and tsunami. Today, we face utter devastation, often without electricity, infrastructure, or clean water — and in some cases, without houses or loved ones. We are left alone and ravaged, with no one to hear us unless they choose to. Time isn’t measured Before or After Christ anymore. It’s Before Maria; unclear what comes after. Yet Puerto Ricans pray to the same saints, and light candles in their honor. They keep our world lit up at night, as if to make sure the sky doesn’t swallow the island in the vast darkness of the Atlantic.

Santeros are artisans who, for centuries, have carved our saints from the limbs of native trees. Their statues were used for worship in remote areas of the island where there were no churches. But it didn’t matter that there weren’t any padres to preside over rural communities. We decorated our own makeshift altars atop the mountains with the wooden santos. They were buried until they were sold or needed, and preserved in the rich earth of the country.

At times, santeros painted new outfits on the icons. Different designs were used for different ceremonies. They could have as many as 8 or 10 layers of paint, each one a costume laid thickly on top of another. Statues served many functions. In some cases, they were seen as conduits for miracles. If someone had a broken leg, for example, they would hang a silver limb from the saint they had prayed to, in hopes of quicker healing.

My grandfather collects these saints because they are a uniquely Puerto Rican art form. Every time I open a cupboard, bookcase, or closet in my grandparents’ home, hundreds of little colorful faces greet me. The devotion of their makers overflows from the wood icons. The faith that drove the santeros to carve these figures lives on, even today, in their details. The saints demonstrate our ability to take fallen, broken wood and transform it into something new. Something delicate, intentional, and beautiful.

“Three Kings” (courtesy Ortiz-Blanes family)

As a nation, we must do what the santeros who came long before us have done: Unearth the saints that we need, and use the fallen trees to recreate ourselves. Maria’s destruction is our newest origin myth, but it provides us with more than folktales or mysticism. It has brought to life the stories of resilience and strength we carry within us. My tatarabuela ran on foot in the middle of a tsunami to save her daughter. It is this love and bravery that lifts me.

We prop up the century-old ceiba trees when they fall. With machetes, we clear the roads of swaths of tangled greenery and telephone wires. We kayak through neighborhoods flooded with sewage waters to rescue residents trapped in their houses. We look for seemingly forgotten communities where emergency workers never arrived, and we cross turbulent rivers on foot to feed our fellow residents.

We pray to our saints because they are the only ones who listen. We pray to forces out there, forces that we cannot see but that sustain our hopes. I have full faith in the new santeros — those who carve their lives, every day, from the remnants of disaster.

A version of this essay will also appear in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

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