Puerto rico cultural traditions: Traditions in Puerto Rico: What You Shouldn’t Miss on Your Trip

Traditions in Puerto Rico: What You Shouldn’t Miss on Your Trip

Vacationing in Puerto Rico is a unique experience. Its nature and beaches amaze anyone. What many don’t know is that they can also enjoy its typical festivals and gastronomic variety. The traditions in Puerto Rico are very varied. Its festivals will make your trip a unique experience.

Puerto Ricans are very cheerful people. If you’re from more reserved countries, you’ll be surprised by how strangers friendly greet you on the street. Even without knowing you, many will talk to you, shake hands with you and even hug you!Those who live on this island are commonly referred to as “boricuas“, a term that dates back to colonial times. It refers to the original habitants of the island, also known as ‘mestizos’. This diversified culture in Puerto Rico is manifested in its customs and traditions.

Traditions in Puerto Rico You Should Know About

As in all countries, there are typical celebrations that take place every year. Many of them are related to the country’s religion. Even if you don’t believe in them, Puerto Ricans won’t mind you taking part in their customs. It’s a perfect way to feel and understand their culture.

1- Patron Saint Festivities 

These take place mainly in January and December in every town of Puerto Rico. There are 78 Fiestas Patronales in total distributed around Puerto Rico’s towns. It’s worth mentioning these festivals are not held on the same dates.

During a Patron Saint Festival, the locals gather in the main square and carry out different activities. Parades, games, a wide variety of typical food and a mix of live music with contemporary hits and folklore tracks are the main attraction.

Make some time in your schedule and drop by. You definitely can’t miss out on these festivals!

2- Mask Festival

Every December the 28th, Hatilios’ inhabitants fill the streets with cheerful colors and a warm atmosphere of joy and festivity.

The Festival de Máscaras is one of the most deeply rooted traditions in Puerto Rico, dating back to the 19th century. Immigrants from the Carany Islands gave birth to this event.

The Festival slowly made its way into the Puerto Rican culture year after year until it became a local tradition. In it, neighbors roam around the streets with handmade masks and parade through the main streets. Both children and adults love its playful tone.

There are also those who dress up their cars and trucks for the Mask Festival. At the later stages of the festival, a competition is held to decide which masks are the best.

3- San Sebastian Street Festivities

It is celebrated in Old San Juan, in January, and functions as the after-party of Christmas. In fact, there are many tourists who travel to Puerto Rico just to enjoy the San Sebastián Street Festival.

The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastían is one of the most popular celebrations in Puerto Rico.

Parades, musical shows, etc. take place. There is also the popular parade of the “cabezudos”, which involves handmade giant dolls. They are several meters high and circle around the city.

Dolls have their own personalities, so the festival is full of silly interactions between dolls and people. It’s impossible not to laugh during this festival!

4- The Night of San Juan

Every June the 23rd, at night, Puerto Ricans go to the shores of the island to follow a traditional ritual.

This is a religious event that celebrates San Juan Bautista’s birth. Puerto Ricans enter the sea three times with their backs to the ground to ward off evil spirits. During this event, there are lots of bonfires ashore with people singing around them.

Traditional Foods in Puerto Rico

Not only does Puerto Rico offer great sights and cultural events, but also otherworldly cuisine. There is such a variety of exquisite food that you’ll want to try them all. There are even festivities dedicated to the island’s food:

1. The Saborea Puerto Rico Food Festival

This is the main food festival of the island, with over 60 restaurants taking part in it.

The test-tasting festival is usually held during Spring and gathers the best chefs Puerto Rico has to offer. The event takes place in one of the most beautiful municipalities of the country: Carolina. Many tourists visit Puerto Rico to experience the Saborea Food Festival.

2. San Juan SoFo Food Festival

SoFo Festival is different from most food traditions in Puerto Rico: you can try small portions of food without paying too much.

The name SoFo comes from the area in which the festival is celebrated: South Fortaleza, a tourist attraction in Viejo San Juan. The event takes place twice in a year: around June and December.

In the SoFo festival, more than 40 restaurants set up booths offering a tasting of their products, sometimes for free. Locally produced beverage are also on display. Even if you’re full, you can enjoy the various local artists performing around La Fortaleza.

3. Macabeo Festival

Food occupies a very important place in Puerto Rican culture: it’s a trademark feature of the island. Puerto Ricans are very proud of their unique dishes and its backgrounds. The macabeos are part of the Caribbean menu.

In Trujillo Alto, in the first days of December, the city is brimming with life during the Macabeo Festival. Chefs gather and cook their own version of macabeos to celebrate how significant this meal is for the locals.

Additionally, as in most celebrations in Puerto Rico, there is a lot of music to liven up the atmosphere. Another feature of this festival is that trova competitions are also held. Two singers will improve singing duets; however, anyone can participate!

4. Coffee Festival

In February, Maricao celebrates a festival allusive to this drink. As in all the other festivities, you can enjoy parades and good music. Some of the best coffees in the world are grown in this area. You can buy some samples to take home and remember your fabulous experience.

Experiencing and enjoying the many traditions in Puerto Rico will make your trip a unique experience, don’t miss it!


Captain Tim

Captain Tim is the founder of Caribbean Trading Company in Puerto Rico. Many years ago Captain Tim was a normal everyday guy who decided to do what so many people only dream about. He moved to the Caribbean. Traveling throughout the islands, he has the joy of sharing this lifestyle and its flavors with the world.

Meet the Santeros who uphold Puerto Rican Cultural Traditions

The Puerto Rican cultural tradition of santos de palo is a form of religious folk art believed to be at least two centuries old, and possibly even more ancient. Santos are carved wooden figures of the Roman Catholic celestial hierarchy and an integral part of the island’s culture, playing a role in not only religious worship, but family life, community celebrations, and national identity.

The santos craft has survived despite challenges and today continues to inspire devotion among both the faithful as well as an ever-growing number of collectors. I travelled to the Avilés Family Museum in Orocovis to meet a 4th generation master artisan.

Puerto Rican Cultural Heritage in the Heart of the Island

Two hours southwest of San Juan, we ascended steep inclines and then plummeted down into deep valleys, riding the backbone of the Cordillera Central Mountains far into the jungle. The blacktop of the curving, narrow road shimmered in the intense heat as it cut a path through densely-packed towering trees of cedar, oak and palm. With each swoop we made above the emerald canopy, we saw the surrounding peaks draped in thick, swollen clouds. Making our way back down to the jungle floor, occasionally we heard the roar of rushing water seconds before passing cascading plumes spilling over the tops of sheer cliffs far above.

The Cordillera Central Mountains, Puerto Rico’s largest mountain range, runs from east to west, and is home to many of the island’s coffee plantations. Photo: Meg Pier

We were heading toward one of the island’s most remote towns. Orocovis had taken its name from the language of the native Taino Indians, and means “remembrance of the first mountain.” Our destination is also known as Corazón de Puerto Rico, or the island’s heart, where we traveled in search of its soul.

Cresting another hill, on the side of the road I spotted a tall, thin man, a distinctive figure with a long black pony-tail falling down his back almost to his waist.

“There he is!” I yelled excitedly.

My husband Tom swerved over to the side of the road and I jumped out of the car to meet the santero.

Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis

Antonio Avilés Burgos is a fourth-generation tallador, or woodcarver. He learned the art of creating santos from his father, Don Celestino Avilés Meléndez, a renowned artisan who died in 2004 at the age of 79. Antonio’s grandfather Damartis was a carpenter and his great-grandfather was Francisco Rivera Avilés, an important 19th-century santos carver.

Santos de palo are a Puerto Rican tradition, small wooden statues that represent the pantheon of Catholic saints. Christianity was introduced to Puerto Rico after the island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The Spanish outpost was sparsely settled until 1815 when there was an influx of colonists from Catalonia and the Canary Islands, most of whom settled inland in the mountains to work on coffee plantations. Due to the remoteness of settlements and a dearth of clergy, a home-based cult of devotion to the saints flourished among the largely poor, rural dwellers, known as jibaros.

Photo: Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés

The original santeros were often carpenters without any training and the earliest statues were rough-hewn likenesses of the saints. Favored woods were those that were soft and easy to work with such as guaraguao, a relative of mahogany, and Spanish cedar which has a fragrant odor. Santeros made the icons for members of the community in exchange for chickens, rum, rice and sometimes cash. Families displayed their favorite saint in sacred space within their home, usually in a niche. Antonio later told us his grandmother had a room in her house that was reserved for prayer, where she kept about 50 santos.

Antonio welcomed us and unlocked the museum’s doors. In the early 1980s, the Avilés opened the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis, exhibiting artwork and teaching classes to promote and preserve Puerto Rican cultural heritage.

Don Celestino, Puerto Rican Cultural Icon

Entering the rustic, barn-like structure, I was struck by the magical imagery of the scene in front of us. We were greeted by the countenance of a smiling bearded man depicted in a huge finely-drawn charcoal portrait a likeness of Don Celestino created by a friend. Below him on the unfinished wooden plank flooring stood life-size statues of the Virgin Mary, Joseph and other saintly figures. At their feet were half-dozen smaller, more primitive carvings, each figure’s eyes closed and hands clasped as though in prayer.

Don Celestino Avilés Meléndez, renowned santos artisan of Orocovis, Puerto Rico.

Antonio told us his father carved saints for more than sixty years and is best known for his unpainted figures with closed eyes, in what he called “a position of absolute religious solemnity.” Don Celestino received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Award in 2001 in recognition of his work as a carver of santos and his contributions to the preservation of Puerto Rican history and culture.

Don Celestino began his carving career in the 1960s by making rings from corozo, the nut of a palm tree. This type of jewelry was very traditional in Puerto Rico and was worn by older generations as wedding rings. Antonio said he and his father went to craft fairs around the island to sell the pieces and met Ricardo Alegria, an anthropologist and advocate of Puerto Rican traditional arts who founded the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1955. Alegria encouraged Don Celestino to apply his talents to the santos tradition.

4th Generation Wood Carver Antonio Burgos

Antonio told me that if his father had not been an artisan, he probably never would have known he could carve, but he feels it is in his blood. He created his first piece when he was 12 years old—his father thought he was too young to handle a knife and would cut himself, so Antonio stole a knife and piece of wood from him and hid in the bathroom to carve. He laughingly said that first piece looks like him because he used his own reflection in the mirror as his model.

Photo of Antonio Avilés with his father, Celestino in background. Santos pictured part of Héctor Puig Collection. Photo by Eric Saunders

Today, Antonio considers carving almost meditative and said he can get so immersed in a piece he forgets everything around him. He told me with a smile that his wife will bring him breakfast and hours later it is untouched. Often, he will say to himself that he won’t get up from his work until a piece is finished.

In 1978, Antonio was named Artisan of the Year by the governor of Puerto Rico. His pieces are in local collections as well as ones as far away as Japan and Switzerland. In 1983, Antonio carved a representation of Our Lady of Providence, the patroness of Puerto Rico, for the Cathedral of Brooklyn in New York. A smaller copy is also in the collection of the Vatican in Rome.

After he had selected the tree he intended to make the figure from, he spent a month contemplating it, almost as if in a trance, until he could see the Virgin within the wood. When he is commissioned to create a piece for a church, it is important for him to make a spiritual connection before beginning to carve. He often dreams vividly of the piece on which he is working on.

Our conversation was interrupted by the museum’s door swinging open. Two men entered, and Antonio excused himself and greeted his new visitors warmly, engaging in animated conversation with one of the men. The other smiled at us and stepped over to introduce himself as Jaime Collazo, asking us to call him Jimmy.

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Meeting the Collectors

Jimmy was here with his friend and fellow former teacher Eduardo Rivera, who is an avid collector of santos. Eduardo was meeting with Antonio to discuss commissioning two saints on behalf of a nephew lawyer who works as an aide to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms Jennifer González. The two pieces would both be of Saint Michael and made from photos Eduardo had taken of a beautiful statue on the main altar of the Catholic Church he attends. Jimmy said it is a difficult job, as the statue has lots of details to reproduce.

We learned that Eduardo has been fascinated with santos since he was a boy. There were wood carvings of saints in his home growing up that belonged to his father’s mother. For Eduardo’s parents, those santos were the object of heartfelt religious devotion, prayed to in the hopes the saints would intercede with God on their behalf. While today many collectors are drawn to santos solely as works of art, for Eduardo they are still objects of devotion. Whenever Eduardo asks an artesano to carve a saint for him, he tells the artist that the piece will have a religious significance.

Scene from the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis. Photo: Meg Pier

The door opened again and I met Val and Steve Laugtug of St. Paul, Minnesota, who expressed delight to find the museum open.

“It is very exciting for us to meet Antonio and we feel lucky to happen upon his museum,” Val said. “I knew there was a carver in Orocovis but didn’t know how to find him. I stopped into a store in another area of the city and asked if they knew him or any santos carvers and found out where to go.”

An Adventure in American Folk Art

“We have been long-time collectors of American Folk art and enjoy searching for it on our trips,” said Val, age 61. “We always try to meet the artists and buy from them directly. We were looking for Puerto Rican folk art and quickly realized that santos carvings are the main expression of the genre here. Santos has a long history as religious objects and that is fascinating in itself.”

A rendition of the 11,000 Virgins at the Museo Orocoveño Familia Avilés in Orocovis. Photo Meg Pier

“We always try to incorporate our search for art into our trip planning,” Laugtug said. “I had researched artists and museums of Puerto Rico before we left. This is the type of adventure we like to experience, not the high-flying zip lining or rock climbing. Collecting art gives us another facet to explore, but I can tell you we also had just as much fun hanging out with the locals in Guavate at the pig roasts and watching them dance!”

Santos, a Puerto Rican Cultural Tradition from the Heart

Laugtug said their collection of folk art centers around a genre called “outsider art” produced by untrained artists and done purely for expression, often times with a religious or sexual tone. She and Steve find of interest any artistic expression that comes from the heart and mind and does not have profit as its origin.

Photo: Meg Pier

As the Laugtugs moved to introduce themselves to Antonio, I explored the museum, getting an introduction to imagery I was to learn more about over the course of my travels around Puerto Rico: the Eleven Thousand Virgins, Anima Sola, the All Powerful Hand of Christ, and the Three Kings.

Read More: Intrigued by Puerto Rican folk art? Then you’ll love the Vejigantes tradition!

Commissioning a Santos

Completing my circuit of the exhibits, I re-joined Val and Steve.

“We commissioned a carving of the virgin de Guadalupe from Antonio, which is actually the patron saint of Mexico, but we saw a photo of one that he had carved previously and liked it,” Val said. “This is actually a present for our son, who has been the recipient of quite a few gifts of folk art over the years. Fun for him to receive and fun for us to search for!”

“There wasn’t much negotiation with Antonio, he was asking a fair price for his work and we paid it,” she continued. “We gave him half down and will pay him in full when he notifies us that it is finished.”

Antonio told me that prices for his works range from $150 for a piece that took a couple of hours to $2,050 for a santos created for a private collector. He said he has great difficulty in parting with some pieces, having invested so much of himself in them.

Invitation to View a Santos Collection

As we said our good-byes to Antonio, Jimmy shyly approached us, asking if we would be interested in seeing Eduardo’s collection at his home in neighboring Morovis. Tom and I exchanged glances, and after an instant’s unspoken conversation, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

The fabulous gardens of santos collector Eduardo Rivera. Photo: Meg Pier

We followed Eduardo and Jimmy north and then west on a series of tiny rural roads, eventually pulling alongside a 1940s bungalow set back from the road. Entering the property through a wrought-iron gate, we found a patch of paradise. Eduardo had long supplemented his teacher’s salary with a side business as a florist and evidence of his green thumb was in abundance. The air was fragrant with the scent of an array of orchids and other exotic tropical flowers and a fountain pool tiled with colorful ceramics served as the focal point of the artfully landscaped lawn.

Three Kings Promesa, A Puerto Rican Cultural Tradition

Three Kings santos by Cabán, from Eduardo Rivera’s collection. Photo: Meg Pier

Eduardo grew up here with his nine siblings. Today the four-room cottage is a monument to Puerto Rico’s santos tradition, displayed throughout the house, along with magnificent pieces of hand-crafted furniture. He has about 150 santos in his collection, though not all are displayed in his house. Some of them are in his apartment in San Juan and others are kept in boxes.

Puerto Rican Cultural Tradition of The Three Kings

With classical music playing in the background, Eduardo proudly showed us his Three Kings santos by Cabán, the oldest of three distinguished santero brothers. The figures of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar were depicted astride horses, with the black king in the center atop a white horse. The Tres Santos Reyes holds a unique place in the hearts of Puerto Ricans, venerated widely across the island, both at personal altars and with widespread celebrations on January 6, with the Feast of the Three Kings.

The holiday is a beloved tradition of such significance that Puerto Rico is known as “The Land of Two Christmases.” Festivities include fireworks, church services, special meals, and gift-giving, particularly to children, for whom Melchior is a favorite, believed to be the most generous. On the eve of the Feast Day, tradition calls for parrandas, in which groups wind their way through neighborhoods singing and playing instruments.

Eduardo told me the Three Kings piece by Caban is about one hundred years old. When he was a child, it would be displayed on a table adorned with flowers whenever there was a “Three Kings’ promise” going on. He explained that people offered a promesa when they asked for a special favor from the saint, or gave thanks for a favor received. His father’s mother sometimes celebrated a promise just to please one of her grandchildren.

Eduardo emphasized that whether the request for divine intercession was for a matter of small or great significance, in Puerto Rican culture honoring the fulfillment of a promesa is taken very seriously. He offered an event from his childhood as an illustration.

One day, several strangers came to Eduardo’s house with the story that they were trying to fulfill a promise that their ancestors had made many years before. The promise had to be celebrated with the presence of the celebrated Cabán Three Kings on their altar at home. These people had been told that the wood carving could now be found in the Rivera’s home in Morovis.

They talked with Santa, Eduardo’s mother, who, although she had never met them, took a liking to them. She decided to lend the Three Kings to them, trusting that the piece would be returned safely. Santa’s family criticized her for what they thought it was an unfortunate decision. However, about a month later the Three Kings returned to Santa’s hand and the piece is still in the house.

Eduardo excused himself and returned bearing another carving of the Three Kings, which he told us is also very old and had belonged to his mother’s family who lived in the nearby town of Ciales. He pointed out that two of the kings are seated on mares and the third on a horse, an unusual representation—today, the tradition calls for only horses.

Eduardo next lovingly showed us his Virgin of Mount Carmel and said the piece was carved by Claudio Pacheco, another distinguished artist of old. He told us that the santos had belonged to his cousin and that it traveled with her whenever she went. In 2002, she visited Eduardo’s house and on seeing his other saints, decided to give him the piece.

I was struck by his cousin’s generosity and her willingness to part with an article of faith so dear that she kept it always at her side. It seemed to sum up the essence of what I had learned about Puerto Rican cultural heritage during my day in the mountain towns Orocovis and Morovis, where tradition, humility, and hospitality reside.

More on Puerto Rico

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  • Puerto Rican Heritage Embodied by Orta Family, a Santos Dynasty

«Gangster Quito»: did the authorities of Ecuador manage to defeat street crime?

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July 2007. An unusual ceremony is taking place in the capital of Ecuador, Quito.

On the one hand, the mayor of the city, city officials and police officers. On the other — 40 people in baggy jeans, T-shirts with golden prints, richly decorated with tattoos. Some hide their faces from numerous video cameras under baseball caps.

On command, they all stand up and loudly swear allegiance to the Latin Kings, one of the most famous street gangs.

Officials smile broadly. These 40 people are now officially recognized as members of the «cultural group». For many years, the Latin Kings were considered a criminal group.

The authorities decided to try to win them over to their side: away from drugs and shootings, to involve them in civilized life, employment and, perhaps, even politics.

A few hours later, a car passes by a group of ceremony participants. Shots are fired from it. Luckily, there are no casualties.

«We know who they are,» one of the gang members tells reporters. «They were kicked out of our organization.» Obviously, not all members of the Latin Kings were ready to cooperate with the authorities.

12 years have passed since then. How successful was the experiment?

«The Incas»

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What was that?

We quickly, simply and clearly explain what happened, why it’s important and what’s next.


The End of the Story Podcast

Sam Anderson is an American documentary filmmaker who is intimately acquainted with Latin Kings leader Antonio Fernandez, known to his associates as «King Tone».

«He’s short, fair-skinned, but full of energy, always moving, talking all the time,» says Sam. famous bands of the world.

The gang originally formed in Chicago in the 1950s to counter racial violence. In those years, migrants from Puerto Rico began to arrive there, they initially settled in areas with a predominantly black population. The contradictions between the two poor communities often went beyond the scope of parliamentary discussion.

Hispanics had to deal with pre-existing local organized gangs, and Latin Kings emerged to protect Hispanic immigrants, explains Sam Anderson.

But not only. The gang also carried a peculiar cultural message: we are Hispanics, we have our own culture, traditions, and we should be proud of it.

Image copyright, Getty Images

Image caption,

Members of the Latin Kings in New York

The Latin Kings have their own hierarchy. The ringleader was called «Inca», and the territory was divided into districts, where different «tribes» ruled. Over time, they developed their own rituals and visual symbols.

The crown has become the emblem of the Latin Kings, and its five prongs symbolize love, respect, self-sacrifice, honor and obedience. Gang members dress in black and gold, have their own gesture system, and they even have their own manifesto, which they call the «Bible».

«I’ve never seen him because I’m not a gang member and have no right to be,» explains Sam Anderson. for a member of the Latin Kings, it is one who is able to look beyond the barriers of race and gender, and considers all people equal to each other. The main idea is that we should not fight each other, but fight together against oppression. »

It was not easy to follow this lofty ideal in life.

Latin Kings quickly evolved into a criminal structure and became involved in drug trafficking, extortion and prostitution. By the 90s, the gang had developed a stable and by no means flattering reputation.

The Latin Kings split into two factions, one in Chicago and one in New York, under the leadership of the infamous «Blood King» Luis Felipe. He did not let go of the reins of power, even when he was in prison in 1990.

The Latin Kings weren’t the only gang to give American law enforcement headaches. Street gangs have been taken seriously: US President Bill Clinton announced a new initiative to help victims of violence and especially gang strife.

In addition to strengthening the police presence on the streets of American cities and other police measures, a law was passed that greatly simplified the procedure for deporting criminals.

«King Reformer»

Under increased pressure from the police, a power vacuum emerged in the gang. He spawned a new leader of the Latin Kings — «King Ton».

Ton proclaimed reforms in the gang. He gathered several thousand members of the Latin Kings under one roof and preached to them his concept of reform.

Let’s fight injustice without burning and breaking windows, he said, let’s make sure that we are not perceived as bad guys, but as normal people.

Not only Ton’s bandit colleagues, but also officials in the police and the Ministry of Justice were surprised by this way of posing the question.

However, some gang members did try to get involved in their communities, attending local community events, sending young gang members to schools, and encouraging good grades.

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    Of course, all the reforms he started stopped, the gang again practically broke up into its constituent «tribes», and exists in this form today.

    Latin Kings discovered new countries and territories. Partly — thanks to the tough deportation policy of the American authorities.

    «Today there are between 40,000 and 50,000 gang members in the US,» says Sam Anderson. «But they are also represented in Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador, Spain. To my amazement, I saw a report the other day about the arrest of two Latin Kings members in India».

    Over the decades, the Latin Kings have gained a reputation as a fearsome gang, although they grew out of a Latino rights group.

    Despite certain shifts in the gang’s relations with law enforcement agencies and authorities in general, the US continues to pursue its zero tolerance policy towards organized gangs.

    In Ecuador, they tried to do exactly the opposite.

    If you can’t fight — lead?

    12 years ago Alejandra del Gada worked in the government of Ecuador and was responsible for youth work.

    She recalls that Latin Kings were simply hated in Quito. Whatever happened in the city, the gang members, who numbered several thousand in Quito, were blamed.

    The city authorities decided to change their own attitude towards gangs.

    The idea caught the attention of Rafael Correa, then a presidential candidate in Ecuador. Correa called it a «civil revolution» and adopted it.

    Photo caption,

    «Eat our dishes, dear man! You won’t regret it!» Gang members at a local restaurant

    Politicians and officials held a series of meetings with the top Latin Kings and were surprised to find that they were ready to negotiate. Alejandra del Gada believes that the gang leaders saw this as an opportunity to change their lifestyle.

    In 2007, newly elected President Correa announced that the state of Ecuador would henceforth recognize the Latin Kings as a cultural and social organization, effectively legalizing the gang.

    Alejandra went to work at the University of Quito, where she led a project to help gang members integrate into society.

    «We want to make sure they can find work,» she says. «We help them get the skills they need. For example, they learn to cook. They have their own little business here at the university: they deliver food.» Other members of the gang design T-shirts.

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    At first, only a few members of the Latin Kings took part in this experiment, but today in the corridors of the University of Quito they are found at every turn.

    At the same time, they continue to wear their black and gold uniform, and in appearance you can not confuse them with church choir singers.

    Nevertheless, they are welcome at the university, says Alejandra, although at first not everyone liked their presence.

    Today Latin Kings even have an office in the university building. Their integration into society continues, although not without problems.

    For example, traditional gang culture does not recognize bureaucratic rules and procedures.

    So, for example, when they needed a desk in their office, they were sincerely surprised that there were rules against simply going to the next office and taking it from there.

    Alejandra is convinced that it is entirely possible to turn former street thugs on the right path and that those members of the Latin Kings with whom she works have truly left behind their criminal past.

    Is the system working?

    David Brotherton was himself a member of a London street gang in the 1960s. He recalls that, although he himself did not take an active part in the actual illegal activities that many of his friends were fond of, public opinion by default squeezed him into the general (and by no means flattering) stereotype of the «skinhead».

    Today Brotherton is Professor of Criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

    He first came into contact with the Latin Kings in the early 90’s, just at the time King Ton announced his reform agenda. Brotherton became interested in the Latin Kings and got to know them better.

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    When the authorities in Ecuador started legalizing Latin Kings, they turned to Brotherton for advice.

    Ten years later, he returned to Quito and got acquainted with the impressive statistics of the Ministry of the Interior.

    «Each year, the number of violent deaths has steadily declined,» he says. «From about 20 for every 100,000 population to 6 in 2016.»

    Like Brotherton, the Ecuadorian authorities were pleased, but could not explain this new trend. Brotherton suggested that gang legalization, begun a decade earlier, might have paid off.

    The fruits of legalization

    Since the government was not ready to admit this connection, insisting that it was difficult to quantify it, Brotherton decided to test his assumption himself.

    He raised funds for a study in which he asked members of the Latin Kings how much official recognition helped them get away from a life of crime.

    Image caption,

    Luis Enrique was the first member of the gang in Quito to become a sociologist

    «We traveled all over the country and asked the gang members if anything had changed in their lives,» recalls Brotherton. «And they all said about the same thing: «Yes, it has changed. We get grants, we get jobs, we can wear our uniform without drawing too much attention. We don’t feel as much social rejection as we used to.»

    Life within the gang itself has also changed. Members of the Latin Kings now prefer to settle their differences with peace rather than a shootout, says Brotherton. Wars with competitors, so common in the 90s, are also largely a thing of the past.

    The number of gang members moving further up the criminal ladder has declined, according to police officers Brotherton interviewed as part of his research. In particular, fewer people are being arrested for association with cartels.

    «The cartels used to recruit new members from street gangs,» he says. «Now that source is slowly drying up, which means fewer conflicts around the drug trade.»

    David Brotherton notes that the actions of the Ecuadorian authorities are in many ways reminiscent of US policy towards gangs in the middle of the last century.

    It was only in the 1970s that street gangs were considered not a social, but a criminal problem, requiring, accordingly, police methods to solve it.

    The voice of a skeptic

    But is Ecuador only responsible for the reduction in serious crimes due to measures of social inclusion of gang members?

    «We know that the Latin Kings usually operate in certain areas of the city, where it’s better not to meddle unnecessarily, but that doesn’t scare you too much,» says Quito-based journalist Thomas Cifardi. He believes that the threat the Latin Kings posed to society was initially blown out of proportion.

    «I’m 43 years old, I live in Quito and have traveled all over Ecuador,» he continues.

    Cifardi believes that the legalization of the gang has not had much of an impact on life in Ecuador. But how then to explain the declining homicide rate?

    Cifardi sees no evidence that the decrease in crime rates is somehow correlated with the actions of the Ecuadorian authorities.

    On the other hand, it coincided with the growth of the country’s economy and the level of employment — a consequence of high oil prices. Another consequence was higher budgetary spending on the police.

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    There were more policemen on the street, Chifardi recalls, and they were not only using force, but also actively working with communities.

    10 years of good police work could not fail to bring results. There have also been reforms in the legal system.

    It should also be remembered that in these years the decrease in the level of murders was also noted in other countries, in particular, in the USA, where the authorities just do not flirt with gangs.

    Cifardi believes that while the Latin Kings’ policy of recognition has paid off, it does not explain the decline in homicide rates. Coincidence is not a consequence, and in any case, Ecuador has other concerns.

    «Crowd for Hire»

    «The security problems for Ecuador are the activities of the drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, which have a very strong impact on life in our country,» Cifardi says.

    The authorities’ obsession with street gangs has meant that serious organized crime has found its way into Ecuador with little or no hindrance.

    «Last year, five civilians were kidnapped and killed on the Colombian border, three of them journalists — and five military men,» he recalls. «That’s where our main security problem lies.»

    Why, then, did the Correa government enter into negotiations with the gangs?

    Image copyright AFP

    Image caption

    Critics say street gangs in Ecuador are exaggerated and the real problem is drug trafficking

    Cifardi thinks it’s a political decision: Rafael Correa wanted to increase his following.

    According to him, the original idea was that some members of the Latin Kings would receive positions in the government, in return for providing full loyalty to the president of all members of the gang.

    They will vote for him, and if the opposition protests they will act as a kind of «mob for hire».

    For the government of Ecuador, this was primarily a matter of political expediency, the journalist believes.

    Whatever the motives of the authorities, the problem of street crime has not gone away. And it will not go anywhere as long as there is poverty and high unemployment in the country.

    Is it possible to turn street gangs into something worthwhile? You can offer new opportunities to those who want it. If these are the leaders of the gang, perhaps the rank and file members will follow them.

    But this is not enough. Other forces play a significant role here: politics, economics, police, poverty, corruption. Their impact on street crime is much higher than any of the programs for the reintegration of gangsters into society.

    The BBC’s The Inquiry covered this topic. You can listen to it here (in English).

    Puerto Rican Christmas Traditions: From Music to Decor

    Puerto Rican Christmas traditions are lively and fun, yet closely linked with spiritual practices and celebration of the holidays. By understanding these customs, you can experience the culture of Puerto Rico, whether you want to add internationality to your celebrations, connect with your heritage, or simply learn more about the fascinating culture.

    About Puerto Rico

    Puerto Rico is a small island archipelago in the western Caribbean Sea, part of the Greater Antilles. As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico is not independent, but has a unique and expressive culture that combines the rich traditions of the United States, Jamaica and Cuba, as well as the influence of immigrants from France, Spain, Italy and South America. . These multiple influences give Puerto Rican traditions a uniquely colorful vibe and create a joyful and charismatic holiday season.

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    Most Puerto Ricans are Roman Catholic, so many of the island’s Christmas traditions are familiar to other Christian customs. At the same time, however, Puerto Rico has a good percentage of Islamic and Jewish citizens, and many native Puerto Ricans practice African tribal religions. All these beliefs can be found in the holiday customs of the island.

    Celebrating Christmas Traditions in Puerto Rico

    Christmas in Puerto Rico is more than just a day of good food, gifts and quality time with friends and family.

    Major holidays

    The holiday season in Puerto Rico starts as early as late November and runs through mid-January with a number of associated holidays and celebrations. Some of the more important ones include:

    • Dec 25 : Christmas is a public holiday in Puerto Rico and businesses are usually closed. This is a day to spend time with close friends and family members. The date matters to those who profess the Christian faith.
    • December 28, : This is Holy Innocents Day, commemorating the day King Herod ordered the killing of male children in Bethlehem. Special masses are held on this day. A kind of carnival takes place in the town of Atillo. The men dress up as Herod’s soldiers and pretend to kidnap the children of the city. The people then distribute treats and candy to the fake soldiers to get their children back.
    • December 31, : New Year’s Eve is a time of new beginnings around the world, and in Puerto Rico, legend has it that anyone who can eat 12 grapes during the New Year’s Eve bells will be lucky. On New Year’s Eve, a traditional poem called El Brindis del Bohemio is recited. It is even broadcast on the radio stations of the country.
    • January 6, : Day of the Three Kings, or Dia de Reyes commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. On this day, children will leave mowed grass or hay under the tree as a gift for tired camels. This evening, gifts are left for children. During the day, the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan is open to the public, offering drinks, music, decorations, and toys for children.
    • December 15 — December 24: Misa de Aguinaldos dates. Misa de Aguinaldos are special Catholic masses.

    Happy Music

    Music is an integral part of many Puerto Rican Christmas traditions. Not only do many religious masses include sacred hymns, but traveling bands parrandas will visit family and friends playing live Latin and salsa carols on bongo drums, guitars and other instruments. In each home, revelers celebrate with more music for a while before moving on to their next destination, and the band of musicians will grow with each visit.

    Christmas is the time for Aguinaldos . These are popular Christmas songs that are sung during the holidays. Villancicos are religious melodies that are common during the holiday season.

    Mass is part of Christmas culture

    Holy Mass is a very spiritual part of many Christmas celebrations in Puerto Rico. For the nine days leading up to Christmas, devout Catholics will visit «Misa de Aguinaldo» daily to celebrate various holy hymns and holiday messages. The Misa de Aguinaldos masses contain traditional Puerto Rican musical instruments such as cuatro guitars and a percussion instrument called güiros. These special pre-Christmas masses are usually held at dawn.

    Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is also something many Puerto Rican Catholics take part in. Called the Misa de Gallo (or Rooster Mass), this mass is a merry mass filled with Christmas carols, a nativity scene that includes children, and lots of candles.

    Festive food

    Food is an integral part of holiday traditions in many countries, including Puerto Rico. A traditional Puerto Rican Christmas dish is called lechon asado. This dish is made with fried pork cooked on a spit. It is usually served with arroz con gandules, a dish that includes rice, pigeon peas and pork cooked in a sofrito sauce. Pasteles also appears on dining tables during the holiday season. Pastele is a dough made from mashed green bananas. It is usually stuffed meat and cooked on banana leaves.

    Traditional desserts and drinks are also served during Christmas in Puerto Rico. Coquito looks like an eggnog. It is made from rum and coconut milk. As a sweet treat after Christmas dinner, Puerto Ricans have arrozcondulce, rice pudding, and temble, coconut cream.

    Decorations for the season

    Christmas trees, colored lights and poinsettia plants are popular decorations during the Puerto Rico holiday season, as are wooden carvings of various saints, the Three Kings and a nativity scene. In December, you can often see a lot of greenery dotting houses in Puerto Rico. Special clothing may also be worn as part of holiday decorations, such as the straw hats traditionally worn by parrandas. This hat is called pavoy.

    Adding Puerto Rican Traditions to Your Home

    It’s easy to add Puerto Rican holiday traditions to your home, whether you’re celebrating your own unique culture or adopting a new one.

    • Try traditional foods on the holiday menu, such as coconut cream, rum cake or pork dishes.
    • Go caroling with family and friends and play some Latin-style hymns.
    • Celebrate the New Year holidays and enjoy Three Kings Day on January 6th.

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