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Home > About > Culture
The flavors and sounds of rich folklore
Puerto Rico’s culture is a colorful, joyous fusion of Taíno, African and Spanish influences. Every day we celebrate the diverse cultures that have shaped our island for over a thousand years through our rich cuisine, distinctive arts and crafts, vibrant music and traditional festivals and parades.
You’ll find our strong Spanish roots in our language, most beloved dishes (without the conquistadors, we wouldn’t have lechón!), year-round patron saint festivals, and of course our colonial architecture. The lyrics and the beating of the drums of a salsa, bomba and plena song evoke crystal clear images of the hardships of the African slaves. And the liveliness of the spices in our modern cuisine is reminiscent of the first meals of the Taínos.
Arts & Crafts
Our arts and crafts range from folkloric vejigante or demon masks (vejigantes represent benevolent spirits), to hand-carved Catholic saints (santos), to Native Indian lace-making (mundillos). Art and literature evoke the Jíbaro, the Taíno, the Spanish and the American and Nuyorican (Puerto Ricans in New York) identities.
Festivals & Traditional Events
When the Spanish arrived on the coasts of Puerto Rico, they brought more than their language and their architecture. Their Christian beliefs penetrated deep within the Puerto Rican culture and are present today in our Fiestas Patronales, or “Patron Saint Festivals” that are celebrated year-round in nearly every city and township. A Fiesta Patronal is an event dedicated to the patron saint or virgin of the particular city. These cheerful celebrations can last anywhere from a day to nine days. Each city holds its own Fiesta Patronal, and they usually take place in the central plaza. Live music, food kiosks, amusement parks, handmade arts and crafts and pure joy invade the city from sunrise to sundown. The delicious aroma of tasty bacalaítos and the pulsating sounds of live bands bring you face to face with Puerto Rican culture in its most authentic form.
Another outstanding celebration is the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, which is held in January all over Old San Juan but mainly on San Sebastián Street. The festival began as a celebration by a local priest to commemorate the life of Saint Sebastian, a martyr who died in the name of Christianity. Residents of Old San Juan wanted to bring back the event. They would decorate their balconies, religious processions would take place on the streets, and local artists would exhibit their paintings or sculptures, creating an impromptu street market. Some 40 years later, these practices remain intact, with one small difference. What was once a small crowd of residents has now become a national event attended by tens of thousands of revelers each year. For four straight days, music, food, art and cocktails enthrall the attendees until the wee hours of the morning.
Puerto Rico’s Music
Like most things Puerto Rican, our music can also be traced back to Taíno, African and Spanish influences. In addition to these three cultures, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, France and the United States have also contributed to Puerto Rico’s thriving musical tradition.
The defining characteristic of our music is the rhythmic beating of the percussion, especially the bongos and congas. These two instruments dominate the sounds of typical genres such as the bomba, plena and salsa. Bomba takes most of its heritage from Africa. Played solely with a set of hand drums and maracas (or shakers), it’s a passionate challenge between dancer and drummer that requires a great amount of skill and concentration. The hypnotizing sound of the drums and carefully choreographed moves are a spectacle worthy of admiration.
Plena is Puerto Rico’s version of the Christmas carol but with a lot more kick. Its origins date back to folkloric African and Spanish music. Plena is played by pleneros with hand drums called panderos, tambourines of various sizes without the jingles. A single plenero or group of pleneros sing folk songs to the rhythm of the panderos, maracas and güiros (a gourd husk with a series of notches that is rubbed with a stick to produce a raspy sound). The catchy lyrics and enticing beats of the panderos will have you dancing before you can say woo!
If bomba and plena don’t get you to shake it, a good salsa tune will surely do the trick. Salsa means “sauce” in Spanish, and this six-step routine is full of flavor and spice. Salsa takes its base from Cuban son, guaracha and son montuno. As with Puerto Rico’s other great musical genres, its most important element is the percussion, mainly the congas, bongos and timbales. When combined with brass instruments, such as trumpets and trombones, the melodic sounds of the piano and the deep grooves of a bass guitar, salsa explodes into an untamable sound capable of making even the most timid person swing to the beat.
No matter where in the world you live, what language you speak, and how old you are, you’ve probably heard reggaetón, even if you didn’t know it. Once called “underground” because records were independently produced, distributed and sold, reggaetón’s popularity has skyrocketed into mainstream music. A fusion of Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian reggae and hip-hop from the United States, reggaetón has developed its own unique sound and identity. Reggaetón and salsa can always be heard in bars, hotels, restaurants and homes around the island. So bring light and airy clothes, because when a salsa, plena, bomba or reggaetón song breaks out, you’ll be breaking a sweat before you even know it.
The Décima (“Tenth”) is a blend of Spanish culture and Jíbaro folk music. A poem of five couplets, each comprised of eight syllables, the Décima is typically accompanied by the Seis (“Six”), a melody played by the cuatro (a type of guitar) and güiro. These songs, typically ballads, are closely associated with Puerto Rico’s Jíbaros.
Finally, the Danza is our local take on the Waltz. The most famous example is “La Borinqueña,” our national anthem.