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St James, Yoruba-style

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The town of Loíza, 30km from Old San Juan and a short drive east of Piñones, is best known for its Fiestas Tradicionales de Santiago Apóstol, the ten-day carnival held every July to honour St James (his feast day is July 25). What makes the festival so special is the town’s rich African heritage: the religious ceremonies are enhanced with bomba music and dancers and with multicoloured spiky vejigante masks made from coconut shells.

Like Piñones, Loíza became a refuge for runaway and freed slaves in the seventeenth century, most of them Yoruba people from West Africa, and the festival is the result of a gradual blending of Spanish and African cultures over the years. Santiago (St James) is the patron saint of Spain, where he became known as Matamoros (“Moor-slayer”) in the Middle Ages for his supposed help in defeating the Moors, and in the sixteenth century Spanish colonists brought his cult to Puerto Rico (the festival masks symbolize the “heathen” Moors). African slaves began to pray to Santiago for help in fending off pirates and enemy attacks, and gradually St James became associated with Yoruba deities such as Ogun, the spirit of iron and war. Ironically, St James evolved into a symbol of resistance against the Spanish ruling classes, the festival a potent act of defiance against the oppression levelled at slaves and their descendants. Following an influx of Irish settlers in the nineteenth century, the Church made St Patrick the town’s patron saint, but that only served to make the worship of Santiago more intense.

Most of the festival action takes place in Plaza de Recreo, Loíza’s main square: call the local tourist office (t787/876-3570) for details. The town gets jam-packed at festival time, so you’ll need to get there early, preferably with your own car (or via bus C45 from Isla Verde, Mon–Fri, last departure from Loíza 6.30pm). You can purchase masks from Artesanías Castor Ayala at PR-187 km 6.6 (daily 9am–6pm), just outside the town, throughout the year.

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