The History of the San Sebastian Festival
The history of the San Sebastian Festival dates back to the 50’s when the priest at the San José church in Old San Juan, Juan Manuel Madrazo came up with the idea of a festival to honor Saint Sebastian. He did this in order to raise funds to repair the church’s buildings. It was held for a couple of years and then abandoned when the priest was transferred. In 1970 Ricardo Alegría the founder of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture encouraged Rafaela Balladares who lived on San Sebastian street to revive the tradition. She along with other residents organized the celebration but this time it was held to raise funds for the Colegio de Parvulos a school on Sebastián street.
The first festivals
The opening procession always included a band, a statue representing Saint Sebastian and the cabezudos, who wear giant masks. The first ones represented the king and queen of Spain. Now the tradition is to honor different popular personalities with their own mask. Over the years different elements were added to the festival. Artisans were invited to display their work and artists began exhibiting their painting in front of Jose Campeche’s house. Campeche who lived in the 18th century is considered one of the most talented Puerto Rican artists.
It kept on growing
Music was soon to follow and the festival started extending its hours into the night. From its humble beginnings San Sebastian Festival has now become a major tourist attraction that has grown beyond San Sebastian street. Now there are activities all throughout Old San Juan. In 2023 about 500,000 people attended the festival over the four days and the economic impact is estimated to be in the $50-$60 million dollar range. Musical offerings range from salsa to urban and rock music in the different plazas. Puerto Ricans in the States have also begun to recreate the festival where they live. Right now there are parallel celebrations in Miami, Orlando and Dallas.