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Collection Reveals Richness of Puerto Rican Culture

AS
Puerto Rican legend has it, a farmer named Gerardo González was about to be gored by a bull one day in 1599, near the southwestern village of Hormigueros. He called upon the Virgin of Montserrat for protection, and the animal immediately fell to its knees. This miracle is depicted in a colorful, wooden devotional carving, or santo, of a dark-skinned Madonna and child, seated above a man and a kneeling bull. With Catholicism established as Puerto Rico's official religion in its early years of colonization by the Spanish, but few Catholic priests around at the time, rural families created their own religious traditions, and one of those was the worship at home altars covered with santos like this one.
   Thanks to Teodoro Vidal W'43, a Puerto Rican businessman, writer and collector, many of these traditional hand-carvings will be preserved for future generations to appreciate. He donated a group of more than 3,000 Puerto Rican artifacts and art objects to the Smithsonian Institution, and a selection of them remain on display at its National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., through May 31.
   Vidal, formerly an aide to Puerto Rico's first elected governor, Luis Muños Marín, and a board member of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, began acquiring santos four decades ago, fearing that too many were being whisked off the island by souvenir-hungry tourists. Eventually, his collection expanded to include not just santos, but walking sticks made from tortoise shell and whalebone, musical instruments carved from gourds, papier-mâché carnival masks, tools to plant sugar cane, textiles, paintings and jewelry (including a pair of shimmering earrings passed down from his great great grandmother, whose cousin was allegedly a pirate) -- an enormous treasure trove that he believes offers "a true reflection of our national culture and identity."
   Vidal donated the bulk of his collection to the Smithsonian, he says, because of its excellent preservation facilities and the access that its D.C. location would provide to some three million Puerto Ricans living in the United States, as well as others who are unfamiliar with the culture of the island. "These objects are important because they provide a new way of looking at Puerto Rico." Curator Marvette Perez agrees. "It's probably the largest collection of Puerto Rican material culture in the world, dating from the 16th to the 20th century," she says.
   Vidal, who lives in San Juan, is currently working on his eighth book about Puerto Rican history and tradition.


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