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Don Andrés González: A cultural management career spanning almost a century

A founding member of the Puerto Rican Parade in New York and creator of Festival del Coco in Luquillo, he is devoted to higüera craftsmanship

April 17, 2024 - 11:00 PM

Interview with Don Andrés González, a higüera craftsman, maker of maracas and güiros, and president of Artesanos del Este in Luquillo. (XAVIER GARCIA)

Lee la historia en español aquí.

Luquillo.- At 99 years old, Andrés González Vega, a higüera artist from Luquillo, has made promoting Puerto Rican culture his life’s main mission. Instead of only dedicating himself to his own art, he stands out as a cultural manager and champion of local artisans.

Even as he approaches the remarkable milestone of a century in life, the energy and dedication to cultural work exhibited by Don Andrés are truly inspiring. Like a seasoned soldier, he refuses to retreat from the battlefield, reminiscent of his service in the United States Army during World War II. Now his battlefield is the realm of the arts, where he shines as a founding member of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York and the visionary behind the Festival del Coco in Luquillo.

Don Andrés’ journey as a cultural manager began after his service as a soldier in the United States army. At that time, the Vieques native, who had been raised in Luquillo since the age of three, relocated to New York City. Despite being miles away from his homeland, González Vega treasured his culture and decided to join a group of Puerto Ricans to create what we now recognize as the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.

“When I arrived there, there were few Puerto Ricans. So, I got involved with a few Puerto Ricans who were doctors, and we started coordinating the Puerto Rican community, and from there, I became part of the founding committee of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York. That was about 60 years ago. Now, I visit, and they don’t know who I am. We’re talking about a new generation, but now everything that we did, they’re enjoying,” recounted the nonagenarian, who has coordinated fairs in Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Florida.

A sample of Andrés González work,
A sample of Andrés González work, (XAVIER GARCIA)

In the 1980s, González Vega returned to Puerto Rico and secured a job at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in Spanish) as a fair coordinator, leveraging his experience from the New York parade.

“From that point forward, I started coordinating all the fairs in Puerto Rico—the Bacardí Festival, the Barranquitas Artisan Fair—and I spent 10 years working with them on every fair in Puerto Rico, and then I retired,” emphasized the veteran.

After retiring, he decided to fully embrace his artisanal talents with the higüera, crafting güiros and maracas—a craft that had been introduced to him during his early years.

“When I retired, I was already involved with crafts, I continued working with higüera crafts. But I had been a craftsman since the age of six because, back then, I lived in the countryside, and my grandmother had a higüera tree. It seems like I always had a knack for craftsmanship because I asked her what we could do with it. So, she took a higüera, sawed it, cleaned it, and told me, ‘this is your plate’,” recounted González Vega.

A closer look at the work of Andrés González.
A closer look at the work of Andrés González. (XAVIER GARCIA)

The tool, once known in the old days as a dita, piqued his curiosity to craft useful items. However, it was after retirement that he practiced the adage “what is well learned is never forgotten.”

“Back then, we didn’t have plates like we do now, adorned with gold-trimmed edges. Instead, I would eat with my dita, wash it, hang it up, and that’s when craftsmanship started to draw my interest. But it wasn’t until later in life that I truly understood the meaning of what my grandmother taught me,” commented the artisan, who crafts maracas and güiros.

“Since I have higüera trees and had seen how artisans work, I took the higüera and started making maracas, and was easy. The güiro, I saw how artisans made it and started working on it because I love Puerto Rican music. But I don’t rely on this to live; I do it as therapy and a hobby,” explained the nonagenarian, who became a widower just over a year ago.

Although he developed as an artisan and is occasionally seen at Hacienda Carabalí with its small table full of güiros and maracas, Don Andrés has remained committed to his passion to promote culture. After his “retirement,” he founded Festival del Coco , which has been a tradition in his hometown of Luquillo for 15 years.

“In Luquillo, we refer to ourselves as “Come Cocos” (Coconut Eaters), and since there are fairs for oranges and mangoes, I decided to coordinate the Festival del Coco in Luquillo, and we’ve been celebrating it every October since then,” he said.

But his mission extends beyond our 100 by 35 island; González Vega arranges spaces for local artisans to exhibit their work in New York annually.

“During my time as the coordinator of the Puerto Rican Parade, I would bring Puerto Rican artisans to New York. I still have a friend who generously provides me with five spaces for these artisans. I invite the artisans, and they showcase and sell their pieces there,” González Vega explained.

Don Andrés’ main goal is to leave behind a legacy and provide opportunities for Puerto Rican culture and local artisans to thrive so that they can continue the mission that he started.

“I have always sought to promote Puerto Rican culture through craftsmanship and prioritize artisans because they promote culture through their handmade works. Puerto Ricans living abroad long for their island because we don’t appreciate what we have until we leave,” concluded the artisan.

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