A Boricua Woodworking Tradition Lives On in the Bronx

Two Bronx women of Puerto Rican origin are keeping alive the ancient tradition of carving saint figures out of cedar, reported El Diario La Prensa.

Marta Iris Rodríguez and Bárbara Díaz (Photo via EDLP)

A delicious aroma of cedar wafts from the home of Marta Iris Rodríguez. The fragrance of the wood permeates everything, from small niches, saints, and magi kings that appear to observe visitors.

Rodríguez, 47, is an artist who makes the tiny religious figures that quickly draw the attention of guests. Using knives of various sizes, Rodríguez, a Bronx resident, brings detailed, vibrantly colored statues to life out of thick chunks of wood.

Rodríguez remembered watching her maternal grandparents carving saints out of sticks in her native Puerto Rico.

“I wasn’t interested in learning the trade at that time,” she lamented. “But three years ago I took classes on the island, because now I understand the importance of preserving this wonderful tradition.”

Rodríguez started her company in the apartment she shares with her business partner, Bárbara Díaz. It’s a small workshop where she spends the afternoons carving saints of all kinds, ranging from an elaborate Virgen de Lourdes to a nostalgic San Francisco.

She sells her pieces for as little as $20 and as much as $3,000. However, Rodríguez said that not many Latinos recognize the importance of traditional woodcarving.

“Few people appreciate the artistry and they refuse to pay for it,” she said. “Very few collectors and connoisseurs notice the price.”

Rodríguez explained that her business partner does the “dirty work” because she gives shape to the figurines. Díaz, 37, said that she uses a knife to whittle down a piece of wood that will later become a magi king or a virgin.

“I make the statue and Marta gives it detail,” said Díaz. “The faces require a precision that only she can bring out with her hands.”

The women explained that an elaborate piece can take up to a month to complete.

“After sculpting the shape, it takes hours in the workshop, and a few injuries, to finish the work,” said Rodríguez. “Carving saints demands great patience.”

Rodríguez, who works for the NYC Housing Authority, and Díaz, a physical education teacher in Manhattan, said that they practice woodcarving saints in order to pass the tradition on to their fellow Puerto Ricans and other Latino communities.

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