Tuesday was a very exciting day and this is one very long post! At the crack of dawn (no really, we’re talking 5:40am), we headed out to the “big city” of San Juan for my long awaited interview at the office of Artisan (or Craft) Development (which is a part of the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company, aka PRIDCO or Fomento). The goal of the interview was to get certified as an “artesano puertorriqueño” or Puerto Rican Crafts-person.

The artisan program was started to support and sustain local craftsmanship and culture. The idea was (and is) to provide incentives for artisans to stick with traditional craft forms (which were in danger of disappearing altogether), all the while promoting local cultural themes and heritage. To qualify for the program, one must be living in Puerto Rico full time, working in a craft (defined as “transforming a primary material”) and incorporating local themes in their work.

Why bother, you might ask? Well, aside from the “national pride” factor (I love my new home and am actively learning about local culture and history), there are a good number of incentives to being certified. These include an exemption from having to collect sales taxes on goods sold, a tax break (the first $ 6,000 of an artisan’s income is tax free), access to funds for equipment and travel and invitations to participate in fairs free of charge. Finally, to operate a business locally, one is required to have a “Patente” (business permit). This permit is free for the certified artisan; otherwise you pay a percentage of your estimated income.

Ok, so a good thing to have, this certification. How does one go about getting it? Well, the magic word is “interview”. I contacted the ‘Oficina de Desarrollo Artesanal’ back in July when I was starting to set up my studio. I figured I would get all the info I needed even though I knew I wasn’t quite ready to show my work. I was told to contact them for an interview (cita) in August. They also told me I’d be required to show 5-6 pieces of finished work and a few pieces of work in progress.

When I had my “portfolio” in order (early September), I called the office to schedule my “cita”. Wrong… They were done with interviews for the fiscal year and told me to call during the second week in January (after 3 Kings Day…). Oh well. Live and learn. I did as I was told, called the second week in January and was given an interview date in March.

Now getting to a 9:30am interview in San Juan from Rincón is doable, but can be a bit stressful. One has to expect encountering that dreaded beast…”El Tapon” (traffic jam).  We left home at 5:40am and were jamming all the way from Rincón to Vega Alta/Baja (see map).   Then, we edged forward in bumper to bumper traffic until we hit the massive toll-station in Bayamon. All in all, it really wasn’t that horrendous, as we WERE moving. The traffic probably added 30 minutes to our usual average of 2 and a half hours. Living in rural Puerto Rico, you forget what big city rush hour traffic can be like. I’d be lying if I said I missed it…  We were definitely glad we had allowed some extra time for our trip.

Driving from Rincón on the west coast to San Juan…expect to hit rush hour traffic at Vega Baja!

Cars jockeying for lane position after the toll station in Bayamon.

Anyhow, after getting through the heavy traffic as we finally entered San Juan proper, we got to the Fomento building in Hato Rey at Ave. F. D. Roosevelt 355, (it is right next to the massive “Telemundo” building on the north side of Roosevelt after you go under the PR-18 bridge) with 45 minutes to spare.  Fortunately, we happened upon their large parking structure with ample visitors spots (Driving east on Ave. Roosevelt, take a left at the traffic light once you past the Fomento building, then take a left into the drive once you pass Paos Mattreses). While we were getting ready to head over to the building, a guy who was parked next to us asked if we were going to Fomento. He then informed us that the building had a dress code and shorts were not allowed. In fact, he was waiting for his dad to drive in from Dorado (just about where the tapon started…) with a pair of jeans for him! Fortunately, I had (of course) dressed up a tad for the occasion but Nick was not allowed in. The guard did, with our new friend’s intervention, allow him to carry my box of pottery for me into the building with the promise that he would promptly leave. He did (quite happily, as the case would be…) and spent the morning reading his book in peace.

For me, on the other hand, it was quite an eventful morning. There were around 15 other artisans waiting for their interviews. At 10am we were gathered into a conference room, where we had a “charla” (chat) with the director of the program about the program’s history, its mission and its scope. We then had a lengthy discussion about Puerto Rican craft within a cultural context. Whew! Given the limited (if expanding) scope of my Spanish, when the 1 1/2 hour charla was over, my head was about ready to explode! 🙂

The next step was the actual interviews, which took place in groups of 5. By order of arrival, artisans set up their work on a table and the director proceeded with his evaluation of their work. It was an efficient way to review the work, and was interesting to see what other artisans were up to (in my group there was a woman who made woven bags, a soap and candle maker, a leather worker and a guy who creates leaf art).

In my case, the director examined my work (I brought a pair of my coqui espresso cups, a bunch of playera leaf plates at various stages of completion, a mug and a bunch of bowls), commented on the Taino motifs in some of the pieces, was interested in which pieces where thrown on the wheel vs. hand-built, looked over my birth-certificate copy (if you were not born in Puerto Rico you also need to bring proof of a Puerto Rican address, such as a driving license), collected my 2 passport photos and then I was certified! My certificate should arrive in the mail within a few weeks.

I happily reunited with Nick (who had read his entire book and was starting on a second one…) and we wandered off for a nice Chinese lunch at the aptly named “Yum Yum Tree” Restaurant. Then, we triumphantly headed home, beating the outward bound “tapon” by about an hour! Result.