It’s approaching a very special night of the year, at least in Puerto Rico. June 23rd marks La Noche de San Juan Bautista, or the Eve of St. John the Baptist. Not only is it an annual event, but it’s quite possibly the most epic party I have ever attended.
I was 17 when I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Three friends and I decided to take some time off between high school and college. My friend Carol’s sister lived in San Juan and invited us to stay for a few weeks. Well, we decided to stay for six months. And then for me, it turned into four years.
We rented apartments and found jobs and started assimilating into the culture. This honestly meant hanging out and working with the expats primarily. That was simply because we settled in the neighborhood of Ocean Park, 5 miles east of San Juan, and as much as we tried to learn Spanish, most of us were not great at it and did not put in the effort we should have. I really regret that now.
I worked as a waitress in a Tex-Mex restaurant called Mona’s. And I just have to point out that Tex-Mex has absolutely nothing to do with Puerto Rican food. God but it was good. One of the owners was originally from Mexico and the other owner Jay was a talented cook. Together they created a delicious menu with items I still crave to this day: Chicken Mole, Ceviche, Enchiladas, Chile Con Queso, Jay’s Chili with chunks of steak, Chicken Burritos with fresh jalapenos and sour cream, Flan de Coco….
The restaurant itself didn’t look like a traditional Tex-Mex place. We only had 18 tables in the L-shaped room. The six windows in the main area weren’t covered with glass; they were giant wooden squares the staff would prop up with wooden slates. When the torrential tropical storms would descend, we would run to the windows and try to close them as quickly as we could, usually getting soaked in the process. We became such a popular night spot we had to get a bouncer. No joke. A little Tex-Mex place with a bouncer. The line out the door would be an hour long. The bar area was standing room only. I had to carry trays full of margaritas, my arm fully extended upwards, as I snaked in and out of the bar crowd. After midnight, sometimes drunk guys would try to crawl through the windows to get in.
I remember the first June 23rd I went to work at Mona’s. The owner told me we would be shutting down around 8pm. I asked him why and he was shocked to learn that I didn’t know about La Noche de San Juan Bautista.
Centuries ago, the Catholic Church started merging their holidays into the existing pagan rituals. So it’s no coincidence and St John the Baptist’s birthday celebration happens to coincide with the summer solstice. St. John is the patron saint of Puerto Rico. In fact, the whole island used to be called San Juan. Nowadays, the evening of June 23rd on the island is pretty much one of the wildest parties around.
Things shut down for all intents and purposes in the evening, and everyone heads to the beach. The whole island – but the most popular beaches are those around the Condado, Isla Verde, Carolina, and my own little neighborhood of Ocean Park.
That night my friends and I ventured down to the beach around 10pm, four houses away from my apartment on La Calle Elena. There were hoards of bathing suit clad people on the beach under the moonlight on the humid, June night. You could smell roasting pig, hear bongos and drums and guitars, salsa and merengue music playing from ghetto blasters, people laughing and singing and yelling. And there was a lot of beer being consumed. The Atlantic’s waves crashed softly and rhythmically before us, gently pounding into the sand. We drank cold, local Medalla beer and partied for hours with people we knew, and people we didn’t, on that Ocean Park beach.
And at midnight, everyone entered the ocean, backwards, three times. The water is thought to be blessed, so this “baptism” of sorts is thought to cleanse you of all bad spirits and bring good luck throughout the coming year. Some believe seven dunkings are better, some think 12 are more effective. Whatever the total, it’s a great local custom and a mandatory method for rejuvenation on the island. And then the party continued into the night.
Today is June 23rd, and here I am decades later, living in Redmond, Washington. I’ll be heading to a soccer tournament tonight for my daughter. There isn’t a beach in my immediate future. But there is a hotel pool, and I just might have to have a beer at midnight, and go for a dip in fond memory of my Caribbean past.