Teodoro Vidal Santoni

Photographer unknown; promotional image used in many publications.

Puerto Rican, Material Culture, Folklore, History

Teodoro Vidal Santoni


A self-taught historian, Teodoro Vidal Santoni uncovered more than four centuries of Puerto Rican culture, traditions, and popular art, and raised them to international recognition. 

Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Vidal Santoni attended the New York Military Academy, later serving in the Korean War. He earned an MBA in finance and commerce (1953) from Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and served as chief of protocol to Luis Muñoz Marín, the first elected governor of Puerto Rico. Vidal Santoni led the historic preservation project of the Palacio de Santa Catalina, the 1500s mansion and official residence of the island’s governor. He was involved in the restoration project of the Spanish colonial city of San Juan and served as a member of the founding board of directors of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.  Concerned with the impact of industrialization and modern life changes on the island’s cultural traditions during the 1960s and 1970s, Vidal Santoni committed himself to rescuing and preserving Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage.  

For more than 60 years, he worked tirelessly researching, collecting, and documenting threatened expressions of Puerto Rican popular art and folklore. He defined the term “popular art” as a personal expression of beauty and aesthetics which evolve in style, function, and artistic medium; different from “artesanías” which have a practical function and commercial value. This distinction guided Vidal Santoni’s careful selection of objects. He wanted his collections to reflect two fundamental aspects of Puerto Rican culture, the “material” and the “non-material or spiritual” cultures as both are intertwined, supporting each other to represent the richness, antiquity, diversity, and uniqueness of the puertoriqueñidad (Puerto Rico’s national identity) He systematically researched and collected oral histories and objects across the island related to colonial and religious arts, folk medicine and witchcraft, carnival celebrations, music, and artistic expressions of the island’s ancient history, community life, and cultural identity. His “spiritual” collections include oral histories, dichos (popular sayings), stories and legends, aguinaldos and décimas (traditional mountain music), spiritual knowledge and witchcraft, and religious prayers and ensalmos (prayers with magic healing power). He complemented his collections with detailed documentation gathered from archives and libraries in the island, Spain, and the United States.  

Vidal Santoni donated more than 3,300 objects to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He gifted the remaining collections to the Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín and the Palacio Arzobispal de la Iglesia Católica in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where today they are accessible to all Puerto Ricans from the island and abroad.

Vidal Santoni’s prolific and acclaimed publications are a fundamental resource for the investigations of the island’s history, popular culture, and folklore traditions, as well as a testament to the richness of Puerto Rican traditional cultural knowledge. 

Among his publications relevant to folklore studies:

Los Reyes Magos: tradición y presencia (2005)

Escultura religiosa puertorriqueña (2006) 

Evelyn Figueroa