On our recent trip to Puerto Rico, my bride and I took 173 pictures. Most of them came out beautifully, but they don’t begin to capture the essence of a land and its people.
In the first place, it is difficult to attach a label to Puerto Rico. Being a “possession” of the United States, it is not a sovereign nation, and it is not a state. It’s something that has been caught in between. I’m left referring to Puerto Rico as a “land.” That term seems woefully inadequate.
Prior to its being “discovered”, the island had been inhabited for untold years by the Taíno Indians, who lived in small villages. These peaceful people had a limited knowledge of agriculture. They lived on domesticated tropical crops such as pineapples, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Their diet was supplemented by seafood.
Christopher Columbus landed on the island, which was populated by as many as 50,000 Indians, on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The Indians who greeted Columbus made a mistake by showing him gold nuggets in the river. They made a bigger mistake when they told him to take all he wanted.
The city of Old San Juan sits atop some massive rock formations. Because of this, the Spaniards were able to build even larger fortifications and Puerto Rico quickly became Spain’s most important military outpost in the Caribbean. In the mid 1500s, a wall was built around the entire city.
The portions of the fortifications I found most interesting were the guard towers that seem to hang out well beyond the wall. Made of stone and concrete, I’m left wondering how they have stood there for centuries. The inside of the guard towers consist of three or four narrow windows for a soldier to fire upon the approaching enemy. I examined some of the guard stations more closely, but only the ones that were planted firmly on the ground.
Over the centuries, the English (on several occasions) and the Dutch tried unsuccessfully to capture San Juan. Sir Francis Drake went so far as to sneak into the harbor at night and set all the other ships on fire. By doing so, he gave the Spaniards plenty of light to fire their cannons at his fleet. Drake was fortunate to escape with his life.
According to legend, a priest, along with the women and children of the town, thwarted yet another British attack when they carried torches along the top of the walls. The naval officers feared that the men of San Juan were preparing to fire on them and quickly set sail for the open seas. A sculpture commemorating this event is found near the Casa Blanca (White House) that was built for Ponce de Leon.
In the late 1800’s Puerto Rico was in the process of negotiating its independence from Spain. During the same timeframe, Cuba and the Philippine Islands were making similar efforts. Spain was dragging its feet and open revolt was occurring in Cuba and the Philippines. Puerto Rico stuck to peaceful negotiations.
Spurred on by exiled Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Pilipino citizens, U.S. newspapers began an onslaught of stories denouncing the Spanish government. Soon, U.S. citizens were demanding that the U.S. government get involved to help the islands gain their independence. Then, the Maine, a U.S. ship, was sunk in the port of Havana – the result of a Spanish mine.
It took only a matter of months for the U.S. Navy to destroy the Spanish fleet and occupy Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. While they were at it, the U.S. also laid claim to Hawaii, Guam, and Wake Island. All of these islands were seen as key military posts for refueling and refitting American ships.
During the short war, Congress passed many resolutions. One of them denied any intention by the U.S. to exercise jurisdiction or control over Cuba… except in a pacification role and promised to leave the island as soon as the war was over.
The one and only time the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico fell was during the early stages of the Spanish-American War. Of course, the U.S. Navy had considerable help from the Puerto Ricans who wanted the Spanish soldiers ousted.
Since then, Puerto Rico has been called variously a Protectorate, a Territory, and a Possession. They have been called lots of things, but never a Nation. They almost had their independence, but it has yet to become a reality.
Today, most of the Puerto Ricans consider themselves Americans. They have a representative in Congress who is allowed to speak on behalf of the island, but he has no vote.
They have three political parties. One of the parties wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state. A second party wants Puerto Rico to be granted independence so it can become a nation. The third party wants things to stay as they are.
If I were a citizen of Puerto Rico, I’d join one of the first two parties. Either statehood or independence would be better than what they currently have. The laws and agreements with the U.S. are very restrictive. For example, merchants on the island cannot deal directly with suppliers from other countries. All goods must be purchased through the U.S. That means everything costs more because of the additional shipping costs.
But the majority of the people don’t seem at all upset with the arrangements. Obviously, the blood of the peaceful Taíno Indians has intermingled with the Spaniards, black African slaves, and numerous other races that have settled there. Perhaps it’s the heat; who wants to get all angry and upset in the hot and humid tropics? It’s better to relax and not worry.
I can guarantee that the heat of Puerto Rico would keep me from losing my temper. I’m a person who perspires with little or no provocation. During our stay in San Juan, the temperature never fell below 90º and the humidity was probably in the 90% range. It rained almost every morning and the sweat poured off me even when I was just sitting and enjoying the company of my bride and our friends. I had to change shirts at least three times each day.
But picture this: Even with the heat, I would go back to Puerto Rico in a heartbeat. Lu and I thoroughly enjoyed the island and all the people we met.