Puerto Rico Feature
History You Can See
Precolonial Puerto Rico
The Taínos were the indigenous group that populated the island prior to its "discovery" by Christopher Columbus during his second trip to the New World in 1493. The Taínos' name for the island was Boriquen, and even today Puerto Ricans honor their Taíno heritage by referring to themselves as "boricuas."
What to See: The island's two main ceremonial centers—Tibes and Caguana —have preserved the limited artifacts of Taíno culture that have been discovered over the years. At Tibes, just north of Ponce, visitors can see reproductions of the bohios in which Taínos lived, as well as fields believed to be the sites of ceremonial events.
Closer to San Juan, those curious to get a window into the Taíno world can visit La Cueva de Maria de la Cruz, a cave in Loíza where archaeologists discovered Taíno artifacts in the mid-20th century. As of this writing, entry to the cave was free; there are no officials on-site.
Colonial Puerto Rico
Columbus arrived in 1493, and the Spanish crown controlled the island—though with a determinedly laissez-faire approach—until the Spanish American War of 1898 ended with the concession of Puerto Rico to the United States. The first Spanish governor of the island was Juan Ponce de Léon, the explorer famous for his tireless pursuit for the elusive fountain of youth. Spain's Queen Isabella charged de Léon with the task of "compel[ling] and forc the Indians to work for the Christian inhabitants." According to historian and archaeologist Ricardo Alegria, the Taínos were decimated, refusing to resist the Spanish conquistadores because they believed that Spaniards were immortal; thus, taking up arms against them was futile.
By the 1530s, Africans had been brought to the island for slave labor; they built San Juan's two biggest fortresses, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal, massive construction projects that took more than 250 years of intense, arduous labor. Slavery in Puerto Rico was finally abolished in 1873.
What to See: Built in 1521, Casa Blanca was the intended home of Juan Ponce de Léon, who never actually lived here. His descendants, however, called the Old San Juan property home for 250 years. Today, it's a museum open to the public; a highlight is the quiet, intimate garden located on the property.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal aren't San Juan's only forts—there's also Fortin San Geronimo del Boqueron, located just behind the Caribe Hilton, and the Fuerte El Canuelo on Goat Island, visible across the San Juan Bay—but they're certainly the largest and most impressive. Both offer commanding views of the Atlantic from their upper levels.
Built between 1533 and 1540, La Fortaleza was intended to serve as a perch from which the Bay of San Juan could be monitored and protected. Its strategic limitations were soon discovered, though, and the UNESCO-recognized structure is home to Puerto Rico's governor, as it has been since the late 16th century. Guided tours allow the public to glimpse how the governor lives.
A predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican town, Loíza was founded in 1719 and was populated by escaped slaves. Separated from the mainland by the Rio Grande, the town remained geographically and socially isolated until the mid 1970s, allowing many Afro-Puerto Rican traditions to be preserved. Called the capital of tradition, Loíza is home to popular bomba and plena (music and dance) and is famous for coconut masks, or vejigantes, used during annual festivals ("). Though it's most lively during early July, when the Santiago Apostol festival is under way, a visit at any other time of year should include a stop at San Patricio, one of the island's oldest churches and home to what may be the only black St. Patrick statue in the world.
The Transition to the Commonwealth
Though Puerto Rico was transferred from the Spanish to the Americans in 1898, the U.S. government maintained a similar posture toward the island that had characterized the colonial period. Puerto Rican historians Kal Wagenheim and Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim remarked that "[t]he invasion of Puerto Rico ended four centuries of oppressive Spanish colonial rule, only to replace it with a more subtle brand of colonialism."
The ways in which this colonialism was manifest are fascinating. Puerto Ricans were without formal citizenship for more than a decade. The educational system underwent frequent upheavals, as did the structure of the government, as the U.S. imposed policies reflecting evolving defense and economic interests. Even when U.S. citizenship was conferred in the 1916 passage of the Jones Bill, the development did little to resolve the ambiguous relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Citizenship for Puerto Ricans was not, after all, conferred with all the rights and privileges enjoyed by mainland citizens.
It would be almost 40 more years before the U.S. and Puerto Rico negotiated the island's current status—that of a commonwealth (or "free associated state"). But the commonwealth—a compromise status between statehood and independence—has its fair share of critics, and both statehood and independence movements are competing to shape Puerto Rico's future.
What to See: Built between 1919 and 1929, Puerto Rico's beaux arts-style Capitol building is an often-overlooked site that shouldn't be missed. Its rotunda is inlaid with colorful mosaic tiles depicting the major periods of Puerto Rican history, and the Puerto Rican Constitution is displayed in glass cases. Busts of important Puerto Rican politicians are also on display. Visitors will often encounter protesters on the Capitol steps; citizens gather here frequently to peacefully protest government policies.
The Las Mercedes Cemetery, located in Ponce, is the final resting place of some of Puerto Rico's most important and celebrated politicians, among them Don Luis A. Ferré, former governor and founder of the Museo de Arte in Ponce. The grand tombstones and mausoleums in this cemetery are photo worthy, as are the bones resting within your reach in open crypts at the back of the cemetery. Every town has its own culture trolley, offering a historic guided tour of that area's highlights. The trolleys are often free. Stops can generally be found in the town's plaza, in front of its city hall.
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