I landed in Puerto Rico with no expectations. No detailed plans beyond where I would lay down my head each night. This was a trip planned on a whim. As soon as I realized I could fly to San Juan at Thanksgiving for much less than flying home to Portland, I was booked and set for a week in the Caribbean.
Everything about this trip was happy serendipity.
Upon arrival at the airport in San Juan, I found myself sharing a cab with Joe, an affable scholar in town for the American Studies conference that seemed to populate half my flight onto the island. Switching fluently from English to Spanish and back to English, without skipping a beat, all while telling me about the local secrets of San Juan, he embodies the cultural complexities of being Puerto Rican.
Most Americans are largely unaware of the history of Puerto Rico and its relationship to the United States. I only knew the basic outline of their history, a result of teaching about the age of American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century to scrappy inner city high schoolers during my brief stint as a teacher.
San Juan, and Joe, quickly forced me into a crash-course education.
A flash-in-the-pan history 101 of Puerto Rico might read something like this:
- A variety of peoples inhabited the island, including the Taino. In 1493, Christopher Columbus arrived, a brief visit inaugurating a flood of Spanish settlement by often ruthless conquistadors, as well as Catholic missionaries. Ponce de Leon (ironically best know Stateside for dying in his quest for the fountain of youth) landed the first wave of settlers in 1508 and became the royal governor of the island, a post soon relinquished to his son at the request of the Spanish crown in 1512. The Spanish quickly forced the Taino and other local peoples to work on massive plantations. As the Taino succumbed to diseases brought over by the Spanish, they were replaced by the influx of slaves from Africa.
- Puerto Rico remained under Spanish governance as a colony until 1895, when Puerto Ricans partnered with Cubans to fight for their independence from Spain. As often happened at the end of the 19th century, the United States jumped in, claiming to protect their rights of liberty and self-government in what we call the Spanish-American War of 1898. Of course, the strategic location of Puerto Rico (and Cuba) proved too tempting to American politicians, and the US took over the island as a territory. The story of Puerto Rico ever since has been a question of what their relationship to the United States should be and how much autonomy the United States will allow them.
- A key moment in this saga came with President Woodrow Wilson’s signing of the Jones Act in 1917 that granted US citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. Today the century-old debate of whether Puerto Rico should seek independence, keep the status quo or become the 51st state continues to play out among Puerto Ricans. Just this November they voted overwhelmingly on a referendum in favor of statehood, the first time ever after decades of similar referendums. Meanwhile, the island remains a US territory. They elect their own governor and have their own constitution, but the US President has veto power over the decisions of their government. Puerto Rico does not have a say in electing the US President and their representation in Congress is a nonvoting delegate.
Whew! How was that for a quick glimpse of over five centuries of history?
Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, and yet also distinctly Caribbean, an unmistakable part of Latin America. Puerto Ricans inhabit a Spanish-speaking world, immersed in road signs, restaurant menus, and newspapers of this romantic tongue of rolling Rs. Latin music inhabits every step, even in the weary grandmothers laden with heavy groceries who walk the cobblestones of Old San Juan with a sexy roll of their hips. Evidence of centuries of Spanish rule is everywhere. Massive forts protect Old San Juan from jealous English pirates. The local cochina criolla cuisine abounds with Spanish spices in a subtle building of textures for the tongue – cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika. Like most of the old New Spain world, Puerto Ricans are an ethnic mix of the local natives inhabiting the island when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493, the Spanish settlers, and slaves brought over from Africa.
Yet Puerto Ricans are also American citizens. They carry US passports, buy their groceries with US currency, mail packages through the US Postal Service, and can vote for the President as soon as they move to one of the 50 states. As Joe explained to me, most Puerto Ricans have family spread across the United States, and the younger generations typically speak fluent English, are well-versed in American culture, and grow up learning to shift seamlessly between the two worlds. Joe himself is an example – a young grad student who grew up in Texas and studies in California, back in his homeland not just for the conference, but also to introduce his girlfriend to Puerto Rico.
Turns out sharing a cab from the airport with Joe during my first muggy breaths of San Juan shaped the course of my entire trip. He invited me out on the town, night after night, as he showed his girlfriend around the city. We walked the lamp-lit old bluestone cobbles of San Juan’s maze of streets, beneath graceful Spanish colonial balconies dripping with greenery and ducked into watering holes bursting with people and music. And always we ended up back at the same little hole in the wall, a wonderful local bar frequented by friendly locals who enjoyed a round of dominoes on a sleepy weeknight and heart-pounding salsa classics as the saucy rhythms of life took over the humble floor on weekends. A steady parade of regulars swirled us in their arms and gripped us in fierce embraces of friendship warmed by smooth rum. Roberto, a local salsa legend and owner of the bar, taught me the basic steps of salsa. As a hunched elderly man spun Joe’s girl out onto the cramped floor with the balletic grace of youth, Joe’s words echoed in my ear: “Some of the best salsa I’ve ever seen has been danced here.”
Maybe it was just the rum, but that was the start of my intoxication with Puerto Rico.