Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Puerto Rico – the Spanish U.S.

¡Hola!  In addition to the familiar 50 states and the (Federal) District of Columbia, U.S. has a number of territories.  These are land masses that the country has acquired over the centuries in Caribbean and Pacific Ocean.  With a size of over 9,000 square kilometers (1/4 of the size of Taiwan) and 3.7 million population, Puerto Rico at the (means “Rich Port”) tropical Caribbean, east of Haiti/Dominican Republic, is technically an organized (i.e. self-ruled) but unincorporated (i.e. U.S. Constitution does not fully apply) territory.  It is also the largest and most populated of all territories.  Although both English and Spanish as its official languages, Spanish remains the dominant language.  Incidentally Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport at the Metropolitan San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the busiest passenger hub for the entire Caribbean.

Going back 520 years to November 19th of 1493, Christopher Columbus reached Puerto Rico and claimed it for Spain in his second voyage to Americas with the purpose of establishing settlements and permanent colonies.  What happened in the ensuing centuries to the indigenous Taíno people of the region was the familiar sad stories of the colonial world – forced tributes, forced labor, slavery, oppression, epidemic diseases, completed with cultural genocide inclusive of religious practice and belief.

During the subsequent 400+ years of occupation and rule of Puerto Rico, Spanish Empire had successfully suppressed the initial Taino insurrections, fended off the attacks by other colonial powers such as French, British, and Dutch.  However, after decades of decline of the Spanish Empire in 19th century, the final blow was delivered by U.S. with the 10 week long Spanish-American War of 1898 when U.S. intervened in the Cuban Independence under the name of protecting its citizens and business interests in Cuba.  Spain was defeated in both theaters - Philippine and Guam in Pacific, and Cuba and Puerto Rico in Caribbean.  The result was the Treaty of Paris by which Spain ceded all its colonies to U.S. outside Africa including Puerto Rico and Philippine.  For U.S., the victory changed the American public sentiment and boosted significantly the American imperialism and international involvement.  It also sent the war hero Theodore Roosevelt into White House a few years later as the popular 26th president of U.S.

Unlike Cuba of which U.S. promised the support for the independence from the very beginning of the war, Puerto Rico’s political status has remained unclear with the population divided in preferences ranging from independence to statehood.  While ballots are now the places to express choices, tension between U.S. Federal government and pro-independence movement had sometimes reached boiling point during the last half of the 20th century.   Extreme groups such as Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) had resorted to “armed struggles” and violent “terror attacks”.  However the latest Puerto Rico status referendum in 2012 reports about 54% of voters do not want to continue with status quo and among voters who answered the multiple choice question of statehood, independence or a sovereign nation in free association with the United States, 61% chose statehood and 5.5% chose independence.

A good place to start with in retracing the old Spanish colonial history in U.S. is the Old San Juan, the oldest Spanish settlement in Puerto Rico.  Connected to the main island via three bridges, Old San Juan is a narrow and tiny island near north shore of Puerto Rico.  At a mere ½ mile long and 2.5 mile wide with plenty of facilities from lodging, restaurants to stores and galleries concentrated in western half of this small island, it is a perfect place for tours on foot.  

Much of the old San Juan is still surrounded by centuries old 40+feet tall thick stone walls.  Thanks to the efforts by a few local activists, scholars and political leaders in late 1940s, the neighborhood escaped the bulldozer and modern redevelopment elsewhere and was revived while retaining its original Spanish architecture (photos above).   Today, one can stroll down the narrow cobble stone streets at ease, admire the bright and colorful two story houses with windows and balconies often decorated with flowers.  When tired, one can rest at the benches of public squares, sit with the late salsa composer Tite Curet Alonso (center photo above), have a cup of coffee/espresso with Mallorca.  When hungry, go into one of many eateries and have some pernil (roasted pork shoulder) and mofongo.

Located at the mouth of the San Juan Bay and as a gateway to the main island, Old San Juan’s military importance 500 years ago was obvious.  Fort San Cristóbal at the northeastern shore of Old San Juan was the largest fort Spanish ever built in Americas to protect the city from land attack.  Today, only 1/3 of the fort remains but still impressive.  On the top level of the fort, one can see the skyline of the (new) San Juan in its east.  See photos to the left.
Less than a mile west of Fort San Cristobal, there lies an even more impressive Fort San Felipe del Morro at the tip of the northwest corner of Old San Juan.  It is now a part of the National Park system and one of the UN World Heritage Sites.   Designed, constructed and continuously enhanced and updated since 16th century, El Morro is a 6-story structure with 18 ft thick walls and interconnecting tunnels, rising from the sea at 145 ft tall.  It performed its duty quite well to defend the threat from the sea and protect the port of San Juan.    Right next to it on the shore is the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery where many famous Puerto Ricans were buried, see photo at right.

As a popular tourist destination, Puerto Rico has plenty of natural beauties to offer from tropical rain forests to pristine beaches.  A less known but magical place to visit is Vieques, a small island east of the main island accessible by ferry or frequent 8-seater propeller planes.  Measured at 4 mile long and 21 mile wide (comparable in size to the Kinmen island, see my blog Kinmen Highlights), Vieques has a sparse population of fewer than 10,000 with increasing number of tourists as its popularity grows.

During the first three hundred years of Spanish rule, Vieques was not getting much attention by the Spaniards and was frequented by pirates and outlaws.  It wasn’t till the 19th century when Spanish began to make more earnest efforts to establish order on the island and to set up large sugar cane plantations.  However the growing economic development took a nose dive when sugar market tanked in 1920s and the Great Depression commenced.  Vieques’ course took another dramatic churns when World War II broke out and U.S. Navy acquired and expropriated 2/3 of the land of the island.

One of the most visible reminders of the Vieques modern history is El Rompeolas (The Mosquito Pier), a one mile long pier to nowhere at the northwestern shore of the island; see photo to the right.  You can’t miss it from the air when you fly in and out of the tiny airport on the north shore of the island.   In 1941, when U.S. saw the development of World War II at Europe became worrisome with the distinct possibility that Great Brittan might fall and the war could spread to the Americas, it decided to build a giant navy facility in Caribbean for the U.S. Atlantic fleet and the surviving British fleet.   Initial constructions include a sea wall that would connect Vieques and the main island of Puerto Rico 8 miles west. 

It turns out the real threat came from Pacific rather than from the Atlantic when Japanese made the surprise attack of Pearl Harbor 6,000 miles away on December 7th, 1941.  The navy base and sea wall construction was stopped and later abandoned.  Vieques island itself however has become a convenient place for military exercises and used as a bombing target by U.S. Navy ever since.  After many decades’ numerous but fruitless protests by the locals, the 1999 incident of the death of a civilian in a Navy bombing exercise finally drew the national and international attention.  Many celebrities and activists in U.S. and world joined the protests and civil disobedience.  Eventually U.S. Navy relented and withdrew from the Vieques and turned its land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2003.  Till this day, parts of the eastern and western ends of the island remain restricted because of the danger posed by unexploded bombs.   Some local residents are still angry and bitter about their or their parents’ forced relocation that occurred more than 70 years ago. 

Today the tranquil farms, ranches and former fishing villages on the island no longer hear the bombs and missiles fly over their heads and explode nearby.  Instead they are increasingly invaded by tourists and entrepreneurs.  Beautiful white-sand beaches with azure water are not crowded and easy to reach by (rental) car, bike, taxi, "carros publicos" (shared van bus) or for some, simply walking.
When you are tired of tanning and water, try horseback riding.  Like most of stables in U.S. that cater to tourists, you can do a horseback riding without any prior lessons or experience in Vieques as well.  It is a wonderful outing at sunrise or sunset to ride horses on the beach, through the trails into valleys and over the hills with panoramic views of the island and ocean.  

Viequest horses are quite special.  They are Paso Fino (meaning the horse with fine gait), descendents of Spanish horses the conquistadors brought at the beginning of 16th century.   These horse are born with the ability to make evenly spaced four-beat lateral moves at varying speed called paso gaits.  It is so pleasing to hear and see a horse walking down the street in this fast distinct paso gaits – hooves moving close to the ground in order of right rear, right fore, left rear, left fore.   For a video demonstration and explanation of gaits of Paso Fino, you can click on the following Youtube video  By the way, horse gaits simply describe the ways horse moves that include the well-known (in an increasing speed) – walk (4-beat), trot (2-beat), canter (3-beat), and gallop (4-beat).   I suppose in a similar way, some of us are born with the ability to perform certain rhythmic dances and some can’t!

To top your list off, you must take an evening kayaking tour during new moons of the rarely seen natural phenomenon - bioluminescence.  There are many living organisms found from land to sea that emit light.  Fireflies are perhaps the most familiar and popular insect that can be seen flashing light at night.  Marine bioluminescence is more mysterious due to the limited accessibility but there are plenty of organisms in water from bacteria and protists to fish and squid that are luminous.  (Sorry, there are no luminous mammals, flowering plants, birds, reptile, or amphibians.)

If you have never experience the phenomenon before, you may have seen the computer animated whale scene ( in the 2013 Oscar winning film Life of Pi which is a dramatized and exaggerated version of it.   Indeed, according to the winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda of the film, the inspiration and idea occurred to him and Director Ang Lee when they saw bioluminescence in a bay in central Taiwan. 

In nature, one major actor is a single-celled micro-organism (a type of algae) called dinoflagellateUnlike adult fireflies who use flash patterns of bioluminescence to communicate with each other for courtship, dinoflagellates flash blue or green lights as a defense mechanism when its cell are pressed.  For a scientific explanation of how dinoflagllates generate light, you can start with the following UCSB link  It suffices to say that dinoflagellates garner their energy from photosynthesis and other food/nutrients during the day that allows them to produce sparks when the water they live in are agitated.

The Bio Bay of Vieques is one of few places one can see easily such an amazing phenomenon in significant scale.  As you paddle and move your kayak, a blue trail is left behind in otherwise a total darkness.  While not doing the justice, the photos sourced from the net do give you some idea of what is like.  What is more amazing is when you see a fast moving fish or a school of fish pass by.  You see long flashes move around rapidly in the water.  When you scoop up some water, your hands light up like a small X’mas tree with blue sparks for a short brief moment.   There is no words to describe those moments other than being purely magical.

Puerto Rico, I will be back.  Adios, voy a hablar con usted pronto!