The Pearl of the South

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When I think back to a few days spent in Puerto Rico’s second city, Ponce, the recurring image is of a stage in the busy moments just before the curtain rises, an impression that probably harks back to my two seasons as a production assistant in summer stock many years ago. I envision the stagehands sprinting through the Belle Epoque set that is Ponce, arranging the last props, while the performers wait in the wings for their cues to stroll onstage.

Last spring I was privileged to watch the curtain going up in Ponce on a moment of great change. The city is partway through a five-hundred-million-dollar restoration effort timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s 1493 voyage to Puerto Rico and the 300th year of Ponce’s settlement. Located on the island’s sere south coast, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Ponce is known as the Pearl of the South and is considered the most indigenous of Puerto Rican cities, a place that despite its two hundred thousand inhabitants retains the pace and intimacy of a small town.

It is the mid- to late-nineteenth-century city that we mostly see, reflecting the period when Ponce gained influence as a port, as a trading center, and as a producer of what became known as after-dinner products—coffee, rum, and tobacco. Another nickname, the Cradle of Liberty, reflects the city’s tradition of political ferment; some of the island’s most influential writers, artists, and politicians lived here, and the outspoken newspaper La Democracia was first published in Ponce in 1890.

The city’s port, three miles from central Ponce, received American troops during the two weeks that the Spanish-American War lasted here. A plaque at the entry to the City Hall, which fronts the main square, is dedicated to volunteers of the 2d Wisconsin Regiment who landed at Playa de Ponce on July 28, 1898. Ten names of the dead are listed, with their hometowns, places like Oshkosh and Beaver Dam.

 

“We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed,” announced Gen. Nelson A. Miles, “but … to bring protection … to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our Government.” To what degree this promise has been kept—or why we found ourselves in Puerto Rico in the first place—is the subject of a continuing argument. Whatever the intention, our history and that of the Caribbean island were ever after entwined.

Right now the debate is at a particularly high pitch while the U.S. Congress struggles to fine-tune (or stall, depending on whom you read) the elements of a proposed referendum on statehood for Puerto Rico. And if you broach the subject, however tentatively, you’ll find strong opinions on at least two of the three options—statehood and a continuing but strengthened role as a possession (a smaller group favors independence). But in Ponce it sometimes seems that the greatest and only hope is to shape a more secure future by reclaiming the best of its past.

Ponce Creole is the name given to the architectural style that belongs only here. San Juan, the capital, was planned and built by the Spanish conquerors, one writer points out, while Ponce is the work of its native sons, making it a truly authentic Puerto Rican city. At its heart is the vibrant Plaza las Delicias (Plaza of Delights), actually two tree-shaded squares anchored by a domed eighteenth-century cathedral. Butting up against the cathedral’s immaculate whiteness is one of the island’s landmarks, a fantastical red-and-black-striped former fire station, a very free rendition of the Alhambra built to serve as the “Arab Kiosk” of Ponce’s 1882 Exposition.

The wood and stucco buildings that line the streets radiating from the plaza are painted in the tasty pinks, peaches, and limes common to hot countries. With broad columned porches and balconies, the effect is entirely inviting and of a piece. And there are many pieces. The prime restoration area contains 1,046 buildings.

I took a stroll around the central city with a tourist-office representative named Zulma Collazo. She pointed to freshly paved sidewalks that have regained the pink marble borders common a hundred years ago and to replica gas lamps that have replaced unsightly telephone and electrical lines that used to run aboveground. “Ponce has come alive in the last year and a half,” Zulma told me. “Before, this downtown area was empty, was dead.” Now, everywhere we walked, she proudly recited the latest news: “This street was finished last week; this is the next one to be worked on; this one is just being completed right now.”

Some suggest that Ponce is the object of all this favorable attention because (beyond the fact that it deserves it) Puerto Rico’s governor, Rafael Hernández Colón, is a native son. Also there is the island-wide effort for the Columbus Quincentennial. Puerto Rico, after all, is the only place under the American flag where the explorer set foot, albeit briefly and during his second voyage. The Taino Indian inhabitants had named their island Borínquen (Island of the Brave Lord); when Columbus took possession, he called it San Juan Bautista after a Castillan prince. In 1521, in an unusual swap, the fortified settlement on the eastern side was renamed San Juan, and its former name, meaning Port of Riches, was extended to the entire island, now called Puerto Rico.