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.

Near the explorer’s landing site, on Mayaguez Bay, the Indians at first fled their thatch village at the sight of the tall ships, but friendly encounters soon became common. Not for long. When the natives’ golden ornaments drew the attention of the invaders, the idyll deteriorated into the narrative of greed, exploitation, and violence that has caused many of today’s historians to view more skeptically the blessings of these voyages to the New World.

Visitors to Ponce can try to touch the souls of the island’s first inhabitants at the forty-eight-acre Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, just outside the city. This is the oldest-known and best-preserved burial ground in the Antilles. It was an overgrown cow and horse pasture until 1972, when the river running past it flooded and in receding revealed to the farmer who owned the land a strange pattern of stones and fields. From around 700 A.D. Tibes was the heart of the island. “Everyone arrived here; there was a gathering of tribes, a miniature ‘E Pluribus Unum,’” said Salvador Más, a history graduate of Drew University and now a highly knowledgeable guide at the site. As he led a small group of increasingly awed visitors through the plazas, ball courts, and dance grounds of nearly two thousand years ago, Más’s pride in the place shone. “People want to know about the parts of their roots that were planted here,” he said. “And they’re coming back to find out.”

In Ponce it seems the greatest and only hope is to shape a more secure future by reclaiming the best of its past.

Another signpost of the island’s history, the immaculately restored Hacienda Buena Vista, lies nine winding, hilly miles north of Ponce. Owned by the same family for 127 years, this was a working coffee plantation until the 1950s. After more than thirty years of neglect it opened again in 1988, this time as a museum run by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. Coffee, corn flour, and citrus fruits were processed here; their profitability can be seen in the airy, two-story estate house that also has been restored. Among its furnishings are some of the most exuberant Thonet pieces—table, settee, magazine rack—I’ve ever seen.

Ponce’s greatest pride may be reserved for its art museum, which houses the best painting and sculpture collection in the Caribbean. Medieval and Renaissance works trace an interesting path to the first genre painting by nineteenth-century Puerto Ricans.

In Ponce it seems the reclamations and restorations just keep coming. And when I realized I needed another day, it was time to leave. With only a half-hour to spare I dashed into the spanking-new Museum of Puerto Rican Music, once the dignified home of an 1850s industrialist. As the guide gamely agreed to provide an abbreviated tour, I noticed that a live radio broadcast promoting the museum was under way. Suddenly a microphone was thrust in my direction, and I was asked to offer some thoughts about Ponce. I stammered out the predictable words of praise, wishing I could think faster on my feet. The woman taking tickets seemed pleased enough. “You have just been on WPAB,” she told me. “One hundred and twenty thousand people have heard you.”

Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP