History of San Juan

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It's been no easy ride for Puerto Rico, a land rich in history. Trials and tribulations have paved the historic roadways for its people. Their courage to continue to strive forward, to face new challenges and constantly battle for progress after periods of defeat and grief demonstrates the greatness of the Puerto Rican people.

Archaic/Igneris Period
First to 5th Centuries A.D.

History has proven that the Archaics (nomadic descendants from the North American Indians) were the first inhabitants of the island we now know as Puerto Rico. Not much is known of their culture leaving very little in the way of a legacy. The Igneri people followed, sailing in from what is now Venezuela, with many skills and advancements. This civilization built advanced canoes and use the soil to make pottery.

The Taíno People
From 1400 to 1492

After the Igneri era, the Arawaks inhabited Puerto Rico. They were known as the Taínos, a peaceful people armed with expert agricultural skills. Historians and archaeologists have uncovered their rich culture, which is now remembered at the Tibes & Caguana Ceremonial Parks, in the municipalities of Ponce and Utuado, respectively. Many of today's Puerto Ricans are allegedly descendants of the Taínos.

European Discovery & Conquest
From 1493 to 1521

On the 19th of November 1493, Christopher Colombus first sighted the western shore of Puerto Rico. Some of his Spanish crew landed, but then left shortly thereafter. It wasn't until 1508 when Juan Ponce de León and 50 compatriots arrived, that things changed. They established a small community, called Caparra, near what is known today as Guaynabo. By 1511, the Spanish began to move to a small islet across the bay from Caparra, which they fortified. It was first called Puerto Rico, while the country itself was called San Juan. The names were later reversed, as we know them today. In 1518, due to the critical situation of lack of workers (the Taínos were exterminated, via wars and diseases), African slaves were brought to the island.

The Spanish Years
From 1522 to 1898

During the almost 400 years of Spanish dominance, San Juan experienced sporadic growth. Conditions of life in the city were controlled mainly by what was happening back home, on the Spanish peninsula. During this period, San Juan was heavily fortified with walled forts such as El Morro and San Cristóbal. The Spaniards suffered numerous crippling attacks by English and Dutch military units, yet San Juan remained a stronghold. During the 1800s, an independence movement took hold, with its peak in the 1868s, namely, "Grito de Lares." This revolt attempted to free the island from Spanish dominance. By 1873, slavery was completely abolished and Spain was granting Puerto Rico autonomy, just as the Spanish-American war exploded and U.S. troops invaded the island.

Enter the United States
From 1899 to 1951

After the Spanish-American war, several changes were made in San Juan. No longer did the Spanish flag fly over the land as the Star-Spangled Banner was now de rigour. Governors appointed by the U.S. President lived in La Fortaleza and the little island country endured very hard times. During this period two key laws, the Foraker Act of 1900 and the Jones Act of 1917, granted Puerto Ricans self-government and American citizenship. The Prohibition and the Great Depression caused further havoc in the city with smuggling and bootlegging. Puerto Rico participated in the first and second World Wars as American citizens while screaming for autonomy.

Commonwealth Era
From 1952 to Today

Local leader Luis Muñoz Marín had become governor of the island,
thanks to a 1947 act which granted free elections for that post. At first, he promoted independence for the island, but sensing that the option would not offer the best for his people, Muñoz opted for a degree of self-autonomy is called the Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State), a commonwealth of the United States. Under this status, Puerto Ricans do not vote in U.S. Presidential elections nor have representation in Congress (aside from a nonvoting member) and paid no federal taxes, yet they received federal financial aid. "Operation Bootstrap," under the leadership of Muñoz Marín's government, converted the island's industry from an agricultural to manufacture-based. The island, for better or worse, experienced enormous development in a number of sectors.

Contemporary Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans today have the highest per-capita income in Latin America and have one of the most stable economies of the hemisphere. The standards of living are higher than most other Latin countries, but still lag behind the U.S. The island has a tri-party system; the PDP (Popular Democratic Party) defends commonwealth (the party was founded by Muñoz Marín), the NPP (New Progressive Party), advocates statehood, and the much smaller PIP (Puerto Rican Independence Party). The first two parties have constantly switched in power since 1968. Today, most Puerto Ricans enjoy prosperity and still strive to improve their standard of living.

Film buffs will appreciate knowing that Puerto Rico has produced a bit of film history here -- José Ferrer was born in San Juan in 1912, and famous on screens worldwide. An actor, producer and director, Ferrer won an Oscar for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac.

In 1961, the film, West Side Story launched Rita Moreno to stardom The film version won an Oscar in 1961 and became a classic Broadway musical, still loved today. Moreno was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931.

Another famous actor from Puerto Rico is Raul Julia, born in San Juan in 1940. He ventured first to New York to join an acting troupe before playing Romero character in The Adams Family and roles in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Moon over Parador, Havana, Tequila Sunrise and One from the Heart.