The Puerto Rican capital was in our sights before the clock struck 9am. A mix of Spanish and Greco-Roman styles and built out of swirling white granite, the capital stood out amongst the colorful Mediterranean buildings at the edge of Old San Juan. A dozen bronze US Presidents (including Obama) guarded the street across from the front entrance, each one honored for paying their respects to the territory (even if it was just a simple state visit). We found American and a few Asian tourists clustered around them, pictures and delighted laughs abound.
We snuck in with that tour group, passing through security and entering the main rotunda just before masses of Puerto Rican school children streamed in. We gazed up at the mosaicked ceiling with them, everyone ooing and aweing over the intricate depiction of Chris Columbus (the European “discoverer” of the island), other famous people in Puerto Rican history, and personified images of ideals and governmental duties. It was really quite stunning.
As the students chatter quickly created a cacophony within the space, we left the rotunda behind and began to wander around: dull painted faces of Puerto Rican politicians, wood-lined hallways, closed offices, and busy secretaries. It didn’t take us long to see all that we were allowed to see.
To continue our history tour: Castillo de San Cristobal and Castillo de San Felipe Del Morro, the two forts that once guarded the island and the city from attack. It was in El Morro that a former Floridian history teacher turned park ranger gave us a brief history lesson about the forts and Puerto Rico itself. It began with the Columbus and the Spanish Empire. (He argued that Puerto Rico was the key to the success and might of the Spanish in the New World.) The English attacked the island twice. The Dutch once (burning San Juan to the ground). The Americans popped up a couple of times, once during the revolution when they sought help and safe harbor from the British and then again over a 100 years later during the Spanish-American War in which America gained Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and other islands as territories. And through everything, the forts were at the center of it all. The last time they were used as military bases was during the World Wars, particularly the second.
Images and impressions of the two forts easily blended together in my mind…A maze of plastered walls, limestone brick, and concrete sentries. Views of the flat rooftops of Old San Juan. Echoes of the crashing waves in empty white rooms. Shadowy tunnels designed to blow up. Gaggles of cruise ship passengers smelling of sunscreen. American WWII concrete look-outs, black amongst the red of the chipping Spanish brick and plaster.
At each fort, we wandered from level to level, often finding ourselves along on the terraces and outlooks as sun showers appeared and the wind pushed the waves against the rocks at the base of the stone fortress. I often found myself wondering what life was like on the bases and I wasn’t alone…
“Aim and fire!” Alexa proclaimed at every cannon.
Yup, probably very different from now.