San Juan History
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Discover the historical past of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It has not been an easy road for Puerto Rico, a land rich in history. Many trials and tribulations have marked her peoples' historic journey. Their courage to endure and face new challenges and consistently struggle for a better life is very much a part of the social and cultural fabric. Their progress and successes after periods of disillusionment, defeat, and grief demonstrates the great character of the Puerto Rican people.
History indicates that the Archaics (nomadic descendants from the North American Indians) were the very first inhabitants of the island of Puerto Rico. Very little is known of their culture, however, so their legacy was minimal. The Igneri people followed, sailing in from what is now Venezuela. Their many skills made way for technical advancements. Their civilization built advanced canoes and used the soil to make pottery.
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 today memorialized at the Tibes and Caguana Ceremonial Parks, in the municipalities of Ponce and Utuado, respectively. Many of today's Puerto Ricans are direct descendants from the Taínos.
On November 19, 1493, Christopher Columbus first sighted the western shore of Puerto Rico. Some of his Spanish crew landed, but left shortly thereafter. It was not until 1508 when Juan Ponce de León and 50 of his compatriots arrived that the Spanish influence began to take hold. 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 then fortified. Ironically, it was first called Puerto Rico, while the country was named San Juan. The names were later reversed as we know them today. In 1518, due to a critical labor shortage, African slaves were brought over to the island. The Tainos were killed off earlier as a result of wars and famine.
During the almost 400 years of Spanish dominance, San Juan experienced sporadic growth. Conditions of life in the city were controlled mainly by the homeland of Spain and its strategy for colonialization. During this period, San Juan became heavily fortified with walled fortresses such as El Morro and San Cristóbal. And while the Spaniards endured numerous crippling attacks by the English and Dutch military forces, San Juan remained a stronghold. During the 19th Century, an independence movement took hold. The height of this activity occurred during the late 1860s and was called the "Grito de Lares." Attempts at revolution were conducted to free the island from Spanish dominance. By 1873, when slavery was completely abolished and Spain granted Puerto Rico autonomy, the Spanish-American War exploded and American troops invaded the island.
After the Spanish-American War, several significant changes occurred in San Juan. The United States flag replaced the flag of Spain and the American president appointed the Governors. During this period two key laws were passed. The Foraker Act of 1900 and the Jones Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans self-government and American citizenship, respectively. The periods of Prohibition and the Great Depression caused further havoc in the city where smuggling and bootlegging became part of the social commerce of the day. Puerto Rican men participated in World War I and II as American citizens while still desiring their own autonomy.
Local leader Luis Muñoz Marín became governor of the island, thanks to a 1947 act, which granted free elections for that post. Initially all of his efforts were prompted toward obtaining independence for the island. However as time went on, Muñoz felt that it was in the best interest for his people to opt for a degree of self-autonomy. This gave birth to what has been labeled the Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State), or Commonwealth of the United States. Under this status, Puerto Ricans do not vote in American Presidential Elections nor do they have representation in Congress (aside from one non-voting member). In turn they pay no federal taxes, yet they receive federal financial aid. "Operation Bootstrap," under the leadership of Muñoz Marín's government, transformed the island's industry from an agricultural to a manufacturing-based economy. As a result, the island, for better or worse, experienced significant growth and development in a number of sectors.
The people of Puerto Rico today have the highest per-capita income in Latin America and have one of the most stable economies in the Southern Hemisphere. The standards of living are higher than most other Latin countries, but still lags behind the United States. The island has a tri-party system. The PDP (Popular Democratic Party) defends the commonwealth. This is the party that was founded by Muñoz Marín. The second party is the NPP (New Progressive Party) which advocates statehood. And the much smaller third party is called the PIP, or Puerto Rican Independence Party. The first two parties have consistently battled back and forth for power since 1968. Today, most Puerto Ricans enjoy prosperity and still strive to improve their standard of living.
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