Being a Puerto Rican involves a rich mix of cultures that actually is due to various voyages across time.
The Museum of the Americas (“Museo de las Américas”) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, serves as a starting point to understand the intercultural experience and fusion that generated the end result known as Puerto Ricans. So below we share what we learned from our visit to the museum’s exhibition room named “Conquest and Colonization”.
The first of Puerto Rico ancestors’ cultures got together in view of the famous European “Discovery of America”. Two different cultures and communities encountered in the 15th century. Basically, these were the conquered ones and the conquerors: Tainos indigenous people and Spaniards.
During the exhibition, we read about the Tainos social stratification and hierarchy, traditions, beliefs in more than one god (polytheism), vocabulary, agriculture, and musical instruments. It is believed that before the Tainos community emerged, the Arcaicos and Arawaks indigenous people lived in the island of Puerto Rico.
The Tainos economy was mainly based on agriculture and fishing. They grew cassava, sweet potato and corn, among other crops. For transportation by sea and through the rivers, they used canoes.
Among other musical instruments, the Tainos crafted the maracas. These instruments have a handle and a round hollow top that might be filled with beans or rice, and is shaken to make noise.
The highest chief of the Tainos was known as the “cacique”. During the “cacique” era, the Tainos named Boriquén (Borikén) the island that we know today as Puerto Rico. Have you ever heard the term “Boricuas” when someone refers to a Puerto Rican? Needless to say, the term “Boricuas” is one of many consequences of the Tainos footprint on the island of Puerto Rico.
Many years after the Tainos had been residing in Boriquén, they were surprised by the Spaniards' visit to their island. Nevertheless, we will first summarize the first known visit to the Americas by Admiral Christopher Columbus.
On October 12, 1492, Admiral Columbus and his crew made the initial discovery of America. They sailed in the famous three ships known as the “Niña”, the “Pinta” and the “Santa Maria”. During this journey, they discovered an island named by its native inhabitants as “Haiti”, and renamed it as “La Española”. Currently, such island comprises Dominican Republic and Haiti. This first voyage was sponsored by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabel I of Spain.
During the exhibition, we learned that it is probable that during this first voyage the island known today as Puerto Rico was first spotted by Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the “Pinta” ship. However, Admiral Columbus officially registered that such island was discovered during the second voyage to America in 1493.
On November 19, 1493, Admiral Colombus and his crew landed on the island of Boriquén, which they renamed “Isla de San Juan Bautista” (Saint John the Baptist Island).
As we learned during the exhibit, it is understood that since the 1500s the Catholic King and Queen of Spain (Ferdinand II and Isabelle I) removed Admiral Colombus as head of the government of diverse conquered islands in the Antilles, resulting in Spain taking complete control of the colonization. The Spanish Crown established the colonial government through their military and government institutions.
In 1506, Captain Juan Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer, performed an exploration voyage to the Saint John the Baptist Island (today known as Puerto Rico). In 1508, the formal Spanish conquest and colonization of the island was led by Ponce de León.
Ponce de León founded Villa de Caparra (Caparra Village), settling around 2 miles inland from what we know today as the San Juan Bay. He named such bay as “Puerto Rico” (Rich Port) in view of the gold found in the surrounding areas.
Villa de Caparra was the first capital of Saint John the Baptist Island and where the government institutions were established. Ponce de León became the first governor of this island.
Later, it was decided that the institutions in Villa Caparra should be transferred to the San Juan Islet (current site of Old San Juan). In 1521, the transfer of these institutions was finished and then the capital city was set at that location. Eventually, the island was renamed Puerto Rico and the capital city as San Juan.
Under the Spanish Crown, various important structures and fortifications were constructed in the San Juan Islet. The Casa Blanca was constructed to serve as Juan Ponce de León’s residence, but he never resided there. Rather, it served as a storage place for weapons and government funds, among other further uses. Later, the fortification of Santa Catalina (La Fortaleza), the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristobal were built, among other fortifications in the San Juan Wall City.
Among the Spaniards’ footprint on the island of Puerto Rico, is the agriculture. Besides adopting Tainos' agriculture, the Spaniards introduced new crops such as wheat, sugarcane, plantains, banana, rice, lemon, onions and carrots. They also imported cattle such as cows, horses and pigs.
Until approximately 1540, gold mining was the principal economic activity in this island.
As a result of trade relationships originated in Castilla, Spain, some musical instruments that were imported to the island were the guitar, vihuela (guitar-shaped string instrument) and Moorish styled tambourine.
The above information comprises a general summary about the history and culture topics we learned in the Museum of the Americas. During your visit to this museum, you may learn about the details of Puerto Rican history and culture.
Be sure to read our next issue as we will continue sharing what we learned in this museum about other topics related to Puerto Rican cultural heritage.
The Museum of the Americas is a must do when you visit Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. You may have the chance to have a guided tour, depending on the availability of a tour guide. By the time we visited the museum, fees were: kids less than 12 yrs. old and seniors (65 yrs. old+)- $4.00 p/p, other adults: $6.00 p/p.