SUSAN R. PARKER: Keeping an eye on the question of Puerto Rico’s statehood

Voters in Puerto Rico recently chose overwhelmingly to become a state of the United States. While almost 97 percent of the those voting chose statehood, the turnout was only about 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s registered voters.

If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it would bring with it the oldest city in the United States. Some time between 1506 and 1509, Spanish adventurers founded Caparra on the island then called San Juan. The settlement was called the City of Puerto Rico (rich or good port). Eventually the names for the city and the island would be swapped.

Typical of these very early endeavors, there is debate and disagreement about the date of settlement, who did so and who should take credit and be in charge. In 1521, the city was moved to the site of today’s old San Juan. The city of San Juan is the second oldest European-established city in the Americas. The city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic is the oldest, established in 1495. San Juan is a half century older than St. Augustine.

Early Spanish Florida had ties to Puerto Rico. Juan Ponce de Leon set sail from the island of Puerto Rico on a voyage in 1513 to go to Bimini and that would then take him to the Atlantic coast of today’s Florida.

In August of 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles spent two days in port in San Juan repairing his ships which were damaged by a hurricane on their passage across the Atlantic. With new crew members recruited in San Juan to replace those who jumped ship, Menendez set sail for La Florida, a name which at that time encompassed much of the Atlantic coast of North America.

For Menendez, the first order of business was to find and eliminate the French settlement established in La Florida (Fort Caroline in today’s Jacksonville). Menendez had intended to stop at Havana en route to La Florida, but chose instead to head straight to Florida through the uncharted waters of the Bahamas in order to save time.

Three weeks after leaving San Juan, Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565. Havana and Mexico City, not San Juan, became the communications and supply depots for Spanish St. Augustine for the next two and a half centuries, except for a 20-year period when Florida was a British colony.

Spain transferred Florida and its capital of St. Augustine to the United States in 1821. Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony until treaty negotiations to end the Spanish-American War in 1898 transferred the island to the U.S.

In more recent times, St. Augustine continues a quiet but persistent connection with San Juan. The statue of Juan Ponce de Leon that stands just east of St. Augustine’s Plaza is an exact replica of the statue in San Juan. When Dr. Andrew Anderson decided to donate a statue of Florida’s early explorer, he received permission from the U.S. State Deptartment in 1923 to have a cast made of the statue that stands in front of Ponce’s grave in San Juan.

On Armistice Day (now known as Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11) of 1923, the statue in St. Augustine was unveiled. Soon a local bank added the Ponce de Leon statue to its checks.

In 1987, St. Augustine’s Ponce de Leon statue reversed roles with the one in San Juan. The statue standing in the Plaza San Jose in San Juan and cast in 1881, while Puerto Rico was still a Spanish colony, had suffered deterioration. The sword of the San Juan statue was in really bad condition. The restorer of the San Juan statue, Emilio Cianfoni, requested to use the measurements of the its mirror image — the statue in St. Augustine — for fabrication information.

The City of St. Augustine provided staff to make the measurements needed by the restorer. City crew on a ladder called down the measurements to me, then the historian for the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board. I recorded the information with both of my feet safely on solid ground.

We will watch the issue of Puerto Rican statehood with a special interest.

Contributed to the St. Augustine Record by Susan R. Parker who holds a doctorate in colonial history. June 25, 2017.