Colony of CobblestoneRoundup
tags: colonialism, Puerto Rico
Carlos A. Santiago works at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, where he preserves genealogical records and makes them available online. He is currently training in genealogy after earning an MA in history from Brooklyn College and an Advanced Certificate in Public History at the College of Staten Island.
Every time I walk through Old San Juan I feel transported to Puerto Rico when it was a Spanish colony. It is warm and comforting to become immersed in the colorful buildings. The military forts surrounding Old San Juan, however, make me imagine the battles and trauma this area has experienced. And underneath my shoes are cobblestones that have a place in that history. The blue cobblestones (the slag turns blue over time from exposure) lining the streets tell a story about Puerto Rico’s colonial relationships with Spain and the United States.
Spain began colonizing Puerto Rico shortly after Christopher Columbus’s arrival there in 1493. At San Juan, Spanish ships loaded gold, sugar, and other valuable materials extracted from the island. But first, the ships offloaded stones they had carried across the Atlantic as ballast, to make the empty vessels stable. Road builders used the leftover stones to create the cobblestones for the streets of San Juan. The builders used, in other words, debris left behind by Spain when it bore away Puerto Rico’s resources. Encapsulated in those cobblestones is the Spanish empire’s exploitation of the island.1
These blue cobblestones also played a role in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.2 During the Cold War, the U.S. sought to modernize Puerto Rico’s economy, as a bulwark against the spreading influence of communism in the Caribbean and Latin America. Part of this project was developing the island’s tourism industry, with Old San Juan at the forefront. Plans to renovate Old San Juan, which at that time was a slum with many abandoned and derelict buildings, were proposed in 1951; construction began in 1955 under a government project called Operation Serenity.3 Although the property owners of Old San Juan had their homes renovated during this process, those that benefited from this project the most were companies like Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Pan American Airways. The tourism industry used eminent domain to colonize the island and profit from it, despite the persistent American belief that the United States freed Puerto Rico from the grasp of Spanish colonialism.4
Hotel construction skyrocketed, and images of a renovated Old San Juan were used in advertisements. Cobblestones contributed to the images that hotels tried to sell, depicting Puerto Rico as a tropical paradise with “Old World charm.”5 The tourism industry wanted Old San Juan to make tourists feel like they were in a foreign country instead of a U.S. territory.
Renovating Old San Juan meant placing new cobblestones throughout the city. These cobblestones were supposed to add to Old San Juan’s European-style aesthetic. But the images of worn cobblestones are nonetheless illusions, conjured as a result of U.S. rule. The cobblestones were made to look old despite being new.
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