American dream: how and how the blooming island of Puerto Rico lives

Be part of a big country or an independent state? This dilemma has been solved in different parts of the globe for more than one century. But any choice brings change and requires effort, which is not easy to dare

“You will see US flags everywhere, but you will find yourself in a completely different world,” recalls an advertisement for a holiday in Puerto Rico, when the plane makes a small circle over the sea and comes in to land. Imagination draws a classic Caribbean airport: a hut with animators in national costumes. But instead, I see a shiny modern air terminal, not much different from its American counterparts.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

In the arrivals area, a Ricky Martin song is heard from a swimsuit shop. “You don't know how much I miss the noise of my city and the caress of this sea. When I'm not with you, I imagine you,” sings the most famous Puerto Rican in the world, referring to his homeland, “a beautiful island.” Sellers are not visible, there is a sign on the door: “Gone to sunbathe.” The bouncy brass part at the song's finale sets one up to follow suit.

Feet, meters and pelicans

The Condado area is considered the most glamorous in San Juan: respectable hotels and restaurants, boutiques of local designers, and casinos are located here. On central Ashford Avenue, it seems that at any moment you can arrange a beauty contest among the police. Curvy Creole women in bulletproof vests display white-toothed American smiles: “To the Old City? Walk at a leisurely pace in less than an hour. No, we are not dangerous, street crime has been declining for a long time. Just be careful.”

Parallel to the street – a string of beaches. On Atlantic Beach, far from the hotel skyscrapers, you can feel the local life: a stocky man, pushing his snorkel mask to the back of his head, carries a freshly caught octopus and willingly stops to pose with his trophy for a photo. A sign nearby threatens to be fined $5,000 for catching fish and marine animals.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

The measure is justified, according to the information stand. For example, the magnificent frigatebird, the Antillean manatee and the American brown pelican are endangered here. True, I am lucky for pelicans: several birds dive nearby at once. “These are the most skillful fishermen!” exclaims the octopus catcher. “They see the fish from a height of 60 feet.” “How many meters is this?” & nbsp; – I ask mechanically. “Well, around 18,” the man replies calmly. Officially, Puerto Rico adopted two systems of measures: metric and English, —and everyone thinks it is convenient for him.

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Almost USA

The first attraction of the Old City on the way from Condado is the Bronze Horseman. No, this is not a conquistador and not even an Indian leader: on his head is a peasant sombrero, and a basket of bananas is tied to his horse. Next to it is a granite slab with the lyrics of the song Lamento Borincano (“Puerto Rican lament”). Borinquen is the Spanish interpretation of the pre-Columbian name of Puerto Rico, which is still used locally, and the song was written in 1929 by a native of the island, composer Rafael Hernandez Marin.

The melodic bolero, covered by dozens of famous performers up to Placido Domingo, is considered the unofficial anthem of Puerto Rico. The song is about a poor peasant. He goes to sell the harvest to the city market, but poverty reigns everywhere, no one buys anything, and the peasant laments about what will become of the “paradise land” Borinken. However, if you do not know Spanish and listen only to music, crying can be quite mistaken for a lyrical ballad, and in the modern version of the song, optimistic lines appeared at the end: “I adore you, Puerto Rico, and no one will take this love from me '.

Not far from the Banana Horseman is the Capitol, a monumental white marble building with an imposing colonnade built in 1929 in the classic American capitol tradition. Today, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico sits here, and it is the only capitol in the US Overseas Territories. Inside, under the dome, there are frescoes depicting scenes from Puerto Rican history: the arrival of Columbus, the first meeting with the Taino Indians, the abolition of slavery, the Spanish-American War …

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

Across the square from the main staircase stretched an alley with nine bronze sculptures of US presidents who visited Puerto Rico on official visits – from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama. A young American couple is photographed hugging Obama. I can't help but ask, “How does it feel? Home, sweet home?” “Absolutely! – the girl smiles in response. – Puerto Rico – it's almost the USA!”

“Almost”  is the correct word. The status of Puerto Rico, even in its two official languages, sounds different: in English – Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico), in Spanish – Free Associated State of Puerto Rico< em>(Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico).

“Puerto Rico is not a state, but functions as a state,” says blogger Norbert Figueroa. “For example, at the Olympic Games and the Miss Universe contest, we compete on our own. We have nine Olympic medals and five victories in the field of beauty. At the same time, Puerto Ricans can have two citizenships, but, in fact, they will still be citizens of one country – the United States. This is such a political phenomenon.”

Indeed, the status of the island from the outside seems strange. Puerto Rico is not an American state, but all of its natives have been issued US passports since 1917. The island is protected by the American army, but locals do not have the right to vote in presidential elections and in the US Congress.

The American dream: how and how the flowering island of Puerto Rico lives

In 2006, certificates of Puerto Rican citizenship began to be issued here, since then it has been given by birth (including one of the parents). Puerto Ricans have the opportunity to study and work in the States, but do not pay income tax. The country has two official languages, but a US Census Bureau survey four years ago found that 94.3% of Puerto Rican adults spoke only Spanish at home. However, most of the locals are bilingual and joke that Puerto Rico's third language is “Spanglish”, a mixture of Spanish and English.

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Colonial Charm

Old San Juan is an amazing city. Real Latin America: bright, temperamental and elegant at the same time. It seems that the colonial mansions here were painted according to the principles of chromotherapy in the most life-affirming colors.

Unlike many Latin American capitals, San Juan flaunts carefully restored facades, and smooth, well-groomed asphalt lies on the roads, and this is clearly an American merit. Although the original gray-blue paving stones are still preserved on several central streets. She was brought from Europe as ballast on empty ships and left on the island to return back with a cargo of colonial treasures.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

The Sunday market is noisy on Columbus Square: in small elegant pavilions they sell all sorts of things, from fruits to beads. I go to  the counter with  frog figurines – brooches, earrings, magnets. “It's coca,” smiles the seller from under thick dreadlocks. “The tree frog, endemic to Puerto Rico. Our symbol. Take it, it's only five pesos.” “Pesos?” I ask with surprise, since the official currency of Puerto Rico is the US dollar. “Well I mean, five dollars! We sometimes call it dollars. Colonial habit!” the guy winks, deftly wrapping the frogs in paper with an image of an old map of the island.

Puerto Rico was discovered for Europeans by Christopher Columbus, but he stayed on the island for only a few days. The first Spanish settlement was founded here in 1508 by his associate, Lieutenant Juan Ponce de Leon. Some researchers claim that a third of current Puerto Ricans trace their ancestry from him.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

< p>The first city, however, was not San Juan, but Caparra, which was located next to modern Guaynabo. A year later, a more favorable place in terms of maritime geography was chosen for the capital, and in 1509 San Juan was laid. Today it is protected by UNESCO. Here is one of the oldest churches in the Americas, which is still operating today – the Church of St. Joseph. Its construction began in 1532.

Along the coastal perimeter, the Old Town is surrounded by fortifications that unite three ancient forts: San Felipe del Morro, San Cristobal and La Fortalesa. All of them are open to tourists, and Fortaleza, built in 1533-1540, also serves as the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. It is the oldest operating presidential residence in the Western Hemisphere.

San Felipe del Morro is the terminus of San Juan, crashing into the ocean. Local tour companies promise that a walk to it will “take you back 500 years”, and this is not just a cliché. The fortifications are made of yellow stone, partially blackened either from age or from humidity, and really look like they have not been touched since the time of Columbus. The San Juan Main Gate is also located here. A commemorative plaque next to it says that anyone can enter the city from the sea in the same way that distinguished guests have arrived since the 1500s.

American dream: how and how the blooming island of Puerto Rico lives

I return to the hotel along the Morro promenade, which runs along the sea behind the fortress wall exactly to the beginning of the Old Town. In the lilac twilight, the fortress and the bay look especially mysterious … Suddenly, a rumbling is heard from somewhere. I look at the stones near the water: it seems that they are moving. Almost everyone has a cat! The four-legged do not pay the slightest attention to “kit-kitty”: they continue to sit with an air of importance or chase each other.

As I later learned, this independent cat colony has been living near the walls of the fortress for decades and walks on its own, but since 2004 it has been looked after by the Save a Gato (“Save the Cat”) Foundation, created on donations. Very American. Anyone can apply to the fund and take a pet. Although, it seems, the “colonial” life of the local inhabitants is not at all depressing: who would refuse freemen on the ocean, and even with a boarding house?

From Spain to the USA

The Taíno, who settled on the island between the 7th and 11th centuries, named it Boriken. According to the most popular version, this word means “land of crabs”. In November 1493, Christopher Columbus landed on the island. He proclaimed the land a Spanish colony and named it in honor of John the Baptist San Juan. The capital built later was named Ciudad de Puerto Rico, but over time the names have changed places.

In 1809, the island received the status of an overseas province of Spain. In 1873, slavery was abolished here, and in 1897, as a result of an uprising, Puerto Rico achieved semi-autonomous local government. However, the island became an object of interest from the United States, and in 1898 the Spanish-American War broke out. Spain lost it, and in 1899, under the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States, and a year later received the status of an unincorporated territory of the United States.

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Tainos and bananas

“Carefree island life may have determined the tragic fate of the Taino who inhabited Borinquen before the arrival of the Spaniards,” says guide Alvin on the way to the archaeological park of Caguana in the municipality of Utuado. “Historians believe that compared to other Indian civilizations, the Taino were the least warlike, and therefore submitted to the conquerors without much resistance.

Alvin, a handsome young man with an exotic appearance of dark skin, almond-shaped eyes, and long dark hair, considers himself a descendant of the Taino. At the time of the arrival of Columbus, the population of this tribe in Puerto Rico was about 30,000 people. The Indians lived in small villages, which were headed by the chiefs – caciques, were engaged in hunting, fishing and gathering.

After two decades, more than 95% of the Taino died out. The rest, a little over 1000 in number, mixed with the Spaniards and the Africans brought to the island as slaves, and the word “cacique” acquired a figurative meaning – this is how influential local politicians began to be called in the Caribbean.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

The Taino, in addition to Puerto Rico, inhabited Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the north of the Lesser Antilles, but Caguana is the only surviving archaeological zone in the world associated with them. According to scholars, this place has been used by the Taino since the 1270s for various ceremonies: for areito dances that glorified the leaders, religious ceremonies, including the cohoba ritual, in which crushed hallucinogenic leaves of the eponymous tree were inhaled, and also for batu , playing rubber ball.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, the place was abandoned, and in 1915 it was discovered by American archaeologists. All this is told in a small museum.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

We wander with Alvin among dozens of stones carved with images of deities, people and animals. One of the petroglyphs looks like a cat's face. This alco is a small wild dog that lived on the island before the conquest and did not know how to bark. “You see, even the Taino dogs were not aggressive,” Alvin jokes with subtle annoyance.

Giant mahogany and ceibas rise above the stones. From their wood, the Indians built their houses. It is likely that some of these trees still found the last Taino, because the park was used until the arrival of the conquistadors, and the age of the ceiba may exceed 500 years. One of these centenarians is still growing in the city of Ponce.

Alvin is not alone in his national self-identification: his compatriots, more than the inhabitants of neighboring countries, associate themselves with the Taino. Studies show that the DNA of this people is contained in the blood of 15% of modern Puerto Ricans.

True, many locals still consider themselves the successors of the three cultures. As, for example, marketer Carlos Coriano: “We Puerto Ricans are a mix of Tainos, Spaniards and Africans. Our roots, our traditions come from these three cultures; they manifest themselves in language, cuisine, art, make us unique.”

From the hotel lobby comes another cheerful Ricky Martin song: “I have the soul of a white man, the habits of a black man, the dignity of an Indian. I am the race of a thousand colors.” And from a sprawling evergreen tree at the entrance, a loud accompaniment is heard: either a whistle or a chirp. I listen. “Do you think it's a bird?” – the concierge notices my interest, who went out to smoke. – No, that's how the tree frog sings. Do you hear? Ko-ki! Ko-ki! She is very small, hiding. You can see coca at best once in a lifetime, and we believe that this is a great success.

An appetizing aroma floats from the cafe. I order mofongo – unsweetened banana puree with olive oil, garlic and shrimp and banana chips for a snack. “We really love banana dishes,” says the waitress. “The local art museum has a whole room dedicated to bananas in Puerto Rican art.”

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

In the morning I go to see the exhibition. And I understand that in the 20th century, the banana has become a symbol of national identity, resistance to globalization and Americanization. Bananas and Gringomatica (Gringo, as Latin Americans contemptuously call the inhabitants of the United States), a painting by local artist Carlos Davila Rinaldi, depicts a man who is passed through a washing machine, wrung out and dried on a clothesline, like clothes. Caption in English: “Sir, for the last 100 years we've tried our best, but this damn banana stain never comes out!”

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The Burden of Choice

“Our island is the oldest colony in the world,” notes blogger Norbert Figueroa. “Over the past decades, we have held several referendums to decide whether to maintain our current status, become a US state or an independent state. Voting for the first two options is approximately equal. The only exception was the last referendum in 2017, in which 97% voted for joining the United States, however, with a low turnout (23%) and a boycott of supporters of independence (in a referendum held in November 2020, 52% voted for joining Puerto Rico to the United States participants. — Note by

As Norbert argues, their voices have been getting louder lately, and for several reasons: insufficient US assistance during Hurricane Maria in 2017, indifference to the status of Puerto Rico by Congress, the failure of a corrupt local government closely associated with by the current US administration.

“There are no advantages in colonial status,” Figueroa is convinced. cannot make independent decisions in politics and trade.”

Norbert went to study in New York many years ago and still lives there, but does not lose touch with his homeland. And he is not alone: ​​the Puerto Rican community in the United States has long exceeded the population of the island itself, most of it lives in New York. People travel from Puerto Rico to the United States for a prestigious education and career, but recently many have returned and emigrated more and more often to neighboring Florida: from there you can fly home at least every week and live in two countries.

The American dream: how and how the flourishing island of Puerto Rico lives

However, Americans moving to Puerto Rico permanently are also not uncommon. In 2012, a preferential tax regime was introduced for foreign investors, and American millionaires flooded the island. Paulina Salach from Brooklyn, an entrepreneur and popularizer of Puerto Rican gastronomy, has considered the island her home for 12 years (in 2020. Note by and knows it better than other locals.

“I love Puerto Rico and its people,” she admits. “They are so open, expressive, friendly, they appreciate family relationships. There is a Caribbean charm to their lifestyle.” Politics, according to Paulina, has divided Puerto Ricans into two camps, between which it is impossible to draw a demarcation line by any intelligible signs. Here, for example, are her friends: siblings, almost the same age, both lawyers, but one stands for joining the United States, and the other for independence.

The next referendum is scheduled for November 3 (2020.  — Note by, but Paulina doubts that he will change anything. Native Puerto Rican chef and entrepreneur Raul Correa agrees with her: “All these referendums are a waste of money. We cannot become part of the United States without their decision, even if we vote a hundred times. Of course, we argue among ourselves, but not to say that we don’t sleep at night because of this. Yes, the US controls us, but we can go to Harvard! And any change  is an unknown. Therefore people are afraid. We live as now, for many decades. We dance salsa and reggaeton, eat mofongo, drink rum. We have the best beaches in the world, full of tourists —isn’t it great?”

It's evening. A company of tipsy American teenagers is loudly discussing something in a bar: in Puerto Rico, alcohol is allowed from the age of 18, unlike in the USA, where only from the age of 21. Suddenly, their laughter is drowned out by the sounds of drums and brass – a street band appears. I look closely at the musicians: they are still children, the eldest is 14 years old, the youngest is seven years old, and, apparently, the boy just cried. Sniffing his nose, he blows into the pipe, the others instantly pick up. And the fervent Caribbean march rumbles throughout Condado.

And for some reason I don’t want to think about politics anymore.

The American dream: how and how the blooming island of Puerto Rico lives

Puerto Rico

Area 9104 km² (162nd in the world)
Population ~ 3,286,000 people (134th place)
Population density 351 people/km²

ATTRACTIONSOld San Juan, Puerto Rico Museum of Art, Caguana Archaeological Area, Laguna Grande and Puerto Mosquito Luminescent Coves, Rio Camuy Cave Park.
TRADITIONAL DISHES mofongo (mashed bananas), pernil (pork shoulder fried over an open fire), pasteles (banana dough dumplings stuffed with meat or fish), tembleke (coconut pudding).
TRADITIONAL DRINKS rum, coffee, pina colada, passion fruit juice.
SOUVENIRScoca frog figurines, coconut shell vegigante masks, cigars.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to San Juan 9150 km (from 15, 5 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIME behind Moscow by 7 hours


The material was published in the magazine “Around the World” No. 8, October 2020, partially updated in November 2022

Maria Zhelikhovskaya

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