Ponce de Leon Apologizes for Chris’s Rash Behavior and Treats for Peace

I’m sure everybody remembers Ponce de Leon. He’s the guy who, also according to my high school history book, spent much of his life searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. At one time he thought he’d found it in Florida but that turned out to be a mistake. All he’d found was the splintered remains of a redwood hot tub belonging to an elderly Jewish lady from the Bronx who’d had a facelift.

Ponce came across the pond from Spain in 1493 with Chris on Columbus’s second voyage. After he’d made his bones as a top-notch military honcho on the Island of Hispaniola, Ponce was named first governor of Puerto Rico in 1509. He entered into a peace treaty with the roughly 40,000 members of the Taino tribe to end the bickering that had ensued upon Chris’s discovery that his lovely fort, built from the poop deck of the Santa Maria, had been burned and his soldiers reduced to compost. Not that the peaceful Tainos were entirely to blame. They had fallen under the ill-advised influence of the warlike Caribs and had foolishly decided to drive the invaders from their island paradise.

Which turned out to be of no avail in any case. By 1515 their numbers had dwindled to 4,000 and they were all but wiped out by 1544. Some say the tragic disappearance of the Tainos from the face of the planet was accelerated by their exposure to disease the Spaniards brought from the Old World; some say war worked its magic on the indigenous populace; while still others say mistreatment of the enslaved was the real culprit. But I think everyone can agree on one thing. It was a classic case of Genocide.

Not to worry. Their places were soon taken by settlers from Spain who’d heard about the flakes of pure gold that sullied the trickling waters of the lovely island. Although even today the DNA of the typical Puerto Rican contains vestiges of their Taino ancestors. Which kind of implies that there was a certain amount of “mingling” going on. Proponents of Racial Purity need to watch out for that rascally mingling. It messes with their Ubermensch worldview.

Chris Columbus Single-Handedly Conquers the Taino Indians (Not)

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.

A compass also helped him know
How to find the way to go.

From a poem by Jean Marzollo

At least that’s the way I learned it. I also learned in high school that Columbus discovered America by accident while he was seeking a new trade route to the Orient. He made landfall on a sparsely populated island in the Caribbean. He thought he’d made it all the way to India, so he called the indigenous population Indians. He claimed the land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, even though Chris was an Italian wool worker from Genoa and his brother, Bart, lived in Portugal and made maps. This mish mash of misinformation all made perfect sense at the time.

In my high school history book nobody made reference to the Taino people, a tribe of Arawak-speaking Indians, who lived in a flourishing civilization in the Island chain we now call the Greater Antilles. Nobody explained that the Taino people were a peaceful lot who didn’t give a fig about Spain or Ferdie or Bella. The erudite authors who penned the history tome portrayed Chris, a pale-faced European, as the good guy who dragged these primitive, brown savages kicking and screaming into the sixteenth century, healed their wounds and liberated their spirits, taught them about Jesus and saved their souls. Here’s what really happened.

Chris set out for the Orient from the port of Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492. Ten weeks later his crew spotted land. “Whoa! If it only takes ten weeks to get to the Orient by ship, we can make a fortune,” thought Chris. Chris had been promised ten percent of everything he brought back.

In those days, travel by caravan between the Orient and Europe was fraught with problems. For one thing, it took a good two years to get to or from the Orient. Some of the way by boat, some of the way on foot and the rest of the way by camel. Henry Ford hadn’t invented trucks back then. For another, the Mongols controlled the Silk Road. The Mongols were not a likeable lot.

Venetians and Genoese managed most of the European trade with China during the fifteenth century which is probably how Chris got the neat idea of approaching Ferdie and Bella with a plan to map out a maritime trade route to the East by heading West. Problem was he got short stopped in Santo Domingo.

Long story short, Chris landed October 12, 1492, on an island in the Bahamas and claimed the Bahamas for Spain. Then he sailed over to Cuba and claimed Cuba for Spain. Then he sailed over to the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola and claimed the whole island for Spain. Then the Santa Maria sank. He took the wood from the sunken Santa Maria and built a fort. Once you claim a land for Spain you got to put up a fort to keep it claimed. His fellow sailors brought a gift of their own to the Caribbean islands in the form of disease which decimated the population. Chris sailed back to Spain. Hail the conquering hero! When he came back on his second voyage, he found the fort burned and his men killed. Maybe them Tainos weren’t so peaceable after all. Chris was pissed. And so it goes.

Puerto Rico at the time was populated by Caribs (fierce cannibals) and Tainos (perhaps-peaceable vegans). Chris landed there in 1493 and claimed the land (surprise!) for Spain. He named the island San Juan Bautista which was later shortened to San Juan. Then they found gold in the rivers and the name of the island got changed to Puerto Rico (rich port). The more things change etc.

Coquis, Mofongo and The Magical Rainforest

On a crystal-clear day, from a vantage point 35,000 feet up in the air, the island of Puerto Rico resembles a rectangle measuring approximately one hundred miles long from east to west by thirty-five miles wide from north to south. That’s three times the size of Rhode Island and half as big as New Jersey. The island itself is the smallest and most eastern island in the Greater Antilles chain. The Greater Antilles chain is comprised of the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. So much for your Monday morning geography lesson. Pop quiz Friday.

Three and a half million people live in Puerto Rico. Another three and a half million Puerto Ricans live on the Mainland, a third of them in the State of New York. Puerto Rico is a United States Commonwealth and Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Well, kinda sorta citizens. Puerto Ricans also hold Puerto Rican citizenship and are recognized by Spain as Puerto Rican (not American!) citizens with rights and privileges not granted to their Greater Antilles neighbors. In fact, any person of Puerto Rican descent who can boast at least one parent born in Puerto Rico is granted Puerto Rican citizenship. Like many of their fellow Americans, Puerto Ricans speak Spanish. Get over it.

Puerto Rico is home to the coqui, a small, frog-like amphibian who dwells happily on the island, snoozing during the day and chirping all night. Thirteen species of coqui dwell in El Yunque, the Puerto Rican rainforest, more of which later. The chirps are used by the male coqui to attract the female of the species. Coquis hatch fully formed, bypassing the tadpole stage present in most amphibians. Everybody in Puerto Rico loves the coqui with the possible exception of one old curmudgeon from Hato Rey whose conjugal bliss was periodically interrupted by the incessant chirping of a tumescent coqui who dwelt outside his bedroom window. To exact a measure of revenge the competitive curmudgeon taught himself to chirp merrily through his nasal passages during slumber. He was wildly successful to the extent that he was discovered one morning, up to his armpits in a thousand mate-seeking coqui females who’d dropped by to engage in a frenzy of the old Eleutherodactylus version of slap and tickle and accidentally suffocated the poor geezer in his sleep. Coquis up his nose, coquis in his ears, coquis in his pajama bottoms, coquis everywhere! Talk about looking for love in all the wrong places. But I digress.

Mofongo is a Puerto Rican delicacy. The designation “delicacy” is determined in large part by the palate of the taster. For example, in Singapore monkey brains are said to be a delicacy. Mofongo con Caldo consists of boiled then mashed plantain seasoned with garlic and served in chicken broth. A bit heavy for breakfast but certainly a filling lunch. Delicate? Not so much.

And finally, there is the arboreal jewel in the Puerto Rican crown. El Yunque. The rainforest. One of only four rainforests in the entire United States plus its attendant Commonwealths and Territories. And the only “tropical” rainforest. The other three are “temperate” rainforests. By definition, a rainforest receives over seventy-five inches of rain per year. That’s a lot of water.

El Yunque is filled with all manner of tropical flora. Great leafy tree ferns, majestic tabonuco trees, palm trees swaying in the breeze. There’s even an evergreen tree that grows up to sixty feet in height with a trunk diameter of 3.5 inches, Ternstroemia luquillensis, of which there are only six known specimens on the entire planet, all of which are in El Yunque. The ground beneath the canopy of foliage is dense with moss and shrubs.

The idyllic hush of El Yunque may be unsettling, especially to the visiting city-dweller who has grown accustomed to the roar of automobiles and the brazen mendacity of uber-aggressive commercials on television, not to mention the pervasive pinging of smart phones in theaters and restaurants everywhere. Relax. After a while you may find it rather pleasant.

Historical Veracity and Other Oxymorons

The narrative of history is seldom balanced and factual. It isn’t history’s fault. Unfortunately, history has a nasty habit of changing depending on who’s telling the story. History, it’s been said, is written by the winners. If a nation or tribe is engaged in a battle and the battle ends badly, in the retelling of the battle the heroic efforts of the victors may overshadow the heroic efforts of the losers. That’s plain old human nature.

Then again there’s the problem of memory. If the battle in question was waged yesterday, it’s easier for the story teller to recall the details than if it took place a hundred years back. And there’s the problem of context. If the narrator was conscious during the first half of the battle but was out cold for the second half, he or she won’t have much to say about the big finish.

And finally, there’s the problem of embellishment. Sometimes a story teller just can’t help spicing up the story. Often a well-told tale is better received than a boring recitation of facts. Well, to be perfectly honest, some story tellers are natural born liars. Let’s take a case in point.

Christopher Columbus discovered the new world in 1492. He had three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He sailed under the flag of Spain (even though he was Italian by birth) and claimed the lands he visited in the name of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. His voyage was intended to map out a new route to Asia from Europe in order to expedite trade. And he called the natives “Indians” because he thought he’d sailed all the way to India, and the name stuck. This much we know from history.

Had the Taino people written the narrative they might’ve put a somewhat different spin on the event. They might’ve described a peaceful people living in a flourishing culture in the Caribbean who were one day accosted by a mob of matchlock-toting hooligans. These brash strangers from abroad, speaking a strange language, violated the sanctity of their bucolic paradise and forced them to surrender their pagan beliefs in favor of strict adherence to a code of conduct they neither understood nor embraced. Alas, the Taino people had no written language and their own Arawakan tongue was destined to die out after a hundred years.

In conclusion, don’t believe everything you read. And believe only half of what you’re told. Unless the person telling the story is holding a matchlock to your head. Then go ahead and believe whatever gets you through the night. Or through the ensuing millennium. Cheers!

Contributing Photos to the Website

The success of this website in raising Mainland awareness of the difficulties that remain in restoring La Isla Del Encanto to its pre-Hurricane Maria glory depends on the dedication and participation of our members. The handful of photos we’ve added to our gallery so far show the destructive impact of Hurricane Maria and the process of Puerto Rican recovery in six different geographical regions. In order for visitors to have a better understanding of how much work remains to be done, it’s important that our members upload, describe and categorize photos of their own.

You must be a registered member to contribute photos to the website. That way we know where the photos came from and, more importantly, if some devious miscreant attempts to anonymously upload lascivious material to the gallery we can better manage the situation. Registering as a member is quick and easy and it doesn’t cost a thing. Go to the Register/Log In tab on the main menu and register. All you really need is your name (a nickname will do) and your email address. Your email address becomes your User ID for the session. Put in your password for future visits and you’re all set.

Once you’ve registered you’re eligible to visit the Member Pages. While you’re there you can update your member profile to include a mailing address for any books you’re eligible to receive (for free!) based on contributions you’ve made to this effort. If you have one or more photos to contribute there’s a tab for that as well. For this you’ll need one or more photographs in .jpg or .jpeg format each of which is smaller than 512KB in size.

Click on the button labeled Upload Pictures. Type in the geographic location of the picture (i.e., San Juan, Hato Rey, Utuado, etc.). Choose a region where the picture was taken. We’ve identified six regions through which Hurricane Maria passed (Fajardo, San Juan and Carolina, El Yunque, Interior, Southeast, Northwest plus Other and All Regions). Pick the region that’s the closest match. Describe the photo in Spanish and English. If you’re good in Spanish and not so good in English or vice versa there are a number of translation apps on the web that do quite a nice job. Choose the location of the photo. Upload the Picture. It’s that simple.

I promise the next blog will be less informative and more entertaining. Now go upload some pics. Cheers!