The Many Flavors of Puerto Rico
There may be no better way to understand a region’s history than through its food. My visit to San Juan reveals a penchant for anything fried and nary a vegetable in sight - truly, comfort food for a people that spent 400 years under Spanish rule and withstood takeover attempts by the Dutch, French and British before we finally got there. I say what better way to soothe political oppression than with a bacalaito and fresh coconut milk?
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been under the United States’ watchful eye since 1898, when Spain ceded the archipelago as a result of the Spanish-American War. Since Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, the lines have continued to blur.
According to the New York City Department of City Planning, there are more Puerto Ricans living in New York City than any other city in the world - including San Juan, the island’s capital. It’s that blend of Uncle Sam and salsa that gave my recent experience in San Juan a feeling very much American while also retaining a rich past through a handful of historical sites, crispy bites of this and that, and more than my fair share of tropical rum-based drinks.
Three Flags Fly Over Castillo San Cristóbal
Castillo San Cristóbal offers insight into the historical value of Puerto Rico and why the island was a hotbed of conflict for so many centuries. European ships would sail along the coast of Africa and follow the winds that led to Puerto Rico, the "front door" to the Caribbean and a strategic gateway to the Americas.
Spain built the fortification to protect its discovery. The surviving structure is still a marvel, even by modern standards. Surrounded by the ocean, the fort relied on masonry cylinders and cisterns to collect upwards of 870,000 gallons of rainwater. A complex tunnel system included countermining galleries that were stoked with explosives ready to detonate if intruders entered. The U.S. later added a decontamination chamber in 1942 to treat soldiers in case of an attack with chemical weapons.
San Cristóbal still flies three flags above the fort: the Burgundy Cross (which was the Spanish military flag during the 16th century), as well as the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags. This convergence of past and present is a theme that runs throughout my island exploration. The strong influence of American culture and conveniences sometime mesh and at other times clash with the simple and beautiful Puerto Rican lifestyle.
After spending a couple of hours wandering around the fortress, I head into Old San Juan for my first real taste of Puerto Rico. Even though the city plays host to a revolving door of giant cruise ships, and wandering the streets reveals the typical T-shirt and souvenir shops that you’d expect to see at any tourist destination, it manages to retain much of its heritage and charm. High-end boutiques such as Ferragamo and Gucci appear like pop-up stores amid the tchotchkes.
But what I’m seeking won’t be coming home with me on the plane.