As tourists stroll around Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, many recognize that they’re visiting a centuries-old historic city, but few are aware how much of that history lies beneath their feet. Even locals forget the past buried under San Juan’s streets — that is, until some new construction project unearths another chapter from the past.
Last month, while working on the Paseo Puerta de Tierra development in the San Juan neighborhood by the same name, workers unearthed a structure that archaeologists believe was part of a defensive system dating to the late colonial period, around the 18th or 19th century.
Speaking to journalist Cristina del Mar Quiles for local newspaper El Nuevo Día, archaeologist Juan Miguel Rivera Groennou explained that “around the middle of the 19th century, they started building a series of military structures, residences of officials, [and] soldiers’ barracks, all intended to maintain [the defensive system]. According to plans, they would have been in this area…. In fact, in aerial photos from 1938, there’s a series of buildings here. We think this could be one of them.”
There is also evidence — though not uncovered during the current construction project — of relics of an indigenous community in this same place, a community that pre-dates the Taínos, the most recognized (and, for many years, believed to be the only) indigenous group from Puerto Rico.
Del Mar Quiles went on to report that early 20th-century developers were definitely aware of the existence of these historic structures, “but it seems that they didn’t give them much importance,” since they went ahead and built sewage systems over and around them beginning in the 1930s.
Groennou acknowledged that the philosophy and practice of preservation has “transformed” over the course of history in Puerto Rico. This is the case everywhere, of course, but in Puerto Rico, an island that is just 100 miles by 35 miles in size, the threats to cultural patrimony that are posed by accelerated development are perhaps more acute and, at the very least, are seen in far more dramatic relief.
Such changes in attitude have been visible even during the past decade, as both government and private entities’ postures toward preservation have shifted. In 2005, while working on a utilities infrastructure project in Old San Juan, a stairway was discovered under the street in front of Carlos Albizu University. Though it was believed to be only about 80 years old, government officials decided to reroute traffic and make the street pedestrian-only. They turned the site into a public plaza, recalling a plaza that had been in the space a century earlier.
Officials even inaugurated the site with the same name: La Barandilla, a plaza that, in its earlier incarnation, had been a gathering place for political figures, artists and journalists, as well as fruit and vegetable vendors. It originally went out of commission, so to speak, in 1924.
When it was reinaugurated in 2012, the mayor at the time, Jorge Santini, was quoted by local press as saying, “The idea is to reclaim a lost space and return it [to the people] in its best condition.”
It is unlikely the current project in Puerta de Tierra will enjoy the same type of preservationist reclamation. Officials have said that while they are continuing to study the site, the discovery of the defensive structure will not detain the Paseo construction project.