A General View Of Puerto Rico
( Originally Published 1904 )
BEFORE we land on Puerto Rico, suppose we take a bird's-eye view of the island. Let us imagine our-selves in a balloon high above it. It lies on the sea, an almost rectangular mass of rolling blue hills, with clouds resting on them, and a light green fringe of low-lands bordering the coast. The land rises in the center, a mountain ridge running through it from west to east, branching out into two spurs not far from the middle, so that the ridge has the shape of a pitchfork with a short handle and two long tines. There, near where the tines come together, is El Yunque or The Anvil. That mountain is thirty-six hundred feet above the sea, and it is the highest point in Puerto Rico.
How rugged the hills are ! They slope up in places like walls, making valleys shaped like capital V's, with mountain streams running through them. Descending, we observe that everything is covered with green; the dark shades on the mountains are fields of coffee, tobacco, and bananas, and the pale green of the low coastal plains is the sugar plantations.
Puerto Rico looks large to us from our balloon. It is not so in comparison with many of our states. You could put ten = such islands into Indiana, and it would take two of them to cover New Jersey. Its average width is only a little greater than the distance from Washington to Baltimore, and its length not much more than from Baltimore to Philadelphia. If Puerto Rico were level, we could walk from one end of it to the other in three days, and we could cross it in one.
How thickly the island is settled! We can see houses everywhere through our field glasses. There are villages along the coast and in the valleys, and huts shine out of the trees on the tops of the mountains. There are but few large cities. The most important ports are San Juan, the capital, on the north coast, and Mayaguez and Ponce on the west and south, both thriving commercial centers. Smaller places are Arecibo and Aguadilla, situated on the north and west coast, and Guayama and Humacao (oo-ma.-ka'o) on the south and east. The island of Puerto Rico contains a large population. It has more than a million people. It is more thickly settled than any of the West Indies except Barbados, and than any of our states except Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
But let us come down to earth and take a walk through San Juan. We are on the streets of our Puerto Rican capital. How unlike our cities at home ! The town is situated on a little island not far from the middle of the north coast and connected with it by bridges. There is a huge wall about the older part of the city and a castle on a hill at one corner, guarding the harbor. There are other large houses, here and there, which belonged to Spain, but are now used by Uncle Sam's officers ; and the rest of the buildings are two and three storied structures, packed close together along narrow streets which cut each other at right angles, with a plaza or square in the center.
The buildings are of brick, covered with stucco painted in the brightest of colors — sky blue, rose pink, brown, red, and yellow. The roofs are of red tiles. There is but little window glass, the window openings being covered by heavy green shutters, which by day are thrown back so that you can see all that goes on within. Here a woman is combing her hair ; there one is washing ; across the street a girl is sewing on a hand sewing machine which rests on her lap, while about her feet two little brown babies are rolling. Many of the houses have balconies extending out over the sidewalk, and in the evening these form the sitting place of the family.
On some streets the ground floors are given up to small stores, which look more like caves than like our mercantile establishments. There are, however, other rooms farther back, the goods on the shelves being merely samples of those kept in the rear. The business signs are Spanish, and the names upon them give no indication of their owners nor of the goods sold within. Here, for in-stance, is a dry goods store with the words " La Perla," or " The Pearl," above it. Next door is one selling hardware, labeled the " Golden Rooster," while down that side street is a shop called " La Nina," or " The Girl," that sells gentle-man's furnishing goods.
What a strange crowd ! The streets swarm with people, most of them the descendants of Spaniards who settled the island long ago. We see many mulattoes, and now and then a negro. There are also people from the United States, and some Spaniards. The most of the natives dress in light clothing. The men wear straw hats and white linen suits, and the women light dresses. The poor are barefooted, and many of the women bareheaded.
How noisy it is ! From the second-story windows come the drum of the piano and the twang of the guitar. Hucksters are crying their wares. Goats run in and out of the houses, carriages drawn by ponies dash by, and the scenes are as busy as any we have witnessed since we left home.
We make our way on to the market, passing peddlers of every description. Here is one selling chickens. He has three dozen fowls tied together by their legs and slung on each side his shoulder, and he calls out the prices in Spanish. The chickens squawk as he goes. Behind him is a man with bundles of palm bark under his arms. There are feathers sticking out of the bundles, and, as he turns around, we see that each contains a live turkey laid flat, and thus tied up for sale. Farther on are men selling eggs, and, farther still, ice peddlers and candy peddlers, and a boy carrying a great basket of bread on his head.
The chief market is held inside a court. It has vegetables and tropical fruits, as well as meats and fish of all kinds. One section is devoted to dried beef, which the natives stew and eat with their rice. Another article sold is salt cod, which is used all over the country.
Leaving the market, we pay a visit to some of our Puerto Rican cousins in their homes. We have brought letters of introduction, and are heartily welcomed. Our friends are well to do, and we find that they live quite as comfortably as we do in America. They dwell on the second floor of the houses, the ground floor being given up to the servants and stables. We often pass by horses and carriages as we go up the wide stairs to the living apartments.
The rooms above are large and airy; they have great windows opening out upon galleries or balconies, where one can sit in the cool of the evening. Our friends are fond of music, and we hear pianos and organs in almost every home.
Later on we see something of the poorer people, finding many living in one or two rooms. Some families have but one bed, and the children sleep of the floor. Puerto Rico was terribly oppressed before the United States took possession of it, and the lower classes, although they are now much better off, are still poor. There are many beggars on the island, and in the cities there is one day of the week when beggars are permitted to go about asking alms. This is usually Saturday. Then every merchant and business man expects such a call, and pre-pares a pile of cents for them. The beggars call one by one. Each is supposed to take one cent and no more, and to go away blessing the giver.
Before leaving San Juan we call at the palace to see the governor, and then visit the legislature. Puerto Rico is now ruled by a governor and an executive council, appointed for a term of four years by the President of the United States, and a House of thirty-five delegates. It has also a resident commissioner to the United States who has a seat in our Congress. The delegates and the commissioner are elected every two years by the people. Local laws are made by the council and the delegates.
Puerto Rico has greatly improved since it became an American colony. There are schools everywhere, and all the school children learn English. The island has rail-roads and fine wagon roads, and it is rapidly growing in civilization and wealth.