Puerto Rico has its troubles, but I like the place.
Below the fold is the text of H.R. 2499, which just made it out of the House. I am not strongly opposed, but I do not think it is a good idea.
I’m all for ethnic solidarity and all that, but Senator Jeff Sessions is taking it to a whole ‘nother level at the Sotomayor hearings.
Anyway, interesting as the linked story is, I just wanted to post a picture of me in this shirt, which I wore to the World Baseball Classic games in Mexico City. (The picture above is at my favorite bistro in the D.F.) I will not be wearing it to the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier in Azteca Stadium on August 12th. In fact, while I will be rooting for the U.S. team, I also want to live, and so will dress in green and red.
Patrick, Mike, Carlos, what think you? Am I wimping out?
The story of the Finnish Guard has been fascinating. And it has one excellent modern parallel. In the South End of Boston, in a formerly Puerto Rican area (now filled with native-born Americans pushing baby carriages) you can find the following monument:
Monument to the memory of the 65th Infantry of Puerto Rico
They said to us, “We will have peace even though we have to fight for it,” and so we fought in the mountains of Heartbreak Ridge and marched from Inchon. We froze in the winter and broiled in the summer. There were moments when we were completely outnumbered but we kept fighting and many of us gave our lives for liberty, justice, and peace.
The 65th Infantry Regiment played a key role in the most heroic episodes ever seen, showing the courage, valiance, and heart of the Puerto Rican soldier in the person of Ángel Luis García Ledesma, the most decorated Puerto Rican soldier in history. This brave fighter sacrificed his life to cover an enemy grenade with his body, absorbing all its explosive power, thereby saving his compatriots. For this heroic deed, he was decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart, and monuments have been erected in memory of this transcendental moment of contemporary history. Today we honor with pride the 65th Infantry Regiment, an example of valor and determination in defense of liberty.
What words aren’t in the monument?
It's always a great thing when you see the next generation give props to the older one ... and out-do them in the process. I therefore present to you, direct from the island of Puerto Rico, the World's Greatest Video:
And here, for completeness sake, not-so-straight outta Brooklyn by way of Los Angeles, I present the Former World's Greatest Video:
This interlude brought to you by K Mal Goosto, the vidja king. Enjoy!
Yes, there are still two more posts in the Trinidadian series. (Any guesses as to what they'll be titled?) But right now let's take a step back to Puerto Rico. In September 23, 2005, the FBI shot Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in a house outside the town of Hormigueros. Ojeda was a leader of the independence movement; he was also wanted for a 1983 bank robbery in Connecticut. In point of fact, he'd been caught for that heist, but his lawyers managed to tie the courts up in knots and keep his case from coming to trial for seven years, at which point they got him released on bail. Ojeda cut off the monitoring bracelet and skipped town. From hiding, he claimed responsibility for a 1998 bomb blast outside a branch of the Banco Popular, but many observers think he was just fronting --- the blast (which didn't hurt anyone) was most likely set off by angry workers protesting the phone privatization deal I alluded to in ¡Acuérdese del Álamo!
Anyway, witnesses reported that the FBI fired first, and the coroner's reports indicated that Ojeda bled to death over several hours. This did not make people happy. Better yet, the FBI managed to pick the very same day in 1868 that a group of independentistas launched a failed rebellion against Spain with the Grito de Lares.
One result was this video. You can see Puerto Rican independence flags with the ugly sky-blue canton and the flag of the 1868 rebels. It's also got flow, and if you speak Spanish you can tell that these guys are the greatest thing to hit hip-hop since Eminem. Hell, since the Fu-Schnickens. Enjoy.
If you stroll out of the old city, the boulevards broaden and you’ll pass the impressive white dome of the Capitolio and its associated government buildings. There’s a memorial to World War 1 veterans right to the south, where you can see Puerto Rican status debate in living color. Quite literally.
The Capitolio flies the flag that’s been official since 1995, whereas the monument flies the flag that was official between 1952 and ’95.
Between 1952 and 1995, the canton on the Puerto Rican flag was the same navy-blue as the American flag. Independence supporters, however, flew a flag with a lighter blue canton designed by Antonio Vélez Alvarado in 1892 at his apartment at 219 West 23rd Street. That flag reversed the colors of the Cuban rebel flag.
In 1995, the pro-statehood governor, Pedro Roselló, played an act of political jiu jitsu when he made the Vélez flag official. Now anyone who flew the U.S.-blue flag was indicating that they favored statehood, while flying the Cuban-blue flag lost political significance. Some nationalists started to fly flags with an even-lighter blue canton reminiscent of Ferdinand Marcos’s Philippine flag redesign. That hasn’t exactly proved to be popular: I've seen exactly one, in Bayamón, and I’m still not sure if it wasn’t an official flag that had simply been left out in the sun too long.
None of it means that Puerto Rico is any closer to statehood. Unless Congress forces the issue, I doubt that Puerto Rico will ever become a fully United state, even if it loses every single special benefit that its Freely Associated status bequeaths.
More beneath the fold.
For a person of my tastes, the photograph below is best appreciated to Mötley Crüe. In a pinch, Steppenwolf works. And when feeling less Jurassic, most pop-punk will suffice, as will Kid Rock's "Son of Detroit" or anything from the Donnas’ first album.
So, roads. In a blatant attempt to whomp up comments, I’ll start by quoting Jonathan Edelstein:
[Super]highways have come to Puerto Rico in the past generation, and the main intercity routes are well maintained, but once you get off the autopistas, things get wiggy in a hurry. The two-lane roads that aren't quite wide enough for two cars, and the signs in all the wrong places and none of the right ones, are the least of it. Roads in Puerto Rico have a way of suddenly ceasing to exist or being closed without a warning or detour sign, and changing their names without apparent reason.
The city streets are even worse, with many of them built before automobile traffic and the shortage of off-street parking (even the hotels have postage-stamp lots) choking things off even further. The method of choice to control urban traffic - one-way streets - has been implemented without a great deal of rhyme or reason, giving urban driving a distinct similarity to a maze from the rat's point of view.
These were his first impressions. Do they match mine?
The rural roads, yes; the urban streets, no.
Rural roads first: they can get ridiculously narrow, just as Jonathan says. Sometimes these tiny roads run through densely-populated exurbs, which can make for some amusing situations. Now, not all the roads are like that. In fact, most are not. But plenty are, and that's not something you'll see much of in the continental United States.
The signage isn’t particularly good, although it's not particularly bad either. I only had trouble at that Route 10 detour that I mentioned in the last post. I, however, have two advantages. First, I’m accustomed to (if not quite skilled at) driving in signage-deficient situations. Second, Amma is a truly excellent navigator. In addition, you can easily buy superlative road maps in Puerto Rico (or download them into a GPS system), which is not true for many other places.
I didn’t think the roads were that badly maintained. We drove around the island quite a bit—not hard to do, since the entire place is only about 2½ times the size of Long Island—and there aren’t many potholes you could use to shelter a small family.
That said, "good maintenance" is a relative concept, and I have very low standards. I’ve driven in Trinidad, where the roads are worse. I’ve also driven in Chiapas, where they are much worse—and often unpaved. In fact, I’ve driven in Afghanistan, parts of which take "worse" to a whole 'nother level: imagine driving an armored pickup truck to the Pakistani border along a "road" consisting of the rutted tracks of the jingle trucks that preceeded you.
My experience of the urban roads, however, is the diametric opposite of Jonathan's. I thought that they were as good as New York and better than Boston.
My guess is that Jonathan was talking about Old San Juan, not the rest of the city. The thing is, Old San Juan is small. You can walk across it in ten minutes: by the time you hit Puerta de Tierra, the streets are as broad and modern as any American metropolis.
The lesson, I suppose, is this: when travelling to cities in the Western Hemisphere, you’ve got to visit to the suburbs.
I have a request for our readers: Any good road stories from outside your home country?
So is driving off-the-interstate in rural Puerto Rico. At least for the driver. Passenger, not so much. Amma got carsick, which is not surprising considering the combination of the winding road and my driving. I’m not a very good driver.
I’ve wrecked two cars, one just recently. In addition, Carlos has ridden with me across Mexico. So we have evidence and witnesses to keep me from fronting on the Mario Andretti tip.
As a result, we detoured to the far straighter Route 10. Unfortunately, Route 10 isn’t quite done yet, so we had to get back on 123 for a while at a jury-rigged intersection near a strip mall. I missed the sign the first time around, but it was blindingly obvious on the second pass.
The cool thing was passing under the viaducts that will eventually turn Route 10 into an interstate-quality road. Sadly, we couldn’t get pictures, but I’ll give you Amma’s reaction: "A wonder that human beings can build such things!"
That was the beginning, but not the end, of our off-the-Interstate adventures around Puerto Rico. I won’t go into all the details. There are only a few highlights, anyway. Roadside diners in Puerto Rico—they’re not diners, really, much smaller and usually open air—are great places to meet people, all of whom seem to have spent time in Brooklyn; the cows in the central cordillera are very well fed and very hostile; Arecibo is something every American should see before they die; and I drive like a chilango when I’m on the island.
Puerto Ricans don’t like the way chilangos drive. Being polite and patient people themselves, at least on the road, they don’t appreciate illegal left turns or the way I barging ahead to change lanes in stop-and-go traffic, and they don’t understand using your blinker to pass.
Truth be told, I don’t like the way chilangos drive either. I wish I knew what’s triggering my Mexico City driving instincts, because Puerto Rico doesn’t look like Mexico; Puerto Ricans don’t sound, act, or drive like Mexicans; and we’re not, you know, in Mexico.
I’ve heard other Americans claim that Puerto Ricans are risk-taking, rude, and aggressive on the road. I live in Boston, so my reaction to those claims is an unprintable two-syllable word beginning with the letter "p." It's simply not true.
Maybe it's living in Boston what's the problem.
We ended our road tripping in Carolina, a very nice suburb of San Juan. To be fair, Carolina is a big place and it’s got some not-particularly-pleasant caseríos, but what’s not to like about hanging at the beach in Isla Verde?
An African-American couple was getting married on the sand right in front of the hotel when we arrived. It was a pleasant little ceremony; very few people, very good music.
Amma enjoyed watching it, too, but she turned to me as I munched on (bad) ceviche and sipped a girlie drink of some sort, and said, "The preacher is wearing a maroon shirt [under a cream-colored suit] and a big gold chain."
And I'd been thinking that I kinda liked the idea of having the preacher wear that same outfit at our wedding. Note to self: thank God at least one of you has taste.
Just outside Ponce you can see a Cemex plant, one of the largest in Latin America. Cemex, in a scheme to destroy one of rural Puerto Rico’s most unique roadside features, is trying to get permission to burn used tires for power. The locals, as you can imagine, aren’t thrilled with the idea. After all, the law mandates recycling tires—not burning them.
In fact, it gets worse. Not only have Mexicans taken over cement manufacturing and intend to steal the island’s valuable abandoned tires, they’re planning on taking over the phone company. The phone company! Privatized and sold to Verizon (then GTE) in 1998 under the Roselló administration, the company has patriotically failed to upgrade its DSL lines—or even install them—and has managed the all-American miracle of getting fixed-line penetration to decline from 74 to 61 percent. All that and higher rates too!
Now Verizon has sold the phone company to América Móvil, a Mexican operation. The "América" is fooling nobody. These are the same people who run Teléfonos de México—are you going to trust Carlos Slim to burn your tires and run your telecoms? Not in Puerto Rico you’re not! The business press is all over this Mexican malfeasance, this evil imperialism, this southern menace. (Actually, I think it’s more like a western menace, since Puerto Rico is at about the same latitude as Cuernavaca, but close enough.)
Where’s Lou Dobbs? The local press could teach him a thing or three, rhetorically-speaking. Or, well, it could, if Lou Dobbs spoke Spanish.
We headed south from Ponce's central square—not helpful. Dullness, and then burbs. Might as well be in the crummier parts of northern California, except for the emancipation monument, the plaque commemorating the Ponce Massacre of 1937, and the Masonic temple.
Heading east was worse. Dullness, then run-down burbs. (Albeit clean! This city is incredibly clean. Have I mentioned how clean it is?) A convenience store attached to a gas station—dimly visible in the left of the below photograph—was manned by bored female teenagers who doled out gum and Gatorade from behind thick metal bars. The good thing was that the charming old façades hadn’t all been bulldozed, giving some parts of the near east side of downtown a friendly postapocalyptic charm.
But we also headed northeast in search of the Cross of El Vigía, a dramatic giant cross on a hill overlooking the city. And so we wound up in the neighborhood of El Vigía. And there we found a place that made the entire trip worthwhile.
More below the fold.
Well, it's time see Puerto Rico outside the San Juan metropolitan area.
"All else is parking," is what people from Ponce say about the rest of the island. I call bullshit. "Pearl of the South" works, if La Perla is your point of comparison. Ponce is a life-sucking town. All good humor sucked into a miasmatic sink of sadness and gloom. Maybe it’s the tourbooks making you think it’s gonna be a charming place with a festive Latin center, rather than another all-American town whose suburbs have drained out its lifeblood.
More below the fold, which I'm sure I've inspired you to click. You know you want to.
For reasons very clear to me, suburban houses in Puerto Rico are clustered more closely together than they would be in, say, South Florida. For reasons not very clear to me—no snow, yeah, but that applies to lots of places—the houses all have flat tar roofs, making buildings that look fine from street level look pretty crappy from a passing elevated train. Anyone have an explanation for this?
Exxon is called "Esso," and they sell gasoline by the liter. Equally confusing.
So those are San Juan’s mysteries. a small beachfront slum, crappy roofs, and the metric system.
Me, I could live here. Yes, indeed.
Below the fold is a thoroughly typical San Juan street scene, for your enjoyment and edification:
The Urbantrain passes through Hato Rey, San Juan’s business center. Hato Rey is a little reminiscent of Tyson’s Corner without the charm. It manages to pack large numbers of office workers into a tiny space and make it unpleasant to walk more than 20 feet. Miami tried to do the same thing, but they couldn’t build anything charmless enough to pull it off.
The route ends in Bayamón, in what will be a very cute town center someday. Right now, not so much. "Downtown" Bayamón is thoroughly American, but it’s the America of the 1970s. Sort of like downtown Sunnyvale back in the day. Parking lots, brightly-painted buildings, frighteningly clean sidewalks, a nearby mall, and an almost complete lack of human activity. (The latter probably explains the clean sidewalks.) The presence of two WIC offices, while a good use of my tax dollars, are a sign that land rents aren’t as much as they could be.
The action in Bayamón is at the mall, of course, or the suburban strips full of cutesy Swiss pastry shops and Condom World stores. (No, really.)
But like Miramar, I say give it time. Downtown Bayamón is too cute not to be boutiqued, once Puerto Rico moves past it’s current position in the Yuppie stage of human history and arrives at the Bobo.
That’s a Brooklyn Cyclones hat, by the way. Nothing to do with the Commie stockings watching the forces of might and right gain on them in the A.L. East. Only four games behind!
The northern end is in Sagrado Corazón, near the ferry terminal to Old San Juan, and surrounded by empty lots. In a burst of good sense that Boston would have done well to emulate, they use Metrocard machines straight outta Brooklyn instead of designing a brand new system that doesn’t work half as well.
F—k you, MBTA!
Apologies. But if you’ve ridden the T, you’ll understand.
The subway is a white elephant so far, with ridership running at about 30% of projections. The fare is reasonable—$1.50 per ride—but that is twice the cost of the bus, and for those who can afford it, well, like the lady said in Singles: "I still love my car."
Mayor Jorge Santini of San Juan (his name is omnipresent on billboards across the city) and Mayor William Miranda of the exurb of Caguas (the creator of the "Willie Tax") have approved a high-speed feeder line to run from Caguas down the median of Highway 52. The line will then directly connect to the subway at the Cupey station. The idea is to lure people coming in from the southern exurbs out of their cars. That, they hope, would ease congestion on Highway 52 (or at least provide an alternative to sitting in traffic) and boost subway ridership, relieving the Urbantrain of its current boondoggle status.
What are your thoughts?
Above is a view of Santurce. Or Miramar. I'm fuzzy on the boundary. Anyway, the moral of the picture seems to be, "buy now, if you can."
Or not. Did the Fed really directly purchase mortgage-backed securities yesterday? Not a good time to invest in any sort of real estate. Armageddon is a step closer. Then again, socialism, in the form of central banks, will probably save us.
But that's not the point of today's missive. Today's missive is about why the Dominican Revolutionary Party has an office in San Juan.
It turns out that Santurce is ground zero for Dominican immigrants to Puerto Rico. There are 33,000 Dominicans in San Juan, and an additional 28,000 in the rest of the Free State. Since overseas Dominicans can vote, the PRD maintains a presence here. The PRD got crushed in the 2004 election, so it needs all the support it can get, but in point of fact the Liberation Party and the Social Christians also have overseas offices here and on the mainland.
The U.S. and the Dominican Republic have deep links, all the way back to President Buenaventura Báez's almost-successful attempt to sell his country to the U.S. We invaded the place as recently as 1965. (Foreign occupations never succeed? You sure about that?) And nowadays CAFTA has granted the U.S. almost total control over the D.R.'s trade and investment policies. Combine the D.R.-U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico's geographic location, and the presence of a growing Dominican community on the island shouldn't surprise anyone.
San Juan has a subway. Strangely, it doesn’t quite make it into the old city. It’s the best way to get to the University of Puerto Rico campus, however, so we’ve done a lot of walking (or bus riding) through the intervening neighborhoods of Miramar and Santurce.
They’ve cleaned up the prostitutes from Miramar, at least while the sun is out, but the place has seen better days. Much better days. The old hotels either either falling apart or abandoned, and the height of fine dining seems to be a Pizzería Uno shoehorned into a misbegotten attempt at urban renewal, Fort Lauderdale-style. (Next to a Taco Maker, of course.) The architecture is not-quite-Art-Deco tropical, so it’s easy to imagine a future Miramar in which the buildings have been rehabbed, the gang graffiti erased, and the offices of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano represent a club-owners sense of irony rather than … well, why does the PRD have an office in San Juan?
It could happen. Miramar is a neighborhood where old women and teenagers greet the bus driver by name as it meanders between the old city and the Sagrado Corazón subway stop. It’s even got a little movie theater playing indie flicks. But it ain’t there yet.
Same goes for Santurce. It’s a little nicer, but not by much, and there are some abandoned buildings. The Plaza de Mercado was disappointing. It turned out to be small and utterly unfunky, populated by day by beer-drinking older fellows who claimed to be retired construction workers. (Which, in fact, they probably are. Many employees here retire at 55; and about one in eight people live on a pension of some sort.) The fruit for sale was just fruit, like you can find in any Cambridge convenience store. And the market was spotless. Being in a country where the health and safety regulations are ruthlessly enforced is a good thing, of course, but it takes some of the romance out of food shopping.
Outside the walls of Old San Juan lies, well, mostly ocean. But go east along the island, past the grandeur of the Capitolio, and you enter the unpleasantly named "Puerta de Tierra." It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. It isn’t, unless the movie in question is Class of 1984. It’s a run-down area full of housing projects, homeless shelters, and a Catholic school with a grand building in dire need of reconstruction. But the Archivo General de Puerto Rico is there, and so am I.
Over on the north side of Puerta de Tierra there are a bunch of nice hotels. A massive tourist complex is going up on the northeastern edge. There are also a lot of signs advertising new high-rise condos but not a whole lot of condos themselves.
The south side is mostly housing projects. The first one on the island, El Falansterio, was built in 1937 and could be in Miami Beach ... architecturally-speaking, at least. El Falansterio aside, Puerto Rican housing projects, called "caseríos," mostly look like they were built on an assembly line somewhere in central California and shipped here in a pod. Most of the ones in Puerta de Tierra don’t look all that bad, until you notice the bars on all the balconies and windows.
At least they demolished the tower projects back in 2000, as part of an urban renewal program that’s still underway.
In other words, the government got rid of the arrabales by building caseríos, and now they’re replacing the caseríos with condos.
"I want to go back to San Juan … I know a boat you can get on!" Most likely a ten-story tall gas-powered cruise ship these days. Or, in our case, a packed American Airlines 757 out of Logan. Strangely, it was an old 757: scratched windows, frayed seat covers, worn rugs, and foam erupting from the interstiches of the overhead compartments. It presaged San Juan.
San Juan looks modern from the air, but so do a lot of places. The plane swoops in from west to east across the metropolis, but once you’ve stopped oohing at the roads—in most of the places I’ve been recently, the roads aren’t so great, if they exist at all—you start to notice the roofs. Lots of corrugated tin. Even more flat discolored tar. Even the nice houses and the high-rises have crappy roofs. Clumps of what was clearly once squatter housing line the river. You can tell by the fact that the roads aren’t quite straight, and the houses not quite lined up: they look quite solid in other respects.
The airport is fine, functional, clean … but not quite modern. In other words, it perfectly matched the plane we flew in on. Tile floors, bare walls, and a fake colonial façade by an American info counter elicit chuckles rather than a sense of style or place. It had been raining, and water gushed down from the upper level onto the sidewalk by the arrivals taxi stand.
The taxi, on the other hand, was a bitchin’ Chrysler 300M with a blinged-out grill and every mod-con you could want, thus proving that while I don’t like SUVs I am not immune to the siren call of environmental destruction, provided that it’s packaged correctly. I want to make some sort of deep Galbraithian observation about the contrast between private affluence and public penury, but I can’t think of anything new to say. Anyway, the driver was too funny. He came straight from central casting, wearing a guayabera and a taxi-driver hat of the type that no mainland taxi driver has worn since 1982. He made an endless series of unintelligible jokes and liked to yell "¡Ladrones!" whenever we passed a government building.
And so, along the crowded Route 26 freeway to Old San Juan. Good road, by most standards. (No shoulders in spots, and the traffic for the exit to the Minillas Tunnel backed up onto the main road.) It doesn’t go quite all the way to the old city, but you wouldn’t notice the difference. The road passes along the north side of the small island that contains Old San Juan on its western tip.
Once you get to the old town, among the narrow cobblestoned streets and the colonial buildings, with the occasional group of white-clad nuns and men in Panama hats, surrounded by the mellifluous sound of Caribbean Spanish, there, there you know, beyond any possible doubt, that you’re in the United States.