What Is a Statue of Columbus Doing in Puerto Rico?

To find the tallest statue in the Western Hemisphere, take Puerto Rico Highway 22 west from San Juan. After about an hour, if you take an exit and a few turns, you’ll get to a narrow two-lane road that runs along the island’s northern coast. As you get closer, a very angular Christopher Columbus, one hand on a ship’s wheel and the other raised to the sky, comes into view. In this rural corner of Arecibo, there’s nothing to obscure the view.

The whole 350-foot bronze monument, complete with three sails and a rendering of a map on a scroll, towers over everything around it, making palm trees look like toys. There’s no parking lot or visitors’ center. So in addition to being out of place, it’s devoid of context about the violence of Columbus’s time in the Caribbean.

Puerto Rico, now a territory of the United States after centuries of Spanish rule, is one of the world’s oldest colonies. In “La Brega,” a podcast about Puerto Rico, I’ve talked about how Columbus is even featured prominently in Puerto Rico’s anthem. That doesn’t mean he’s always front of mind, but his legacy still shapes day to day life on the island.

Why did it end up in the Caribbean, the part of the world that suffered Columbus’s brutality firsthand? It all begins with Zurab Tsereteli, a Russian sculptor who originally intended to give the monument to the United States in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492. But all the cities he offered it to, including New York; Boston; Miami; and Columbus, Ohio, turned the eyesore down.

Then in 1998, the Puerto Rican government offered the statue a home and spent $2.4 million to bring it to the island. It sat in storage in thousands of pieces for nearly 20 years, cursed by the nearly impossible and costly logistics of putting such an enormous thing up. There was also public outrage from people who said Puerto Rico shouldn’t be celebrating a gruesome legacy.

Named “Birth of the New World,” it eventually wound up in Arecibo, paid for by a local businessman. I wince to think that it was completed in 2016, when Puerto Rico was already in an austerity crisis and the millions dedicated to erecting the monument could have been used for almost anything else. At least the theme park that was planned to accompany it, at an estimated $95 million, was never built.

In 2020, plenty of Columbus statues came down around the world, including in the Caribbean. But this colossal thing had already survived Hurricane Maria, and it survived the calls to dismantle it then, too.

Today, many of us consider Columbus a stand-in for Europe and whiteness, and that celebrating him means disregarding our Indigenous Taino and African roots. The idea that giant statues to his legacy are meant to attract tourists tells us a lot about what these leaders want to promote, and what they aren’t proud of. The monument is strangely fitting, because it is still sucking our resources.

There’s another colossal monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: the Faro a Colón. There’s a dubious claim that it holds his remains, but the main point of it seems to be its enormity. It’s several football fields long, and when lit the lighthouse projects a cross into the sky that can be seen as far away as Puerto Rico.

The idea that Christopher Columbus should be memorialized this way dates to a time when the mood around his legacy was very different. In 1923, a Pan-American conference concluded that “a monument has not yet been erected in America to perpetuate the collective sentiment of gratitude, admiration and thanksgiving toward Christopher Columbus, discoverer of America and benefactor of humanity.” An international design competition followed, with Frank Lloyd Wright among the judges.

To raise money, the Dominican leader Rafael Trujillo, a dictator obsessed with whiteness, organized, with Cuba, an airplane tour of every country in Latin America in 1937. There were four planes: the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, and one named after Columbus. Three of the planes crashed, killing everyone onboard, and the tour was never finished, but you can still find pro-Faro postage stamps online.

Decades later, in the 1980s, President Joaquin Balaguer resuscitated the plans, even though by then there was no more “collective sentiment of gratitude, admiration and thanksgiving” about Columbus. The project was not only hugely unpopular in the country, it was also shunned by world leaders: The pope celebrated Mass at the lighthouse a day before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, and the king and queen of Spain didn’t even show up. The Washington Post reported that Dominicans didn’t want to say Columbus’s full name in Spanish because they believed it is cursed (even now, I won’t take the risk of saying it in Spanish).

My family lived in the Dominican Republic while this thing was being erected in the late ’80s and early ’90s.There was a sense then that this project was sucking things — electricity, concrete, money, effort — into itself like a vortex. The Dominican government didn’t disclose how much it spent on construction, but it was estimated to have cost $70 million. Thousands of people were displaced to make room for it. The fact that it’s dusty and does not attract large crowds doesn’t make that history easier to swallow.

Last January in San Juan, the king of Spain came to mark the 500th anniversary of the city’s founding. That morning, a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León in Old San Juan was toppled and damaged. I first saw the news through Puerto Rico’s world-class memes of figures like Iris Chacon and Bad Bunny, who some considered more deserving of celebration than the figure standing on the pedestal. There was even a petition to replace it with one of the Taino cacique Agüeybaná.

In an announcement that could have been made in 1523, the mayor of San Juan pledged that the statue would be repaired and reinstalled before the king arrived in the afternoon. Instead of using funds to fix a pothole, he said, they’d use funds for the repairs, seemingly oblivious to the option of simply not repairing the statue at all and attending to the pothole instead. It seemed as if the major topics of Puerto Rican life — colonialism, Puerto Rico’s austerity crisis and, yes, even potholes — were contained in the fight over this single statue.

The day ended with a stunning split screen on the local news: the statue being lowered back onto its pedestal, protected by the police, and the king of Spain arriving at the airport. Priorities, right?

Alana Casanova-Burgess, a freelance audio journalist, is a creator and the host of the podcast “La Brega.”

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