SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Unidentified people toppled a statue of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in the predawn hours Monday ahead of a visit by Spain’s King Felipe VI to the US Caribbean territory of Porto Rico.
San Juan Police Commissioner Col. José Juan García told The Associated Press that officers patrolling the cobblestone streets of the capital’s historic district heard a loud bang at 4:30 a.m. and found the statue shattered.
“It felt like an explosion,” he said.
The statue was made of cast steel from British cannons and depicted the Spanish explorer facing south with his left hand on his hip and his right finger pointing towards the first colony he founded, which was the first Spanish capital of the island and is a US National Historic Landmark. The statue also points in the direction of the nearby Cathedral of San Juan Bautista which houses the remains of Ponce de León and is a popular tourist spot.
Old San Juan crews reinstalled the more than 1,000-pound (589-kilogram) statue hours after the king arrived late Monday afternoon.
A handful of protesters heckled the workers and briefly halted their efforts, some posting signs at the base of the statue, one of which read: “These are not gods”. Protesters said they would topple it again and a statue of Christopher Columbus would be next.
Spain’s legacy is strong in Puerto Rico, with a main road in San Juan named after Ponce de León and a colossal statue of Columbus towering along the island’s north coast, a sculpture of 660 tons which is more than twice the size of the Statue of Liberty without its base. A much smaller statue of Christopher Columbus stands at the entrance to Old San Juan, a few blocks from the one that was toppled.
San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero defended the resettlement in an interview with Telemundo Puerto Rico, saying, “The Spaniards of 500 years ago are not the same as those of today.”
He then told reporters after the king arrived: “Free speech is protected, but what cannot be protected is vandalism. I believe vandalism is the most cowardly form of expression.
Two years ago, activists marched through the streets of Old San Juan as they joined an American movement to eradicate symbols of oppression and demand that Spain’s legacy in Puerto Rico be erased. While some statues were defaced with graffiti, police said it was the first time such a statue had been toppled.
The statue stood in Plaza San José, near the second oldest Spanish church in the Americas, whose construction began in 1532 on land donated by Ponce de León and whose base was erected atop an indigenous settlement .
King Felipe was scheduled to meet Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi and other officials to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of San Juan.
Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico in 1493 accompanied by Ponce de León, who became the island’s first governor and put down an uprising by the native Tainos, a subgroup of the Arawak Indians, after forcing them to work. Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony until 1898, when Spain transferred the island to the United States at the end of the Spanish–American War.
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