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Orlando Sentinel

Colonial-Era Island Leader Coming Home

February 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The almost 2-century-old bones, inexplicably mixed with those of 12 other people in three crypts in Spain, carry with them a lot of feats and history from the Caribbean.

Buried in a monument at San Felipe of Neris church in Cadiz, Spain, the broken skeleton is part of Puerto Rico's history, and a commission of Puerto Rican, U.S. and Spanish experts is going to retrieve it next month.

The commission is after the remains of the Puerto Rican leader Ramon Power y Giralt, who had a distinguished career in the Spanish armada and was the island's representative to and vice president in the first Cadiz Courts, the Spanish Empire's newly established congress at the time.

He died in 1813 at age 38, a victim of the yellow fever that engulfed Cadiz, but not before gaining some economic and political reforms that brought more financial autonomy and independence for the island's creoles -- the first political manifestation of a Puerto Rican identity distinct from that of Spain.

"He's a distinguished Puerto Rican who is important to our history, and any Puerto Rican should be happy to have him brought home," said Ricardo Alegria, one of the island's premier historians and anthropologists. "I think that's what he would have wanted."

This year's push to recover Power's remains comes at the start of a decade of events that culminates in 2012 with the bicentennial celebration of Spain's first constitution, a document that Power, as a representative in the Courts, helped create.

With the help of the foremost authority on physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a group of forensic scientists and doctors from the island and Spain will organize and assemble the skeletons of the 13 people placed in three crypts. With the technology available today, they hope to be able to establish which bones belonged to whom.

Some will be easy to figure out because of the differences in age. One of the oldest in the group, the Venezuelan representative Fermin de Clemente Francia -- who died when he was 80 years old, 34 years after Power died -- will be handed over to a commission from his country for a journey home.

They'll confirm Power's remains with DNA tests by using his mother's corpse and what are thought to be a sister's remains exhumed last year in San Juan.

The remains should arrive in Puerto Rico in October, by plane or on the tall ship of the Spanish Armada Juan Sebastian Elcano, to acknowledge Power's naval battles against the French Napoleonic forces.

He will be buried in the San Juan Cathedral, next to his dear friend Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, the first Puerto Rican bishop, who, in a symbolic gesture heavy with national pride, gave his ring to Power when he left for the Courts in Spain.

"His work still remains a feat today," said Arturo Davila, a history professor at the University of Puerto Rico. "No Puerto Rican has ever had such an important role in a congress of all the Americas that had a voice, vote and veto power, something that the island's resident commissioner in Washington doesn't have today."

For Carlos Vizcarrondo, speaker of the House of Representatives, the project is a way to rescue part of the era when a national Puerto Rican identity was first manifested. "The people can't dilute themselves or their identity or drown in the everyday stuff we are accustomed to living in," Vizcarrondo said. "A country that does not know where it comes from doesn't know where it's going."

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