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Dueling Monuments?

by Lance Oliver

May 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Will Puerto Rico become the land of dueling landmarks? Will those seated on the right side of the plane remember the island for its statue of Christopher Columbus while those on the left side are equally impressed by a yet-to-be-named monument?

That’s the prospect raised by the government’s plans to commission an unforgettable monument on the Third Millennium Park being built on the grounds of the old Escambrón sports complex in Puerta de Tierra. The government has opened a competition for entries and is willing to spend up to $25 million for a monument that could rise as high as 400 feet.

Of course the equally monstrous monument that could become the other half of bookends to San Juan Bay is the 350-foot statue of Christopher Columbus created by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. The tiny municipality of Cataño, across the bay from Old San Juan, is spending millions of dollars to ship the "gift" from Russia and pay for it to be set up. It has also taken on a nasty expropriation fight with residents who are in the way of the monument and don’t want to move.

The government’s plans, meanwhile, seem designed to accomplish the things the Columbus statue has not accomplished. Aside from capturing the essence of Puerto Rican society past, present and future, "above all else, moreover, it must immediately capture the hearts of Puerto Ricans — while likewise stimulating the imaginations and eliciting the affections of peoples around the world," according to the letter from Gov. Pedro Rosselló inviting proposals.

The Columbus statue, by comparison, has not captured the hearts of Puerto Ricans in general, though it has the firm and enthusiastic support of Cataño’s mayor, Edwin Rivera Sierra. Even without his sponsorship of the statue, Rivera Sierra is certainly the most notorious of Puerto Rico mayors, due to his periodic brushes with the law, his emotional outbursts at press conferences and his history (before being elected mayor, he left his previous job claiming a combination of mental and physical disability, which apparently do not disqualify him as mayor with the voters in Cataño).

Nor was the Columbus statue popular elsewhere. The "gift" was turned down by cities from Miami to Columbus, Ohio. A newspaper in Baltimore, one of the cities to reject the statue, sniped that it should be titled "From Russia with Ugh."

By demanding that its monument be both popular with the Puerto Rican people and in good taste, the government seems determined not to repeat Cataño’s experience.

Rosselló’s letter outlined world-class ambitions for the project, saying it should be "as meaningful to us as the Eiffel Tower has become over the past century to the residents of Paris and France" and "as thematically evocative as is the ‘America’s westward expansion’ concept embodied in the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri."

The monument is planned for a visible and potentially beautiful spot. The new Third Millennium Park will sit near the Hotel Normandie and the Caribe Hilton Hotel on the northwest corner of Puerta de Tierra, across the street from the Muñoz Rivera Park. In that site, a monument of any size would be visible to every arriving cruise ship, every airplane taking the normal approach from the west to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Everyone driving into Old San Juan would pass by it.

El Morro, the fortress built by Spain is currently the site most visited by tourists in San Juan. It is also in many ways the symbol of Puerto Rico, shown in everything from tourism advertising to business logos. When the new monument is built, Rosselló said, El Morro will be the symbol of the second millennium. The new monument will represent hopes and aspirations of Puerto Rico in the third.

The governor said recently that nine architects have already signed up for the competition and others can enter up to May 15.

An advisory committee will review the proposals and select finalists with the winner getting a $50,000 prize and the offer of a contract to build the work.

If both plans proceed, San Juan may be bracketed by massive monuments not so far into the third millennium. Airline pilots may have more to think about on their approach to San Juan than altitude and control tower instructions.

"Ladies and gentlemen seated on the left side of the plane, you can now see the Third Millennium Monument. Those on the right side can now see the monument to the man of 500 years ago."

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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