In the early morning hours of Monday, unknown people toppled a statue of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León ahead of King Felipe VI’s visit to the US Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico.
Officers patrolling the cobblestone streets of San Juan’s historic centre heard a loud explosion around 4:30 a.m. and discovered that the monument shattered in pieces, according to Col. José Juan Garca, the city’s police commissioner.
“It sounded like a bomb went off,” he added.
The Spanish explorer was depicted looking south, with his left hand on his hip and right finger pointing toward the first town he founded, in a statue made of melted steel from British guns. The ruins of the island’s first Spanish capital are still standing and are a US National Historic Landmark. The statue also points to the nearby San Juan Bautista Cathedral, which houses the remains of Ponce de León and is a famous tourist attraction.
Activists marched through the streets of Old San Juan two years ago as part of a national movement to remove oppressive symbols and demand that Spain’s legacy in Puerto Rico be erased.
While some sculptures have been vandalised with graffiti, this is the first time a statue has been toppled, according to authorities.
The statue was in the Plaza San José, near the Americas’ second oldest surviving Spanish church, which was built on property provided by Ponce de León in 1532 and whose base was built atop an Indigenous town.
The event occurred just hours before King Felipe VI planned to meet with Governor Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico and other authorities to commemorate the 500th anniversary of San Juan’s establishment.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus and Ponce de León arrived in Puerto Rico, where Ponce de León became the island’s first governor and put down an insurrection by native Tainos, a subgroup of the Arawak Indians. The island of Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony until 1898, when Spain handed it over to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War.