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Myths and Legends of Old San Juan

Old San Juan is a magical place, and as such, legends have always formed an integral part of the old city folklore. For example, it is claimed that in the time of Spain, scores of solitary guards disappeared without a trace from a particular sentry box--or "garita"--allegedly snatched away by the devil himself, never to be found again. "La Garita del Diablo" or "the Devil's Sentry Box" it is called, and as a young boy I would wander over the city's walls, trying to determine which of the many lookout posts spread along the town's myriad fortifications was the one visited by Satan. (To this day, I haven't been able to figure out which of all the sentry boxes is the real "Garita del Diablo")

Image of a typical "garita" or sentry box.

Another legend claims that in 1753, a rider lost control of his horse during a race, and that the frenzied, uncontrolled animal bolted directly towards the cliff where the street ended. What happened next varies, depending on who is telling the story. Some of the alleged witnesses say that the rider, as he was about to plunge into the abyss, invoked God's help, and that his horse suddenly stopped at the edge of the cliff, as if held by an invisible hand. Others claim that as both the rider and the horse fell, one of the onlookers prayed for Christ to intervene, and the rider was miraculously saved (not so the horse). There is no real verification about how the miracle occurred, or even if it in fact occurred, but if you walk down Cristo Street to the spot where there once used to be a cliff, you will find it blocked by a small, beautiful chapel, allegedly built by the rider who survived the wild ride, to thank God for his deliverance.

La Capilla del Cristo. Behind it is the cliff alluded to in the legend.

Since Old San Juan is the stage on which the story in Justifiable Evil takes place, I have tried to convey to the reader some of the myths and the legends that have left their permanent imprint on the old city. Sometimes, legend and history have intertwined to such a degree that it is difficult to separate fact from myth. Like for example, how Sir Francis Drake was induced to abandon his attempt to conquer San Juan after a cannonball fired from one of the city's forts tore through the cabin of his ship, killed several of his officers, and shot off the seat from under him. (For a more detailed account, see "The Forts in Justifiable Evil", posted on May 17.)

Sir Francis Drake, presumably during a happier occasion than the moment when his seat was shot from under him.

San Juan's legends and myths are as numerous as the countless sentry boxes that surround the old town. Two of them, however, help visitors to understand the city's spirit. The first one has to do with the torchlight procession of the "eleven thousand virgins" that took place during another British invasion.

As San Miguel describes it in Justifiable Evil: "...One of the paintings showed some sort of clergyman--probably a bishop, because of his tall, pointed hat--marching in front of hundreds of women who carried torches. San Miguel had heard about the legend that the painting portrayed. If he recalled correctly, the British--or was it the Dutch?--had surrounded the walled city of San Juan with what seemed to be an insurmountable, armed force. The bishop, followed by the women of the city, had led a nighttime torchlight procession to ask God for their city's deliverance. The procession of the 'eleven thousand virgins' the legend called it, why he had no idea. He doubted that eleven thousand women lived in San Juan at that time, much less all of them virgins. But their heavenly plea had been answered, as the invaders, watching the glow of the torches from afar, had thought that a mighty army was approaching them. They had fled with such haste that they had abandoned their heavy artillery and ammunition. The city had been spared." Justifiable Evil, Chapter III, page 33.

La Rogativa monument, commemorating the time when San Juan was spared from an invading army after a nighttime torchlit procession.

The procession was led by the bishop of San Juan.

Thousands of torches flowed through the streets of Old San Juan, scaring away its besiegers.

The legend of "La Rogativa" is firmly rooted in history. It is a fact that in 1797, San Juan was besieged by an enormous British army led by General Ralph Abercromby. A fierce series of battles by San Juan's defenders stopped the advance of the invaders, but the city was placed under siege. Desperate and undermanned, the town dwellers expected their town to fall at any moment. A procession was organized by the bishop of San Juan to ask God for the city's deliverance, and the procession took place as previously described. It is a historical fact that the British withdrew from San Juan shortly thereafter.

The second legend mentioned in the book is that of "La Peña del Perro", or "The Stone of the Dog". The stone is actually located on the reefs that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Condado Lagoon, where the two bodies of water meet.

Partial view of the reefs where the Condado Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean meet, the figure of the Dog of Stone seen to the right, staring into the sea.

"Ever the historian, San Miguel remembered the legend about those reefs, about the lone fisherman who allegedly existed a long, long time ago. Every day, he would launch his boat from a nearby beach, and row into the roiling sea to fish. His dog would see him go, and then swim to one of the rocks on the reefs, and wait for his master to return. One day, the legend says, the fisherman did not come back. Some claimed he had been overtaken by a terrible storm, others that he had been swept away by a great wave, and others still that he had been dragged to the depths of the ocean by a terrible sea monster. Whatever the cause, the fisherman was never seen again. But his dog waited, refusing to budge from the spot, and as the days became weeks, and the weeks months, the dog became a part of the reef itself, and turned into stone. And to this day, he looked into the sea, waiting for his master to return." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XII, page134.

A sideview of the dog, waiting for his master to return.

"San Miguel had searched for the rock and found it. It bore an unsettling resemblance to the figure of a large, sitting dog, a Labrador perhaps, or a German Shepherd, leaning slightly forward, and looking attentively in the direction of the sea. 'La Peña del Perro', the locals called it, 'The Stone of the Dog', and many believed that as long as it kept its eternal watch, no harm would come to San Juan." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XII, page 134.

The coat of arms of San Juan

The legends of "La Rogativa" and "La Peña del Perro" graphically illustrate the spirit of the city of San Juan throughout its long history, and of Puerto Ricans in general. It is a story of great courage, undying fidelity, and infinite faith in God. It is the same courage, fidelity and faith that the Puerto Ricans, fighting alongside the armed forces of the United States have shown in every armed conflict since the two World Wars to the present wars and interventions, and that the glorious 65h Puerto Rican Infantry Regiment exhibited so brilliantly in the Korean War. It is no fluke that in 1799 King Charles IV of Spain added a banner around Puerto Rico's shield, to reward the steadfastness and valor of the city, that reads: "Por su constancia, amor y fidelidad, es muy noble y muy leal esta ciudad". ("For its constancy, love, and fidelity this city is very noble and loyal.")

(To be continued...)

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