Brown Quarterly - Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 1997)

San Juan National Historic Site: Guardian of Hispanic Heritage

By Milagros Flores

San Juan National Historic Site is located in Puerto Rico, a self-governing Caribbean island that is freely associated with the United States of America. The historic site consists of the main fortifications associated with the city of Old San Juan. All of the fortifications are on the island except for one detached unit on Cabras Island on the west side of San Juan Bay. The city of Old San Juan is located on the western side of the 615-acre San Juan Island, which is connected by causeways to the greater metropolitan area. Old San Juan serves as both the capital of Puerto Rico and the headquarters for the municipal government. The city today is an extremely congested urban center, consisting predominantly of mixed commercial and high-density historic residential areas with little open space. Most of the public areas are administered by the National Park Service and the grounds make up the Cultural Landscape of Fort El Morro.

The fortifications of San Juan have evolved over more than four centuries. The National Park Service (NPS) administers and owns the cultural resources which now comprise the 75-acre national historic site. It spans approximately 2.5 miles of massive stone walls which literally enclose the old city.

It houses two of the world's most impressive fortifications--El Morro, which guarded the western approach and provided ocean defense and access control to the bay of San Juan, and San Cristobal, which guarded the eastern approach and provided land defense. A third fortification is located on a 3.4 acre detached unit of the historic site. The site contains a small fort, call El Cañuelo which was constructed across the bay from EL Morro to provide cross fire across the mouth of the bay and to prevent enemy landings on the western side of the harbor.

Although San Juan National Historic Site was established by the secretary of the Interior in 1949, it remained under the control of the Department of the Army as part of Fort Brooke Military Reservation until September 1961, when a major portion of the fortifications were transferred to the Department of the Interior.

In 1984, San Juan National Historic Site was officially accepted into the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) because of its outstanding universal significance.

Educational Programs
The publication entitled Forts of Old San Juan: Guardian of the Caribbean, is the park's lesson plan from the NPS Educational Program Teaching with Historic Places, and it is available in both English and Spanish. This lesson about the forts of Old San Juan is based on National Register of Historic Places nomination files, World Heritage Site nomination and designation files, and the handbook of the park. Materials for students include (1) readings which explore life in Spanish forts and the impact of this system of defense on Puerto Rico's Caribbean culture, (2) maps and sketches of the fortifications and their locations, (3) photographs of El Morro, San Cristobal, El Cañuelo, San Juan and Santiago Gate.

The lesson could be used in teaching units of Spanish Conquests in the Americas or the early colonization of the United States. It could also be used in a geography unit to illustrate the movement and settlement of peoples. Students will explore the role of Puerto Rico's fortifications at San Felipe del Morro and San Cristobal as well as their supporting units, in the Spanish quest to expand and defend its empire in the Americas during the 16th through the 19th centuries. The objectives are:

  • To explain the importance of Puerto Rico as part of the system of defense of the Spanish Empire in its master plan for the Caribbean.
  • To explain the evolution of Spanish strongholds in terms of men, materials and money.
  • To describe the evolution of San Juan's system of defense from a primitive outpost to a stronghold.
  • To investigate the consequences for Puerto Rico of the treaty of Paris and the American occupation after the Cuban Revolution.

Copies of this text are available through the Interpretive Division at San Juan National Historic Site.

Available Educational Materials
San Juan National Historic Site Official Brochure is the park's official map and information guide. Its sections include "El Morro: from Tower to Fortress," "San Cristobal: Defense in Depth," "Guardian of the Spanish Main," and "A Defense of the First Order."

The Military Archives located at Fort San Cristobal are probably the best Educational resource the park has available. They were established to support the interpretive mission of the park and to serve as an international information center on Spanish colonial military history. Along with concentrating of the military aspects of Spanish colonial history, this collection specializes in the history of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and of the establishment of Fort Brook Military Base in San Juan after the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898. Hence the collection covers a period ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.

These collections make the Military Archives the only facility of its kind in the NPS System. They include maps and plans, photographs, microfilm, rare books, a library, audiovisual resources, periodicals, and miscellaneous graphics.

Research consulting is available through the park historian at: San Juan National Historic Site, Military Archives, Fort San Cristobal, Norzagaray St. #501, San Juan Puerto Rico 00901, (787)729-6777 or FAX: (787) 729-6665. Other educational publications available through the military archives include: Lectures, First International Symposium of Historic Preservation on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, 1989; Lectures, Second International Symposium of Historic Preservation on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, 1991 and Lectures, Third International Symposium of Historic Preservation on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, 1994. All are available in English and Spanish.

The most recent publication of the park in commemoration of the bicentennial of the last British attack on Puerto Rico is available under the title The Eighteenth Century Caribbean and the British Attack on Puerto Rico in 1797 by Milagros Flores and Maria Alonso .(ISBN: 1-881713-20-2).