A statue of Spanish colonial–era general Juan Ponce de León was toppled in Puerto Rico ahead of a visit from Spanish King Felipe VI to the U.S. territory this week.
Local police discovered the dismantled statue located in San Juan’s Plaza San José in the early morning hours of January 24, just before the Spanish sovereign was scheduled to meet with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi to mark the 500th anniversary of the city’s founding, according to a report by the Associated Press.
A group known as the Boriken Libertarian Forces, which has expressed opposition to the Felipe VI’s visit to his country’s former colony, claimed responsibility for the damage, according to local media reports confirmed by the Guardian. “Faced with the visit of the King of Spain, Felipe VI, to Puerto Rico and the escalation of ‘gringo’ invaders taking over our lands,” the group wrote in a statement, “we want to send a clear message: neither kings nor ‘gringo’ invaders,” referring to the recent real estate speculation on the island.
In an interview with with Telemundo Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero said, “What we’re not going to tolerate is vandalism. The Spaniards from 500 years ago are not the same ones of today.” A spokesperson said the statue would be reinstalled this week.
The steel statue depicted Ponce de León, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico under Spanish control. He is shown pointing in the direction of his inaugural settlement. The plaza in which the structure was located is near one of the oldest Spanish churches in the Americas, dating from 1532; it was built on land belonging to the Indigenous Taíno people that was forcibly taken under Ponce de León’s rule.
It is not the first time that the city’s memorials to Spanish colonial officials have sparked controversy. In June 2020, activists in San Juan joined the movement for racial justice that spread across U.S. cities, calling on officials to rid the island of any monuments tied to Spain’s legacy of political oppression. They demanded that both the Ponce de León statue and a monument to Christopher Columbus that was erected in 1893 in Old San Juan be removed.