We all know the story of Juan Ponce de León: He came from Spain. He founded Caparra. He became the island’s first governor. He was seeking the fountain of youth (or so they say) and left Puerto Rico to conquer what is now Florida. He was killed by an arrow.
But that’s not the way it goes for Luis López Nieves, one of the few contemporary writers who delves into the island’s history for literary inspiration.
He did it in 1983 with his controversial “Seva,” a slim and meticulously written novelette in the form of an account of how the United States first invaded Puerto Rico through the East and wiped out a whole sector months before they marched into Guánica July 25, 1898.
It was fiction.
But readers believed every word of it, causing an uproar.
And he does it again in La verdadera muerte de Juan Ponce de León (Editorial Cordillera), a collection of short stories on the very painful Spanish conquest of Puerto Rico in the 16th century.
“The 16th century is the most important period in Puerto Rico,” says López Nieves, as he explains his particular interest for this particular moment in time. It was, after all, the turning point in the formation of the Puerto Rican people.
“It marked the birth of the first Puerto Rican… and it marked the first scientific experiment: The drowning of (Diego de) Salcedo… as a literary period, it is also more universal. You ask any European about the conquest of Puerto Rico and he (or she) knows how they dressed back then, how they lived.”
Ironically, it is also the period with the least amount of information available.
“Pedreira (Antonio Pedreira) called it the century in blank,” says López, noting that nearly all documents from that period were destroyed during the 1625 Dutch attack on the island.
Which is why López Nieves was even more intrigued by this era and let his imagination run loose with historical images of the hard life in San Juan.
“I’m a writer and I don’t have to document everything I write.”
But he did his homework by consulting author and historian Elsa Gelpí (who is, by the way, out with a new book on the 16th century: Siglo en blanco) to make sure things clicked.
And with tidbits of historical information, López was able to enter the lives of a few historical figures, all entwined with 16th century Puerto Rico, and weave elaborate tales. And he found that, despite all the crime, life in San Juan as we know it is idyllic compared to what went on centuries ago. “Terrible things happened. So much suffering”, says López.
He starts with Christopher Columbus in “El gran secreto de Cristóbal Colón.” And he continues presenting certain moments in the lives of the historic and religious figures of the time.
And, of course, there is a story named after the book’s title and which is a detailed account of the death of Juan Ponce de León.
But while López Nieves decided to dig into the island’s 16th century history, his prime source of inspiration is one of the island’s best loved treasures: Old San Juan.
“I feel a great passion for Old San Juan. As a child, I would play in the tunnels at St. Cristóbal.”
And as he walks through the streets, López lets his imagination fly, figuring what life was like in the early Spanish colonial years.
And it is that fascination for this period that may tie López Nieves down for a while. It seems that La verdadera muerte de Juan Ponce de León is just the first in a few other literary pieces about the island’s early colonial years.
“I think I’ll be writing a lot more about the 16th century,” he says.
“Juan Ponce de León sets sail on the winds of literature and history”, Melba Ferrer, San Juan Star, San Juan de Puerto Rico, 8 mayo 2000, p.47.