La rana Coqui

Rana Coqui in the rain forest

If you happen to visit Puerto Rico, you will quickly learn about “La rana coquí”. During sunset, the air fills with a beautiful song, but don’t think that what you are hearing is a bird, because is not! It is a frog! A frog from Puerto Rico that is really small, approximately the size of a fingernail. It’s called a “coquí” because of the sound it makes, co-qui (ko-kee). Only the males sing, not the females. I can imagine the first settlers having trouble figuring out where that beautiful sound was coming from, and never could have guessed that it could come out of such a small creature.

Coquíes eat insects that are close enough catch. They don’t have webbed feet, so they don’t swim very well, but they can climb trees. Yes, they climb trees! Since they hide in the trees and bushes, the sound comes from all around you, but you can’t see the frog most of the time. Also, they aren’t born as tadpoles, like many other frogs are. They hatch from their eggs as fully formed frogs!

Another cool thing about the coquí is that people can use them as an alarm clock. The sugar cane workers use the frog’s croaks to know that they finished a hard day of work, since the coquí always start singing at dusk. They stop singing at dawn, and return to their nests during the day, so it’s like one loud all-night lullaby.

I was taking a nap the first time I heard one. It scared me at first because I wasn’t expecting such a loud sound. It sounded like it was right on top of me, but I couldn’t find where the sound was coming from. It’s like a cricket at my grandmother’s house in the country. We would always hear them, but could never see them.  Well imagine my surprise when I saw this itty-bitty frog with a great big voice. I called my mom and told her all about it. She laughed at me because she remembered the coquí when she stopped at Puerto Rico on her cruise last year. Why didn’t she warn me?

It has been said that if you take a coquí out of Puerto Rico, it will die. There go my hopes of having a pet coquí. I hope on your next visit to Puerto Rico, you can see (or at least HEAR) a coquí!

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Art

Art in all of its forms is very important in Puerto Rico: architecture, dance, music, writers, directors, singers, museums, etc. When you are here you can feel that, and there are lots of modern expressions of art, but I think it’s important to know where it all started.

Outside Stone Sculpture in San Juan – Puerto Rico

One very important and famous Puerto Rican painter from the 18th century who is also known internationally is José Campeche. He was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he lived all of his life.

His father, also an artist who owned an art workshop, was his first influence. Years later, with the arrival of Luis Paret y Alcazar, a Spanish artist exiled from Spain, Campeche started to learn the European techniques as well as the ones his father had taught him. Campeche’s paintings are mostly historical and religious. Many of his works were done in churches. He was also a portrait painter and had may clients, like governors and well-known people from the island.

Campeche died in 1809. He is a source of pride for Puerto Ricans, since he is considered to be the father of Puerto Rican national painting.

Years later, in 1833, another very important painter was born. His name was Francisco Oller. He had developed an interest for the arts since he was very young, and beginning when he was 11 years old, he studied under the teachings of the artist Juan Cleto. Can you imagine studying art all day instead of going to a regular school?

When he was 18 years old he traveled to Europe to continue learning in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a very important academy in Madrid. He became the first Puerto Rican artist to study in Europe. Pisarro, Monet, and Cezanne were his friends while he studied in Europe, and he had the opportunity to present his work with them in Paris. When he was 33 years old, he returned to Puerto Rico where he continued his work. His paintings show the reality of daily life in Puerto Rico. Since many artists before his time focused on religious scenes or portraits of wealthy people, painting about daily life was definitely a change, and actually kind of rebellious, I think.

Oller died in 1917. Two schools, one in Puerto Rico and the other one in the Bronx, NY, were named after him. I wonder what art in Puerto Rico would be like without these two guys’ influence!

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Music

I decided to do some shopping in Old San Juan today. As I was walking out of a shoe shop I heard this amazing percussion rhythm coming from someplace nearby. Before I knew it, I was dancing, along with nearly everyone on the street! The music filled the air and the rhythm was contagious.

Our tour guide, Lola, grabbed my arm and we both followed the music. The music got louder and louder as we approached a band playing in the square. They were playing in front of the Christopher Columbus statue and fountain. The small plaza was starting to fill with people. Some were dancing with a partner, some were jamming by themselves, and others, like me, just watched, entranced by the music.

Christopher Columbus statue and fountain

Lola pointed out to me the instruments the band was playing. There was a lady on a single standing drum, a man playing a güiro (like a gourd), and a lady singing. They were really rocking out, but not one electric instrument was present.

After about ten minutes, Lola started shouting over the music, telling me the history of music in Puerto Rico. She said that traditional music started with the influence of the Taínos, Spaniards, and Africans in Puerto Rico. From them came the birth of dances such as La guaracha, La plena, La bomba, and Salsa. I’d only heard of Salsa. I made a mental note to Google the rest when I got some free time.

African drums used in Puerto Rican Music

Then before I knew it, the rhythm changed. The woman stopped singing and this young guy came out the crowd and started rapping in Spanish. It was like something out of a movie. When I looked around nobody was dancing, but everyone was bopping their heads. Old people, young people, babies in their strollers, everyone! Flo said this is where reggaetón came from. The guy was rapping so fast I could hardly catch any of his words, but the beat was awesome! And in a flash, just as soon as it began, it was all over.

Lola and I walked back to the shoe store together to meet up with the rest of the group. Lola kept talking about the music and dance culture of Puerto Rico. She said that most of the music has piano, sometimes violin, and a few other jazz instruments. She went on and on about how Puerto Rican music is so diverse. They have Puerto Rican rock, nueva trova (socially- and politically-related ballads), merengue, salsa, rap, and reggaetón. And of course every Puerto Rican is has to bring up their famed singers, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony. I was sad that the experience was over, but once I heard the coquíes I knew it was dinnertime and my tummy was growling.

People say that music is the town’s soul and a town with no music is like a town without a soul. If this is the case then Puerto Rico has both heart and soul. You can feel the music in Puerto Rico, and I’ll never forget that impromptu concert in the square.

¡Hasta pronto!

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Explorers and Conquistadors in the land of Boriken

If you have never walked around inside the fortress El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, definitely put this on your list of places to visit. It is absolutely beautiful here. It’s situated next to the ocean on the corner of the island. Every view, both inside and out, is breathtaking. . I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my visit today and I can’t wait to come back here again.

El Morro fortress in old San Juan

Being inside El Morro and walking around in San Juan has got me thinking about the rich history of Puerto Rico. I remember learning something about the island in school, but I didn’t learn nearly as much from my history books as I have by being here. I learned that Puerto Rico used to be called The Boriken, literally translated “the great land of the valiant and noble Lord” by the Taíno people. The Taíno were a tribe of natives that moved from South America to the island many years before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain financed Christopher Columbus’ two major voyages to the New World. On this second voyage, he landed on the island and named it  “San Juan Bautista” (Saint John the Baptist). The Island had lots of potential and natural resources, which is why it was later named “Puerto Rico” (rich port). Who would have known that within a matter of a few years Puerto Rico would have three different names? Can you think of any place that’s been renamed three times?

When I was at El Morro, I kept hearing the name Ponce de León. I was curious who he was so I went to the library and looked him up. As it turns out, Ponce de León was a lieutenant to Christopher Columbus. He was very ambitious, and thanks to his efforts, the island soon became an important military outpost in the Caribbean, which is why they constructed the fortress, the beautiful El Morro.

Ponce de León Statue in old San Juan

When Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, his son Diego wanted to be the Governor of Puerto Rico, but the Spanish monarchs named Ponce de León as Governor. Two years later, Diego was put in Ponce de León’s place as Governor. Ponce de León did not like that and asked for permission to continue his explorations, so he left the island soon after that. Guess where he landed . . . in Florida! He’s the same guy they say searched for the fountain of youth. History is soooo cool! I hope you can visit “La Isla del encanto” (The Island of Enchantment … yes, another name for Puerto Rico) soon!

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