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A Visit to Old San Juan

When we arrived at Arango's apartment building, Isa shouted up twice, three times, until finally a face appeared at the window"Hola!" Isa calledand down came a set of keys on a long string. Isa unlocked the steel gate, and we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor.

I had to shield my eyes when I walked in. The sprawling loft, which took up a whole floor, overflowed with whimsy—hand-painted kewpie dolls, lurid-colored shrines, weirdly anthropomorphic chairs—and though my memory may be deceiving me, the place seemed a kaleidoscope of shades of red, from fire engine to Chinese temple. On a zebra-skin couch, wearing a dalmatian-spotted dress, sat Arango's daughter Lisa, playing with her daughter, a baby dressed in black-and-white stripes. Arango herself, a blur of motion in a caftan, whisked in, said hello, and whisked out.

A houseguest, a young American named Kim, wandered over to chat. For three years, she told us, she had lived in Old San Juan, working as a masseuse; then, against her better judgment, she moved to L.A., where by accident she became a television personality. Even so, she said, she jumped at the chance to come back to San Juan and immerse herself again in Arango's extended family of bohemians.

She nodded as I admired the rambling array of artwork. "You have to come back here between ten and eleven o'clock in the morning," she told me. "The light—it's incredible."

People, i noticed, kept going on about the light. "I. M. Pei came here and fell in love with the light," said Sila Calderón, San Juan's newly sworn-in mayor, when I paid her a visit. "Every artist falls in love with the light."

I'm no expert, but there is definitely a lot of light in San Juan, especially at the height of the day, when the sunshine gushes down and bounces around those bold pastel buildings. No wonder they're painted such bright colors: they have to be, to compete with the fierce blueness of the sky.

Through Arango's friend the artist Victor Vázquez, I met Jorge Zeno, a painter, who offered to show me his studio. We met one morning at La Bombonera, a diner and pastry shop that functions much like the coffee shop in Seinfeld: everyone drops in at some point during the day.

We strolled down the street to Calle Cristo and rode the elevator to Zeno's rooftop home and workshop. "The light is perfect this time of day. Perfect!" he declared with a sweep of his arms. Through his patio doors filtered the clear light of a flawless sky.

Vázquez and Zeno both number among an informal group of young Puerto Rican artists whose work shares a playful exuberance, with a deliberately rough-hewn and childlike quality that draws some of its inspiration from the wildly colorful vegigante masks worn at Carnival time. Not everyone seems to get what their art is about.

"Critics!" he spat, when I asked him about its reception. "I am an outsider. The academy does not appreciate what I do." Outsider is perhaps too strong a word. As I got up to leave, Jorge passed me a hefty catalogue raisonné of his recent work, along with a brochure from a Christie's auction that pictured a work of his that sold there for $25,000.

After a while Old San Juan, apart from the architecture, doesn't seem very old at all. What had first struck me as an amazing re-creation of a Spanish colonial city proved to be less a restoration than an emphatically modern vision of an idealized past. For one thing, this distant outpost of a crumbling empire surely had never been so carefully tended. And what was being restored, anyway?If a building had been constructed in stages over the course of four centuries, to which century should it be returned?

These questions may sound academic, but for the people of Puerto Ricowho have spent the past century debating what exactly it means to be Puerto Ricancultural issues carry a heavy emotional weight. In fact, not long before I arrived in Old San Juan, just such a controversy was raging in the local newspapers.

The antagonists were the Catholic church and a newly refurbished hotel, then due to open shortly, called El Convento. The Catholic Church is no minor institution in Puerto Rico. From the earliest days of the colony, when little wooden ships anchored in the harbor after months at sea, the first thing their crews would do was march through the city gate, straight to the Catholic cathedral, to give thanks for their safe delivery.

Some time after the cathedral was built, a convent for Carmelite nuns went up alongside it. A grand structure, it had a spacious courtyard and a towering chapel. But eventually the convent's numbers shrank, until finally, in the early part of this century, the church gave the building to the city, which used it as a garage for garbage trucks.

It has answered other purposes as well. "This used to be the best whorehouse in Old San Juan," said hotelier Hugh Andrews proudly. A portly, cigar-smoking American who has lived in Puerto Rico for some 30 years, Andrews is the kind of perennial expatriate who could have stepped out of the pages of a Graham Greene novel. (In Vietnam he served in the army's recreation corps, setting up the resort that later became famous on TV as China Beach.)

After years of desuetude the old convent building was sold by the city of San Juan to the Woolworth family, which poured money into the property and opened it in 1962 as the El Convento hotel. The jet set loved it, but El Convento never made money, and in 1971 it was given back to the city in lieu of taxes. The property continued to decline. Finally, in 1995, Andrews, the man behind the ultra-fashionable El San Juan Hotel and the epic El Conquistador mega-resort, assembled a team of investors to buy the property.

Hoping to make El Convento a top-end hotel once more, they embarked on a vigorous rebuilding program. A wall was knocked down to open the courtyard to the street, and a casino and gallery of shops were constructed. The guest rooms, meanwhile, were kept segregated from the hustle and bustle of the public spaces, so that guests could enjoy a glass of wine by the miniature roofside pool without suffering the intrusions of window-shoppers. The result is an impressively luxurious, graciously old-fashioned hotel.

The church hated it. Members of the original order emerged to declare that the casino represented a desecration of the nuns supposedly buried beneath it. Ricardo Alegría also hated it, accusing Andrews of knocking down too many walls. Andrews is steamed at both of them for what he sees as irrational obstructionism.

The close quarters that make for a tight community also mean that squabbles flare with unusual vigor. Even for Old San Juan, the players happened to be located particularly close together: just as Hugh Andrews could look out of his office and shake his fist at the cathedral, Alegría could lean out his window and shake his fist at El Convento. Everyone else seemed to find it good entertainment.

By now i have spent enought time negotiating Old San Juan to realize that there was, in fact, a center to this labyrinth. Behind it all one man seemed to be lurking. Every discussion of the old city's history invoked his name; every controversy over a demolition or construction featured him as a character. Ordinary Puerto Ricans spoke of him with the sort of reverence usually reserved for martyred revolutionaries.

Ricardo Alegría is old now, a stooped and frail 76, and he has been retired from the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture for 23 years. In his youth he made headlines when he discovered ceremonial ball courts built by the vanished Taino Indians, similar to those used by the Aztecs. For decades he oversaw the painstaking process of rebuilding Old San Juan. Along the way he helped revive dying Puerto Rican handicrafts, including the santos figurines that feature so prominently in the tourist shops on Calle Cristo: every single one made nowadays was carved by an artisan trained by the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture. He is often, and without irony, referred to as the Father of Puerto Rican Culture; and while he has many enemies, there are few who don't respect, no less cherish him. Even Andrews had to admit that if it weren't for Alegría, there wouldn't be an El Convento hotel to argue about.

But Alegría's health has been poor, and his schedule is still busy, so meeting him proved difficult. After a week I had heard no word. It could have been worse: Hugh Andrews had been waiting eight months to arrange a powwow.

"Get Jan to take you," Andrews finally advised. "And whatever you do, don't mention my name."

Evidently, Alegría has had a crush on Jan for years. And so the doors, long shut, swung magically open, and the two of us tramped down to his office.

Too energetic to slow down after his retirement, Alegría had immediately founded a research institute called the Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Laid out around the enormous central courtyard of a former seminary, the place is as dignified and rambling as the old man's career.

Jan and I were summoned to a meeting room where massive high-backed wooden chairs stood around a black hardwood table. Don Ricardo shuffled in. His white hair was slicked back; great swooping white eyebrows hung over his eyes like summer clouds. He greeted us warmly and bade us sit. I asked him about his long years of work in San Juan.

"There was a time," he recalled, "when progress meant demolition. Progress meant chrome and plate glass and skyscrapers. Architects and merchants said I was stopping progress because I wanted to preserve the spirit of the old city." He added, with pride, "Now they see I am right."

He recounted his various struggles with the government and bits of historical lore. Casting a twinkling eye at Jan, he recounted the story of the Spanish army officer who set his mistress up in a house below the fortress walls, connected to his quarters by a subterranean passage. Then, growing restless, he pushed himself to his feet and announced that he would give us a tour.

He led us through the shaded cloister to a newly restored chapel with a magnificent trompe l'oeil rotunda, and then to an old kitchen with a large fireplace and hanging iron pots. At last we reached the very back of the seminary. A pair of huge black doors stood in the shadows, heavily padlocked. Don Ricardo led us around through an antechamber to a smaller side door, which he unlocked, and we passed into the startling light of afternoon.

It was a secret garden, tucked between the ancient buildings like the hidden compartment of a suitcase, lush and overgrown and dominated by a towering mango tree. Jan's mouth fell open in wonder: she had spent decades wandering up and down the surrounding streets without guessing that such a place existed.

Ricardo Alegría, the wizened gardener of all that Old San Juan had become, stood smiling amid the tangle of shoots and vines glowing in the sunlight. I asked him about Isa's mystery, the horseman of Calle Cristo.

"Historians say he was killed," he said, nodding. Then he added: "I like to believe he was saved."

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