Juan Ponce de León's statue in Old San Juan (via Wikimedia Commons)

At 4:30am AST this morning, a statue of Juan Ponce de León was found toppled in San Juan’s Plaza San José and broken from impact. The statue’s removal took place just hours before King Felipe VI of Spain arrived for a scheduled visit to Puerto Rico to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of Old San Juan, the oldest city in the US and its territories. 

Responsibility for the toppling of the statue, which San Juan’s mayor has denounced as an “act of vandalism,” has been claimed by a group called the Boriken Libertarian Forces. (Boriken is the name that native Taíno inhabitants used for the island.)

“Faced with the visit of the King of Spain, Felipe VI, to Puerto Rico and the escalation of ‘gringo’ invaders taking over our lands, we want to send a clear message: neither kings nor ‘gringo’ invaders,” the group wrote in a statement.

Ponce de León was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who served as the first governor of Puerto Rico and amassed considerable wealth from forcing native Taínos on the island into brutal servitude on plantations and in mines as part of the encomienda system. Symbols of his legacy — along with the broader legacy of Spanish colonial rule — have become focal points for removal and activism surrounding decolonization.

Located in Old San Juan, historically the colonial quarters of the city, the statue has previously served as a landmark where activists gathered to demand that the Puerto Rican government remove statues associated with Spanish rule. A US National Historic Landmark, the statue shows León with his left hand on his hip, his right finger pointed directly ahead, wearing a shirt with ruffles on the cuff, a coat with sleeves that reach his elbows, trousers, and long boots, all topped with a hat adorned by a long feather.

Cast in 1882 in New York from the melted steel of British cannons, the statue was gifted to Puerto Rico as a commemoration of the successful defense of the island from the British in 1797. The statue sits in front of the Church of San José, the original burial site of Ponce de León.

“These statues represent all that history of violence, of invasion, of looting, of theft, of murder,” an activist and member of Puerto Rico’s Council for the Defense of Indigenous Rights named Pluma told the Associated Press during protests in July 2020. “These are crimes against humanity.”

The mayor has indicated that the statue will be restored to its spot by the end of the day.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.