Ponce de Léon, born around 1474 in Spain, was the first Governor of Puerto Rico under Spanish rule. His parents are not known, but the de Léon family were the descendants of King Alfonso of Spain, and they were a powerful family. Ponce de Léon was a soldier in the re-conquest of Spain in 1492, and in his early 20s became one of the “gentleman volunteers” of Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World.
Ponce de Léon participated in several massacres in the New World and was rewarded by the governorship of Hispaniola. He staffed his new estates with slave laborers and prospered, becoming very wealthy. In 1508, he received permission from the Spanish crown to prospect for gold in Puerto Rico and was made Governor of Puerto Rico in 1509, as a reward for having found some gold.
Ponce de Léon and his family moved to Puerto Rico and established a settlement consisting of Spanish settlers and local people who were forced to search for gold on behalf of the European settlers. Ponce de Léon quelled local uprisings, but he was outmaneuvered by fellow Spaniards and lost the governorship in 1511.
He set out for Florida in 1513, landed there, named it “Florida,” explored a bit, and returned to Puerto Rico to find that his home was destroyed and his family had narrowly escaped. He headed for Spain in hopes of cementing his power in Puerto Rico again, but in 1521 set out for Florida again in hopes of establishing a Spanish colony there. He was shot in Florida, died in Cuba, and was buried in Puerto Rico.
At that time, both Florida and Puerto Rico were in unsettled conditions, with wars among the original settlers and the European conquistadors. Many believe that St. Augustine was the first city in the U.S., but in fact San Juan was a city before St. Augustine. In fact, Puerto Rico had more going for it in architecture, wealth, and strategic importance than Florida when de Léon visited. Four centuries later, Florida is a State of the U.S. with a GDP of $33,419.31 per capita and Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory with a GDP of $18,499.23 per capita.
Ponce de Léon is best known for his search for the Fountain of Youth, which probably is a story, not a reality. There is no solid evidence that he ever searched for the Fountain of Youth, and no such search is mentioned in any of his assignments from Spain.
But the growth and prominence of Florida is not a myth. It is a reality. The possibility that Puerto Rico could flourish as an “enhanced commonwealth” is also a myth. The benefits of statehood are not a myth. The fact that all 50 states are in better economic positions than Puerto Rico is not a myth, and it is true of the states now no matter how they compared with Puerto Rico when they became states.
It’s time to let go of the myths and of the colonial past. It is time for statehood.