Four Lessons from Ramón Power y Giralt, the “First” Puerto Rican

Who Was Ramón Power y Giralt?

Ramón Power y Giralt as painted by Francisco Oller

Ramón Power y Giralt was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico on October 7th, 1775, and died in Cádiz, Spain, on June 10th, 1813.  He was a navy captain, a legislator, and a delegate to the Spanish courts on behalf of Puerto Rico.

Power y Giralt was listed on his birth certificate as the son of Spaniards, which was technically accurate since his parents moved from Bilbao (Basque Country). But notice neither Power nor Giralt are Spanish last names.

His father was Joaquín Power y Morgan, himself the son of an Irishman who settled in Bilbao, and his mother was María Josefa Giralt y Santalla, a Catalonian woman from Barcelona.

Although he completed primary school in San Juan, Ramón Power y Giralt was educated in Bilbao, Spain from the age of 13, including naval studies.

Biographers and the two paintings we have of him (remember, there was no photography back then) describe him as blond, with blue eyes, pink cheeks, and a boyish face. Indeed, he looked like a little kid, even as an adult.

Historians, particularly Lidio Cruz Monclova, agree he was one of the first persons born on the island to call himself Puerto Rican.

Ramón Power y Giralt as painted by José Campeche

Previous inhabitants considered themselves Spanish or Castilian. And yet, there is evidence of an emerging Puerto Rican identity among the population.

For example, those second and third-generation Puerto Rican-born did not know Spain or felt as loyal to the Crown as their parents and grandparents.

Similarly, the pirate Cofresí famously said “I never killed a fellow Puerto Rican“. Obviously, you must consider yourself Puerto Rican to make such a statement.

Thus, the Criollo population of the island did not think of themselves as Spanish. The Taíno and the black population never did. And from that racial mixing, we were born.

So, you are telling me the first Puerto Rican was white, Irish, educated in Spain, and with a baby face? How so?

Was He Truly the First Puerto Rican?

Plaque located at his residence in Cádiz, Spain. Image: Calle Ancha

When historians refer to Ramón Power y Giralt as the first Puerto Rican, there is an agenda behind it. In fairness, he was one of the first people to call himself so. But why him and not one of the others?

In short, the Big Man theory of history proposes history is explained by the impact of great men or heroes.

Ramón Power y Giralt is someone with great accomplishments on behalf and benefit of the island, especially considering he died so young (at 37 years of age).

I will use an analogy. The USA had fourteen presidents before George Washington. (Remember, US independence was in 1776, and Washington was elected in 1789. That is a thirteen-year gap). Of those fourteen, with maybe the exception of John Hancock, you would recognize none of their names.

Except it sounds better when we say George Washington was the first president (rather than Peyton Randolph) because he had a better resumé, huge military accomplishments, and was well respected by his contemporaries.

Therefore, for us Puerto Ricans, who would we rather have as “the first Puerto Rican”? A Juan del Pueblo nobody knows or heard of? Or the hero of the Battle of Santo Domingo who defeated Napoleon’s navy?

Returning his body to Puerto Rico after more than 200 years. Image: EFE

I will go with the hero of the Battle of Santo Domingo, especially since the Dominican Republic is like our big sister.

Among Power y Giralt’s many accomplishments were:

  • He was a Navy Captain of the frigate Cometa and protected the island mostly from British corsairs.
  • He was the hero of the Palo Hincado Battle (1808-1809) that liberated Santo Domingo from the French (with help from Haití (no surprise) and the British Navy (big surprise, but when your mutual enemy is Napoleon Bonaparte…).
  • He was elected to represent Puerto Rico at the Cortes of Cádiz in 1810.
  • Among his legislative achievements at the Cortes were the abolishment of the governor’s extraordinary powers, tax reduction, the elimination of the flour monopoly, and several other economic proposals that benefited the island.
  • His biggest achievement was the Power Act which established five free commerce ports: Fajardo, Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Ponce, and Cabo Rojo.
With accomplishments like that, who would not want to claim him as “the first” Puerto Rican?

So, what lessons can we learn from Ramón Power y Giralt? What can this 18th-century-born Boricua teach us 21st-century ones?

Lesson One: Put the Puerto Rican People First

image: Pinterest

When he was elected as a delegate to the Cortes of Cadiz, he was 32 years old. A big responsibility for someone so young, especially since he would be the only representative of the island. And yet, people voted for him.

Rather than betray the voters’ trust, Power y Giralt used his political skills and reputation as a heroic navy officer to get economic concessions from the Crown that would benefit Puerto Rico’s economy and stop the abuses of local government.

Furthermore, he had the full support of Bishop Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, who gave him his episcopal ring as a sign of trust.

However, simple reforms like the Power Act, tax reduction laws, and the elimination of the flour monopoly meant the island could compete economically with the rest of the Caribbean with fewer restrictions.

Many politicians turn their backs on their voters once elected and do not follow through with campaign promises. But not Power y Giralt. By putting Puerto Rico first, we remember him today as someone admirable.

Besides, what is the point of being the first Puerto Rican if you don’t do good for your country?

Lesson Two: Be On Time

image: Instituto de Culture de PR

When the Cortes of Cádiz opened on September 24th, 1810, 104 delegates were present. Eventually, over 300 participated, including 63 from Spanish America.

However, out of the 63 American delegates, the only one who was present at the opening of the parliamentary proceedings was Ramón Power y Giralt. He actually arrived on June 10th, 1810, three months earlier.

I an sure he used those three months to introduce himself, make alliances, and network.

How do I know this? Because he accomplished so much in a few years and because by September 25th, he was named vice-president of the court sessions.

We Puerto Ricans have a reputation for procrastinating. But Ramón Power y Giralt shows us a lot can be accomplished by being on time. Thus, be on time.

Lesson Three: Reform by Consensus

image: SpainCulture.us

Ramón Power y Giralt was a great reformist. He sought political, economic, and social changes. But not through protest and rebellion, but from within the system.

He understood he was one out of 300 legislators and that he would need to find consensus, compromises, and build coalitions if his reforms for Puerto Rico were to be approved by the majority.

Power y Giralt strongly believed in people’s sovereignty, the rights of the individuals (sacred and inviolable), and free trade.

Furthermore, he fought for recognition of equality among the Spanish and the native Indians, and the rights of Criollos as free Spanish citizens (used to be Spanish-born had more rights than Puerto Rican-born citizens). These reforms passed.

Was he the greatest speaker? No, he was just friendly and unassuming. He was not trying to destroy the status quo; he was trying to change it.

Ramón Power y Giralt’s Final Lesson

image from comic book by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

As great and formidable as Ramón Power y Giralt was, he was not perfect. Indeed, some of his accomplishments are problematic for 21st-century sensitivities.

For instance, we cannot deny his father made his fortune in the slave trade. Likewise, Power y Giralt was neither anti-colonial nor pro-independence.

To make it worse, he specifically demanded his reforms were “limited to the rights of the naturals”. Hence, by limiting the Court’s reforms to only those born in Puerto Rico, he automatically excluded the hundreds of African slaves on the island.

Whether this was a political compromise or not, we would never know. Although it introduced a legal loophole Ramón Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruíz Belvis will exploit it when fighting for the abolition of slavery decades later.

Aren’t we glad we do not live in the 1800s?

Ramón Power y Giralt monument in Spain

Was he the first Puerto Rican? Not really. Only one of the firsts. Did he serve Puerto Rico and made us proud? He certainly did.

What I want to know is, how did he earn the respect of his soldiers and the other legislators?

Because honestly, when we think of a Navy Captain, we think of someone older, with a beard, burly, stern, and strong. In short, manly.

Ramón Power y Giralt was painted by the two great Puerto Rican painters, José Campeche and Francisco Oller, and both paintings confirm the eyewitness descriptions of a short, pale man with a baby face. Campeche knew him and his family personally.

It is hard to take seriously someone who looks like a kid. We are biased now, imagine over two centuries ago.  And yet, people respected him, listened to him, and acted on his command.

Home of Ramón Power y Giralt at #155 Tetuán St in Old San Juan. Image: Discover Puerto Rico

What did Power y Giralt have to do to overcome his looks?

I would guess great charisma, bravery, a touch of cockiness, and leadership.

Ramón Power y Giralt teaches us that we do not have to be tall, manly, or fit our society’s stereotypes to be a war veteran, a politician, or a great Puerto Rican. Let that be his final lesson.

Reader, what do you think of Ramón Power y Giralt’s legacy?

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