This raises a legitimate question: Who was this native son who won this unusual feat of being designated – for the first time – to rule the Puerto Rican diocese? What were his virtues and qualifications? Before answering these reasonable questions, it helps to remember some of the salient facts of the historical process of our 18th century and the first fifteen years of the 19th century. This summary will help us understand the circumstances of the environment in Puerto Rico in which the Honrable Arizmendi would have to exercise his ministry.
First is the notable growth of the population. We do not know the exact number at the beginning of the century. Two, three, tour, five thousand? We cannot say. However, at the end of the 18th century, the population reached one hundred and fifty thousand or so. Also notable was the urban development. At the beginning of the century there were six urban centers but at the end of the century there were thirty-eight. These numbers are significant in allowing us to capture some of the spirit of communal responsibility and social advancement that this urban development demanded, on some level. It helps to point out that the process of founding a town was not easy: the endless paperwork, the trips to and from the capital without means of quick communication. Also, the social responsibilities that were imposed were relatively onerous, including, among the most costly, the construction of a church and its preparation for worship – furnishings, vestments and liturgical objects; plus providing for the salaries of the priest and the verger, which was three hundred pesos a year.
Bishops Francisco de la Cuerda (1790-1795), Juan Bautista de Zengotita (1796-1802) and our Juan Alejo de Arizmendi (1803-1814) protested these unjust burdens. It is important to note that the founding order was not formalized until the religious responsibilities had been complied with.
In the last three decades of the 18th century, there were unmistakable signs of economic growth. The driving forces were the reforms put into effect beginning in 1765 and aimed at breaking the obstacles to economic mercantilism, among them, most particularly, the Free Commerce Regulations of 1778. This trade reform program continued in the first fifteen years of the 19th century with the advantage that it was now aimed directly at resolving the problems of Puerto Rico. These efforts culminated with the program of reforms put in effect by wise Spanish landowner Alejandro Ramírez, who was quartermaster general in Puerto Rico from February 1813 to June 1816.
Other factors that stimulated the economy were the initial measures of the agrarian reform: granting and legalization of titles, the policy against huge landholdings, the distribution of land, etc., etc.
And because of our unfortunate military fate, the international conflicts of the 18th century affected us, including, in a direct way, the taking of Havana by the British in 1762. This serious military reversal for the Spanish empire led to the monumental military construction projects of the last third of the 18th century: the imposing San Cristóbal, with its exterior works; the north wall; etc., all testimony in stone of the imperial desire to perpetuate itself. The creation of this formidable program of military engineering demanded an increase in the Situado – huge amounts were received from 1766 to 1779 – and was also, in some measure, a contributing factor in the relative economic growth noted at the end of the century.
The military importance of these works, particularly San Cristóbal as an impregnable guardian of the city, was clearly demonstrated in 1797 during the third and final British siege. The powerful fleet withdrew without even trying to force its way into the city. This historical event showed the Puerto Rican patriotic heroism and, in particular, that of the militias. The examples of bravery and determination for victory fed the popular consciousness and inspired the fervent folk tribute to Pepe Díaz, the "bravest man the King of Spain had…"
And, certainly, Pepe Díaz wasn't the only one to survive in the collective awareness: also from that century was Antonio de los Reyes Correa, the hero of Arecibo, and, under different circumstances, the mulatto Miguel Henríquez was remembered for his bravery and his defiance, protected, of course, by two of our bishops.
The exemplary nature that these unique figures radiated and that tradition perpetuated are powerful ties that build cohesiveness in the collective consciousness that generate contemporary and subsequent attitudes of affirmation and emulating citizen responsibility. With this significant baggage of collective experience the historical life of the 19th century began.
In this summary of the historical process of the 18th century, no Puerto Rican initiatives have been seen beyond those that were part of the founding of towns and fulfillment of military obligations. Were there a Puerto Rican people with awareness of their existence as such and of their rights? We have to wait until 1808 when the liberal regime installed in Spain was extended to Puerto Rico and a clear expression of Puerto Ricanness was seen, a true "Puerto Rican emergence." And among those who publicly and jubilantly gave witness to this awareness of being Puerto Rican was our bishop, Dr. Juan Alejo de Arizmendi.
Version: 10100501 Rev. 1