Don Ricardo Alegría: Keeper of Puerto Rico’s History and Culture
I feel comfortable saying no individual in contemporary times embodied Puerto Rico’s history, its traditions, was more revered by his countrymen, or more closely associated with telling its story than the incomparable Don Ricardo Alegría.
This post honors Dr. Ricardo Alegria at the first year anniversary of his passing on July 7, 2012. He lived a long, accomplished life and deeply loved his homeland, Puerto Rico. To say his knowledge and memory of Puerto Rico, the island he called home for 90 years, was encyclopedic would be an understatement. Known as “The Father of Modern Puerto Rican Archaeology,” Don Ricardo Alegría spent his life exploring, investigating, researching, writing about Puerto Rico’s history, including its African legacy.
As a cultural anthropologist, his documentary “Las Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza Aldea (1949), was one of the first studies of the African presence in Puerto Rican culture. In 1996, Don Ricardo Alegría published “Juan Garrido: El Conquistador Negro en las Antillas, Florida, México y California.” Garrido, was one of the first free Africans in the Americas and served as a conquistador for the Spanish crown. Many historians also credit Garrido with being the first person to cultivate wheat in the Americas.
Don Ricardo Alegría attributes his affection for his homeland most directly to a single individual, “I was greatly motivated by my father, the writer Jose Alegría, who taught me to dearly love Puerto Rico and to be proud of our history and culture.”
His pride and knowledge about Puerto Rico was immediately evident during a late afternoon interview I conducted with him in his Old San Juan home in October 2010, 6 months before his death. During the meeting, he recited with precision and ease Puerto Rico’s history beginning with the native Taino Indians and followed by Spanish conquistadors and African slaves. His memory, replete with vivid details, was startling for an individual of any age, but particularly impressive for someone 89 years old. He seemed to know everything about Puerto Rico. Being in Don Ricardo Alegría’s presence, listening and speaking with him, left me in awe and wonder. He was dedicated to uncovering and preserving the traditions of an island, valuing its culture and sharing his expertise and knowledge.
On a future post, I will present a more in depth account of the time I spent with Dr. Alegría, the extraordinary historian. For now, I offer his words for reflection: “If we know ourselves better, then we will be prouder of who we are, what we have, and what we want to preserve.”