Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898

In the distance, U.S. naval ships approach what seems to be an everyday scene of Ponce.

Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898 (Americans disembarking in Ponce, July 27, 1898), 1898, oil on canvas, 59.8 x 99.2 cm (Museo de Arte de Ponce). Speakers: Dr. Taína Caragol, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Steven Zucker

0:00:05.4 Dr. Steven Zucker: We’re in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. at a special exhibition titled 1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions, and we’re looking at a magnificent painting.

0:00:17.5 Dr. Taína Caragol: This is El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898 or Americans disembarking in Ponce, July 27, 1898.

0:00:29.1 Dr. Zucker: And this is an important historical event that is representing a moment in the conflict between the Americans and the Spanish in Puerto Rico.

0:00:38.9 Dr. Caragol: For over a decade, Ponce had been a main center of activism for the cause of Puerto Rican autonomy from Spain.

0:00:47.2 Dr. Zucker: So this is a war scene, but this is not a battle. We don’t see guns, and in fact, we have to look at the ships just at the horizon line to see the war vessels of the United States Navy.

0:00:58.1 Dr. Caragol: You also see the military presence through men in military uniform.

0:01:02.9 Dr. Zucker: What we think is happening here is that the military is unloading supplies that they will use as they march northward towards San Juan.

0:01:11.8 Dr. Caragol: We see some ox carts, we see some hay wagons, and they seem to be lining up.

0:01:17.7 Dr. Zucker: There’s such a vividness to this image. There is a kind of minute detail, and you get a sense of the veracity of the truth, of the accuracy that the artist wanted to bring to the scene.

0:01:29.5 Dr. Caragol: Everything is conveying a very strong sense of place.

0:01:34.6 Dr. Zucker: I’m struck by the quietness of the scene of its everyday quality. And yet at the same time, there is this tremendous naval power just at the edge of our line of sight. There is this anticipation. It prompts the question, what’s going to happen next?

0:01:51.2 Dr. Caragol: It’s a painting about a pivotal moment in Puerto Rican history, and yet there is this sense of business as usual and of an interaction that is not confrontational. Ponce was the center of political activism for those who advanced the agenda of autonomy, or self-government, under Spain. And between the late 1870s and early 1890s, the reception of that movement by Spanish colonial authorities was not good. In fact, in 1887 was a great repression against those who advocated for autonomy.

0:02:30.6 Dr. Zucker: But then Spain does seem to recognize the necessity of allowing Puerto Rico [and] Cuba to have some political autonomy and they do then agree to a charter that grants Puerto Rico domestic autonomy. The island would not be given the power to conduct international affairs, but they could at least conduct their own domestic affairs.

0:02:52.2 Dr. Caragol: Spain is itself enduring a lot of insubordination, if you will, from its colonial subjects. And so by the end of the 19th century, it’s a country that is tired of having to put all these resources to placating these different movements across the remaining colonies it has. And so yes, in November of 1897, Spain grants Puerto Rico a Carta Autonómica, its Autonomic Charter. It allows for a process of choosing a cabinet that is supposed to advise this new form of government of Puerto Rico as an overseas province of Spain, but with local autonomy. A cabinet is installed 8 days before the U.S. invasion through Guánica on July 25th, 1898. And suddenly, that changes the whole equation: what Puerto Ricans had been fighting for over a decade is suddenly in limbo. We don’t know what is going to happen. However, this painting, I think, embodies a sense of cautious optimism that people in Ponce and in many towns of the south of Puerto Rico had in regards to the arrival of the United States. Yes, the war in Puerto Rico did involve some battles, some skirmishes, there were dead on both sides. However, in comparison to the Philippines, in comparison to Cuba, the losses were a lot less. And there was, especially in the south of the island, a sense that the United States as a power that was associated to democracy, to freedom, to modernization, was perhaps going to bring all of that into Puerto Rico.

0:04:40.7 Dr. Zucker: And we’re seeing here literally empty carts, that is the island’s receptivity to what the United States might perhaps bring.

More on El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Taína Caragol and Kate Clarke Lemay, editors, 1898: Visual Culture and U.S. Imperialism in the Caribbean and the Pacific, exhibition catalogue (Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 2023).

Cite this page as: Dr. Taína Caragol, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, El desembarque de los americanos en Ponce, 27 de julio de 1898," in Smarthistory, May 21, 2024, accessed June 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/manuel-cuyas-agullo-americans-disembarking-ponce/.