Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
One of the subjects in which I have a profound interest is preservation.
Preservation of all sorts, really, but especially the preservation of places. This interest is inextricably related to my desire to rescue “quiet” stories, the impetus behind so much of my work… and definitely my best work and that which I enjoy the most. There’s that desire, always, to inscribe in our collective memory the stories of what happened there, wherever “there” is, and anytime a “there” is obliterated, its stories tend to go with it. It’s as if the physical place has to exist for the bulk of our memories to persist.
This garita (or sentry box) is not a part of Oso Blanco, but it’s part of a structure that has been deemed worthy of preservation. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)
One of the “theres” that is of ongoing interest to me is Puerto Rico. Having lived there for 2.5 years, I was always fascinated by how sites of history were preserved and how they were wiped out, and how value was imposed upon a place, often by the weight and perceived significance of the stories that transpired there. The forts in Old San Juan? Saved. Colonial era houses? Saved? The wall surrounding Old San Juan? Also saved, at least for the most part.
But Oso Blanco? Well, that’s another story.
Oso Blanco was a state penitentiary that opened in 1933 and operated until 2004, when it was shut down by authorities because the retrofitting needed to bring it up to code was deemed too expensive. It would be cheaper to move inmates to other facilities or even construct a new facility. For nearly 10 years, the prison, certainly the largest structure from the Art Deco era in Puerto Rico, sat unoccupied, its eventual fate a subject of unresolved debate.
But then, earlier this year that debate picked up steam and suddenly, everyone seemed to have an opinion about what should be done with the massive building. Architects and preservationists insisted Oso Blanco shouldn’t be demolished. Politicians and commercial developers insisted that the cost of rehabbing it was prohibitive and that simply letting it crumble into eventual oblivion on its own was a waste of perfectly viable commercial space.
And so, it was decided that Oso Blanco would be tumba’o.
I’ve been following the story for a while and wanted to look at an aspect of it that hadn’t really been covered in the media, especially in the United States, and so I’ve been researching for a few months. Today, I wrapped up that research with a couple of interviews and I’ll be filing the piece for Latin Correspondent in the morning. Hope you’ll head over there to read it.