Within minutes of setting foot in New Orleans, it becomes clear that this city is different. There’s an atmosphere here that you won’t find anywhere else in the mainland United States. Many have said that New Orleans is the U.S.’ most Caribbean city – even more than Miami. But that’s not entirely correct. While New Orleans may be the most Caribbean city on the mainland, travel less than 1700 miles to the southeast, and you’ll find a U.S. city that is remarkably similar: San Juan.
When you look at photos of New Orleans (top) and San Juan (bottom) together, it’s hard to deny the similarities. The architectural style, vibrant colors, galleries overlooking the streets, and even the layouts of portions of the cities themselves are all a testament to their shared history. Both cities feature a rich culture that mixes native, African, and Spanish influences. Even the Creole culture, which many consider to be unique to the Mississippi Delta region, thrives in its own form in Puerto Rico.
Tied by History
It’s easy to forget that New Orleans fell under Spanish control for 40 years. However, those 40 years turned out to be some of the most formative in the city’s history. For example, it was during those years that what is today known as the French Quarter burned down, and was rebuilt, giving it the colorful, Spanish look that you see today. And, it was during those years that trade between New Orleans and Puerto Rico’s port city of San Juan became firmly established. Agricultural goods like cotton and tobacco were shipped one way, while sugar, coffee, and slaves flowed the other.
When New Orleans fell back under French control, and was ceded to the United States shortly afterward in the Louisiana Purchase, many Spanish and creole citizens were unhappy. They fled the city and took refuge in Puerto Rico, where Spain retained control. Then, during the Latin American Wars of Independence, the flow of people reversed. Many Puerto Ricans felt stifled under increasingly heavy-handed and militaristic Spanish rule and took refuge in New Orleans.
In fact, a few of those immigrants would go on to finance revolutionaries fighting for Puerto Rican independence.
When the U.S. gained control of Puerto Rico in 1902, it only further helped to cement the ties to New Orleans. After WWII, the U.S. saw another large influx of Puerto Rican citizens. Many Puerto Ricans began passing through New Orleans and Florida as they moved to the mainland in search of a more prosperous future.
Art, Architecture, Music and Food
All around New Orleans you can see Puerto Rican influence. Artist Carlos Rolón has a feature exhibit on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Musicians like Miguel Zenon bridge New Orleans jazz with Puerto Rican popular music, while bands like Surge seek to add a New Orleans influence to Puerto Rican indie rock. The rhythms drummed on buckets by performers on Bourbon street, and played by drum lines in parades during Mardi Gras often mimic those you’d hear played by traditional bands in the bars and clubs in San Juan. Even Carnival itself, with its many parades, colorful costumes, and bead throwing has been influenced by traditions from Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean. And of course, all over the city you can find restaurants serving traditional and popular Puerto Rican dishes (in fact, there are currently over
Today, most people feel there is an even stronger parallel between Puerto Rico and New Orleans: devastation. When the first images of the destruction in Puerto Rico following hurricane Maria began to filter through the media, it was hard not to think of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Although the death toll following Maria was far higher (4,645 due to Maria versus 1,833 due to Katrina), both wrought unbelievable destruction, flooding, and saw an unbearably slow federal response. (As of June 1, there were still nearly 11,000 Puerto Ricans living without power, nearly nine months following landfall).
In March, 30 Puerto Rican leaders visited New Orleans, hoping to learn from the city’s recovery post-Katrina. While feeling largely abandoned by the federal government’s efforts, many were heartened by the show of solidarity they found in New Orleans. CEOs, nonprofits, and philanthropic leaders from all over the city took time to meet with the Puerto Rican leaders, eager to show them how they could not only bounce back, but make Puerto Rico a better place to live for all of its citizens.
Two Places, Forever Bound
One thing is for sure – New Orleans and Puerto Rico are sure to continue their exchange of music, food, art, and architecture. The people of both places are strong and resilient, and understand the necessity of working hard, and enjoying life to its fullest. As Puerto Rico continues to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria, they will take to heart lessons New Orleans has already learned. Though neither place will ever be quite the same, Puerto Rico will eventually recover, just as New Orleans has.