PR scholar Ricardo Alegría dead at 90
Alegría’s death shortly after 6 a.m. at the Cardiovascular Center of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in Río Piedras was due to multiple complications related to his heart.
The well-known cultural anthropologist, historian and archeologist remained active in his lifelong campaign to protect and document the island’s history even as he celebrated his 90th birthday in April.
Gov. Luis Fortuño declared five days of mourning, ordering flags lowered to half staff at all government facilities in recognition of “Don Ricardo’s work, perseverance and his unwavering love of our history and culture.”
“Alegría was and will continue to be a very important figure in the development of our culture,” the governor said. “The successful conservation and renovation of Old San Juan remains one of his greatest works.”
“In the name of all Puerto Ricans, we give thanks for his efforts and for showing us how to look to our past to forge a better path to the future,” Fortuño said.
“His work will live on forever within Puerto Ricans, as will his teachings of the value in preserving our historical patrimony,” he said.
A scholar known as the “Father of Modern Puerto Rican Archaeology,” Alegría was born in San Juan in 1921.
Alegría credited his father, José Alegría, a writer and leader of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party, for instilling in him his love of Puerto Rico and pride in its history and culture.
Alegría earned his bachelor’s degree in archeology in 1942 at the University of Puerto Rico, where he founded the Alpha Beta Chi fraternity based on equality, fairness and acceptance of all who wanted to join.
He continued his studies at the University of Chicago, earning a master’s degree in anthropology and history in 1947. Alegría then headed to Harvard University in Boston, where he completed his doctorate in anthropology in 1954.
Returning to the island, Alegría was named the first director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (IPRC) by Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín.
Alegría’s legacy in the documenting of Puerto Rican culture is as deep as it is wide ranging.
He was responsible for the creation of the Archaeological Center of Investigation of the University of Puerto Rico and the IPRC’s Center of Popular Arts, the institute's book-publishing arm. He also created the logo for the Institute of Neurobiology in Puerto Rico.
Alegría was widely celebrated for spearheading the renovation and restoration of historic Old San Juan, which he called home for most of his life. As a result of his work, Old San Juan was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1983.
He is also responsible for the restoration of the ruins of Caparra in Guaynabo and Fort San Geronimo at the mouth of the Condado Lagoon.
In 1976, Alegría opened the Center of Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in Old San Juan. In 1992, he established the Museum of the Americas.
Alegría is credited with being a pioneer in the studies of Taíno culture and African heritage in Puerto Rico. His extensive studies have helped historians understand how the Taínos lived and suffered, before and after the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the island. DNA studies have backed up Alegría’s estimate that about one-third of all Puerto Ricans have Taíno blood.
Alegría has been honored widely for his work, receiving recognition from U.S. presidents, the Cuban government and Puerto Rican governors.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented Alegría with the Charles Frankel Prize for his contributions in the field of archaeology. In 1996, he was awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. In 2001, Alegría received the Haydee Santamaria Medal in Havana.
In 2002, then-Gov. Sila Calderón awarded him the Luis Muñoz Marín Medal in recognition of his life achievements.
In April, Gov. Luis Fortuño named the courtyard at the Cuartel Ballajá barracks in Old San Juan after Alegría.
Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was inspired by Alegría’s work and incorporated a fictional character based on him, named Ricardo Santurce, in his play “El loco de los balcones.”
“I admire him a lot; his work was extraordinary. Not only did he revive a barrio, Old San Juan, which is very beautiful, but he did it without allowing it to be turned into a museum. He gave it a great vitality and integrated it into current life, showing in a quite concrete way that the past can be a very rich and stimulating element for the present. I wish all Latin American countries had a Ricardo Alegría,” Llosa said.
Alegría left behind his own written legacy of more than a dozen books on Puerto Rican culture and history.
A wake for Alegría will be held starting at noon Friday at the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico & the Caribbean in Old San Juan. His body will remain there until midday on Sunday, when it will be moved to the San Juan Cathedral, where a Mass will be held. He will be buried in the capital city’s Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery.