“La Puerta de San Juan” (San Juan Gate in English) was the only entrance to Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan for over four hundred years. Juan Ponce de León, appointed as governor of Puerto Rico (rich port in English) by the Spanish Royal Court in 1508, founded the original settlement in Caparra, now called Pueblo Viejo. The settlement was located behind the mostly land-locked harbor west of the present area.
The Only Point of Entry
The settlement relocated to a site now known as Old San Juan in 1509. Although Ponce de León first called San Juan “Puerto Rico,” it soon became the name of the island itself while San Juan became the town’s name. San Juan Gate was a particularly significant structure because the neighborhood was originally conceived as a Spanish military stronghold.
San Juan Gate, as mentioned, was the only point of entry of friend and foe alike back then. Old San Juan’s oldest parts, in fact, remain enclosed in part by massive walls which can still be seen today in Fort San Felipe del Morro, El Palacio de Santa Catalina a.k.a. La Fortalez, and Fort San Cristóbal; these were the defensive frontliners of Ponce de León’s settlement.
San Juan Gate opens and closes a neighborhood that has evolved into a thriving commercial district and a charming residential area. Brought over the ballast of Spanish ships, adoquine cobbles pave the street of Old San Juan (adoquine is a blue colored stone that has been cast from the slag of a furnace). San Juan Gate, in fact, is guardian to over 400 colonial buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
The walled city of Old San Juan has churches and public plazas that include the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista – which contains Ponce de León’s tomb – and San José Church. Old San Juan houses the Colegio de Párvulos, constructed in 1865, the island’s oldest Roman Catholic elementary school. Between the 1500s and the 1800s, dignitaries who arrived from Spain entered Old San Juan through San Juan Gate.
People, Money, and Documents Passed Through the Gate
Access to and from the city was strictly controlled by the gate. As Old San Juan’s official entry point, the gate served as protection for the residents living within the massively-fortified walls. Not only people passed through San Juan Gate but money and documents from the Spanish Court as well. Above the gate, an inscription in Latin reads “Benedictus qui venit in nomini Domini” (Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord).
San Juan Gate is the last of the city’s principal gates. The gate seen today has been repaired and restored many times over since its 1635 construction. The heavy wooden door of the San Juan Gate served as the first welcoming sight for those who arrived in Puerto Rico on sailing ships from Spain. Shortly after, a thanksgiving mass would be held at La Catedral de San Juan to thank God for their safe journey.