Puerto Rican city accepts giant memorial
By KARL ROSS
Special to The Herald
CATAÑO, Puerto Rico -- Shopped around the New World since 1992,
gargantuan statue of Christopher Columbus spurned by cities including Miami
Beach, New York and Baltimore, has found a home in this tattered industrial town
overlooking San Juan Harbor.
With a population of 36,500, Cataño is best known outside Puerto
Rico for the
Bacardi Rum plant that sits at the base of a palm-tree-studded peninsula. But to
locals, Cataño conjures up images of social malaise like drug gangs and raw
sewage that are unlikely to be featured in any tourism brochure.
Yet Cataño Mayor Edwin Rivera-Sierra, a retired police officer better
his nickname ``Switchblade,'' has pulled off a feat at least five U.S. cities, all far
more affluent, have been unable or unwilling to do: He has reunited the remains of
Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli's towering New World Monument, stashed in
warehouses the world over until now.
``This will not only put us on the map of the United States, this will
put us on the
map of the world,'' said Rivera, who is confident that the 350-foot-tall sculpture,
with its billowing sails, will rise from the banks of Cataño as a beacon of prosperity
for future generations. Over half of the town's residents live in poverty, according
to the 1990 Census.
Cataño succeeded in finding seed money while Columbus, Ohio, where
group lobbied hard to bring in the statue of that town's namesake, fell short.
``The wish list of the city was so long that we couldn't get it on the
funding priorities,'' said Jane Butler, who led that effort. ``There's only so much of
that kind of money in the community.''
With the blessing of Cataño's municipal assembly, Mayor Rivera earmarked
million for shipping expenses and another $560,000 for preliminary studies.
Chunks of the statue, enough to fill 46 cargo trailers, began arriving in September.
Rivera confirmed Nov. 2 that all 2,000 pieces, including the much-anticipated
head, are safely on Puerto Rican soil.
The commitment of nearly $3 million -- without having held public hearings,
carried out feasibility studies -- has caused some townsfolk to wonder aloud about
the mayor's head. A burly, voluble man with a propensity for bursting into tears at
public events, Rivera, 49, was discharged from the police force with a full mental
``That mayor is so stupid. He should forget about that statue,'' groused
Eugenia Diaz, a resident of one of Cataño's poorest neighborhoods. ``I like pretty
things, too, but it's a matter of priorities. Look around here. They treat us like
we're the last scum of the universe.''
Diaz lives in one of several communities that lack sewage hookups and discharge
raw waste into a garbage-choked drainage canal emptying into San Juan Harbor
at the foot of the proposed monument site. So dark and foul is the water carried
by the canal that one local environmental activist, Rosa Hilda Ramos, said visitors
``will have to put clothespins on their noses.''
Other Cataño residents cling to the statue as a reed of hope for
a piece of the
prosperity enjoyed by neighboring towns.
``If it will bring progress to Cataño then I'm in favor of it,''
said Melanie Nieves,
sitting in front of a small grocery store with her 6-month-old daughter draped over
her shoulder. ``The mayor says he's going to fix up Cataño, but that takes time.''
The mayor's administrative record has been a concern for some citizens,
them former City Councilman Roberto Figueroa. A member of the same party as
the mayor, Figueroa said projects like the dredging of the canal in front of Diaz's
home and the renovation of the town's waterfront have been on the drawing board
since the early 1980s.
``There's lots of signs up announcing projects, but I haven't seen any
said. ``Most of that money is wasted on studies.''
Others think the colossal likeness of Columbus has already landed on the
foot. Many of the cargo containers are parked on the docks, racking up thousands
of dollars in fines for late pick-up. And key agencies that would have to issue
permits, like the Federal Aviation Administration, have voiced doubts about the
statue's site selection.
As currently envisioned, the statue would rise from the tip of a sandy
overlooking San Juan Harbor, not far from the flight path of a nearby commuter
airport. It would be the tallest structure in Puerto Rico -- taller than any of the
island's beachfront condos or downtown skyscrapers -- something that FAA
officials say could pose a hazard to passing planes.
Mayor Rivera shrugged off the critics, saying the project won't cost taxpayers
penny. He said a group of private investors who plan to incorporate a food court,
shops and possibly a marina and resort complex into the project will pick up the
town's $3 million tab, once the investors have completed a $30 million bond issue
to finance the deal.
``Everybody here supports the project, except for two or three enemies
people,'' Rivera said. ``They are people who want to stunt Cataño's growth, who
don't want to see it converted into a great city.''