Felisa Rincón de Gautier, known affectionately as Doña Felisa or Doña Fela, was the first woman mayor of San Juan and one of the most prominent political figures in the history of Puerto Rico — a gorgeous Caribbean island that Americans generally do not need a passport for.
Dona Fela’s Background
Born in Ceiba as the oldest of nine siblings, her mother, Rita Marrero Rivera passed away giving birth to Felisa’s little sister. Doña Felisa had to take care of her younger siblings for a time, but her father was unwavering in his commitment to educating his daughter, and Felisa went on to graduate from high school and then furthered her studies to become a pharmacist.
The Dona Fela Museum
The Felisa Rincón de Gautier Museum in the heart of Old San Juan is the mansion where she lived for two years, after she was Mayor of San Juan and has become a public museum dedicated to displaying her life and good works. The stairwells and walls from the first through the third floors are lined with hundreds of news articles and awards she received during her lifetime.
113 keys of different cities hang on the walls, from Puerto Rico, the United States, and Latin America. There is a rooftop terrace with a stunning panoramic view of Old San Juan, where you can see Governor’s Mansion, the Gate of Old San Juan, the rum factory across the bay, and the wild waves crashing onto the opposite shore.
In one of the bedrooms is a photo of Felisa as a young woman dressed in pants and toting a rifle. “Her father, a lawyer, owned a small ranch,” said curator Hilda Rodriguez. “And sometimes when he had to be away he told her ‘you are in charge to run the ranch as best as you can.’”
Felisa became an activist in the suffragist movement and was the 5th woman to register to vote when the right was granted to Puerto Rico in 1932. Subsequently, she became a very active participant in politics and in 1938 helped organize the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico.
Dona Fela’s Accomplishments
In 1946, she shattered the sexist barriers and was elected mayor of San Juan, the first woman to be elected as a mayor of a capital city in the Americas. She served as mayor for 22 years and became a beloved celebrity with overwhelming public support due to her honesty and concern with child welfare, health, and public works of San Juan. During her time as mayor, the population of San Juan grew from 180,000 to 450,000, transforming into one of the most beautiful cities on the Caribbean, and elevating it to the center of tourism.
She established a municipal hospital on the grounds of what is now the Medical and Diagnostic Center as well as eight additional centers. These diagnostic centers were established in different areas of the Capitol to provide medical care and medicines to low-income residents.
Public works constructed under her administration included reconstructed streets, avenues, parks, plazas and nursery schools.
She received eleven honorary degrees from universities of the United States and Puerto Rico, and was named “Woman of the Americas” in 1954. This certificate commemorates that honor.
With a long list of so many outstanding achievements on behalf of her beloved San Juan citizens, there are three prominent contributions that stand out beyond the others. It is no accident that they all involved her love and concern for San Juan’s children.
1. She Established “Escuela Maternal” Daycare for Preschool Children.
Three years after she became mayor, she organized the first of the Maternal Schools which later became the model for the United State’s own Head Start Program. “When President John Kennedy came here in 1961, he saw the program, then sent Sargent Shriver to San Juan so he could follow how it was working,” said Rodriguez. “He took the idea back to the United States and changed the name to “Head Start.”
They also had ballet classes at the Maternal School. One of the teachers was a Swedish woman who first moved to Venezuela and then came to live in San Juan. She met Doña Felisa, and said, “No problem, I am going to stay here for some years, and I’m going to teach the kids some of the ballet,” beamed Rodriguez.
2. She Brought Snow to the Children.
Snow in San Juan? Only Doña Fela could accomplish that! She met the owner of the previous Eastern Airlines at a convention, and he said, “I want to give you a gift.” She said “No, you have invited me to the convention, that’s enough.” But because he was so insistent, she suggested that he give a gift to the kids of San Juan. “You have to help me bring snow to them!” So he did, for three years in a row, ’52, ’53, and ’54.
The snow arrived in Sixto Escobar Park and Luis Muñoz Rivera Park. Doña Fela wanted the children to have the unique experience of seeing snow, as well as an underlying educational motive to help them understand weather conditions in other parts of the world that they may never see.
To this day, children will ask, “How long did it stay?” Rodriquez told us, then with a twinkle in her eye said, “Long enough to throw a ball of snow and a lot longer to play in the pool of water.”
3. She Provided Christmas for the Children.
Organized during the Christmas season for poor children that would not be receiving gifts, she established a fund to have money to buy them toys and treats. The last year she was mayor, she didn’t have time to find the money for those Christmas gifts so she said to the manager of the toy store, “It’s going to keep on going, but I don’t have money to pay for it. What I’m going to do is…. the house that I have on the beach – that’s how I am going to pay for it. You give the toys for the kids, and I’m going to give the house to you so that they can have their gifts.”
Doña Felisa died in San Juan on September 16, 1994 at the age of 97 years old. Her remains rest in the Municipal Cemetery Monacillos Barrio Rio Piedras. Two years ago was the 25th anniversary of the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Museum, and this September is the 20th anniversary that she passed away.
Her Legend Lives On
An attractive immortalizing statue of Doña Fela stands in Palaca de Princessa near the tourism office. It’s a bit obscure, but if you go all the way through the gate and to your left, at the end you’ll see the statue of Doña Felisa. It’s not easy to find – it took me two days and many bewildered looks when I asked residents for the location of the statue.
Oddly enough, the first parking garage in all of San Juan was also built under her administration. “They didn’t give any name to the parking lot, but within a year, the people were calling it the “parking built under Doña Fela” and it stuck,” said Rodriquez.
“In the 90’s, the mayor said, ‘okay, it’s enough time; I think the parking should be named Doña Fela.’” This year they painted the parking garage with designs of fans that she was known to carry, and at the end of the garage is a portrait of Doña Fela herself. The parking is in Recinto Sur Street, downtown, near the cruise port.
A festivity is held on the streets of Old San Juan on the 3rd weekend of January. Last year half a million people came to the festivity. Part of the festivity is the display of floats with “big-headed” mannequins of people who were well-known in San Juan. In years past, they made one of Doña Felisa and after the parade, donated it to the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Museum where it is currently on display. “2015 is 45th anniversary of the festivities, so they asked us if we could lend it back to them,” said Rodriquez. “Of course we said yes – it is yours.”
Anyone wishing to assist in preserving the legacy of this amazing woman’s generosity and improvements to San Juan can donate to the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Foundation.