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San Juan de Ulua, Site of Memory and Historical Resistances

Date de soumission : 19/05/2022
Critères: (ii)(vi)
Catégorie : Culturel
Soumis par :
Permanent Delegation of Mexico to UNESCO
État, province ou région :
Coordonnées N19 12 33.79 W96 7 52.70
Ref.: 6677

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Sites of memory are places vested with historical, social or cultural significance due to events that took place there in the past. Their associative values end up being more important or comparable to the consideration that has been made of the materiality of the cultural assets conveying different meanings; however, the material remains may be essential for the understanding of the associative values. These places may be of particular importance based on the role they have played in the formation of the identity of a community or nation. Interpretation is an essential part of the management of sites with aspects associated to memory, since it is important to provide a global and inclusive narrative, as the San Juan de Ulua site museum has been doing and whose museological discourse will be updated taking on this new approach.

San Juan de Ulua is directly and materially associated with events that changed the vision of the world, mainly between the 16th and 18th centuries. It is the fortress of the Greater Caribbean, which brings together social history (migrations from four continents), economic history (the main mercantile and industrial port of Latin America), politics (site of great events that changed the universal vision and ways of life, from the conquest of the New Spain to the Independence of Mexico). In addition to being a bastion of the Mexican resistances against the military interventions from other countries.

San Juan de Ulua had a fundamental transcendence in the constant mercantile exchange, both in the shipment, insurance, transport and commercialization of all kinds of products the market offered, as well as in the transfer of technology that allowed their production within the rules of the the Spanish monopoly. Likewise, during its construction, it propitiated diverse parallel companies, from the construction of ships and expeditions, to the raising of cattle and manufactures. Hence, it was the only point the crown authorized to trade with Spain.

Between 1561 and 1650, the port movements that took place there corresponded to 36 percent of all global transatlantic trade of the Carrera de Indias., resulting in, new ways of eating, living and enjoying, amazing Europe with imports sent from San de Ulua and Veracruz.

The port and fortress were also the entry and exit point for products, such as fabrics, porcelain, spices, ivory, transported in galleons and ships from China, Japan and the Philippines,. By the end of the 18th century, the places connected with San Juan de Ulua and Veracruz included a wide array of sites, giving an idea of the great exchange of personal relationships and events that arose from the Gulf of Mexico. This connections made it the most important and prosperous naval point in the Atlantic for the Spanish crown, as an enclave for the entry and exit of merchandise and products, but also of religion and political ideologies, among others.

Such was the importance of the commercial activity towards the world developed in Ulua, that it turned it into a geopolitical and commercial space and an inevitable attraction pole for pirates who attacked the vessels that went out to sea and stripping them of their shipments. A variety of objects from archaeological contexts submerged in marine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean. The research carried out in these sites constitute a collection of great value for all Mexicans. The identification and registration of each of the paleontological, archaeological and historical sites recovered from aquatic places are part of the great puzzle, whose pieces form a fundamental part of our history.

Sailors and soldiers, new settlers, adventurers, travelers, explorers, religious peoples and merchants entered and left through there, which led to the evolution and transformation of both the Port and the Fortress. People who came from “beyond the sea and from inland", whom stayed in San Juan de Ulua and Veracruz formed a unique society, the result of a blend of African, European and Meso- and Arido-American roots that formed a true genetic pool that built the “neighborhoods of the new world" that survive to this day.

In the political field, New Spain was one of the provinces where the Independence movement was unleashed early, which meant the dismantling of the American economic system and the loss of income that was sent to Cuba and the other Spanish islands, economic source of the administrative and military system of the Greater Caribbean. In these political and historical circumstances, San Juan de Ulua had to be occupied, in 1821, by the Spanish troops as a bastion to complete the reconquest of New Spain. Despite the passage of time, it continued to be an outstanding fortress, less than two thousand meters from the port of Veracruz, which had an admirable artillery defense (132 muzzles, including cannons of all calibers and mortars).

Among the innumerable outstanding events that make up the memory site, there are various foreign interventions: by the French army in 1838, looking to obtain economic privileges in Latin America; in 1846 by US forces, with the aim of seizing an extensive territory from Mexico; in 1861 with the arrival of the Spanish expeditionary force, which wanted to claim the “damages caused" by the Independence War; France again in 1862 to open the door to the Second Mexican Empire and the arrival of Ferdinand Maximilian, Archduke of Austria; and in 1914 again due to the North American intervention, in response to the political and military actions of Victoriano Huerta.

Lastly, the fortress also experienced a dark period as a prison, due to the viceregal need for forced recruitment of people into military service and forced labor, as well as for the punishment of characters who did not share the same ideology as the rulers of the time, or had committed some crime.

Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionnelle

Criterion (ii): The fortifications are the result of a historical destiny, housing cumulative historical-cultural values and scenarios that have created community and new living spaces over time. The interpretation works for this candidacy are aimed at a more anthropological and historical reflection regarding fortified assets, which can be considered archaeological, historical and artistic in nature, but which remain valid in their current significance of cultural memory.

In 1518 Captain Juan de Grijalba arrived at the islet of Tecpan Tlayácac, occupied at that time by the people of Ulua, who had erected a house of worship. A year later, with the arrival of the conqueror Hernán Cortés to the mainland, founding the first town hall of New Spain, the Villa Rica de la Veracruz, and also naming said islet as San Juan de Ulua, and until 1825 when the site was recovered as part of the Independence of Mexico, the fortress, together with the port of Veracruz, formed part of the defense system of the Spanish Greater Caribbean.

The defensive planning of the ports, which went from New Spain to the Patagonia, responded to the incursion of new naval powers (France, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Netherlands), in the routes of transfer between Spain and the New World. From as early as 1550, French and English corsair raids had begun in the Gulf of Mexico. Hispanic territorial policy was forced to correctly solve the complex problem of protection, in order to safeguard the communication mechanisms between the metropolis and its colonies.

Thus, in Mexico, through a visionary defense system, made up of San Juan de Ulua in Veracruz; San Miguel and other forts, in addition to the walled city of Campeche; and on the other side, in the Yucatan Peninsula, the Bacalar complex; all of them supported inland by the Veracruz fortress of San Carlos de Perote, the line of defense formed by the fortifications of the Caribbean coast was reinforced. San Juan de Ulua was the only fortification in the region, which had the dual function of protecting Veracruz and serving as the official port of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Criterion (vi): As a historical monument, the San Juan de Ulua Fortress is a privileged reference in the collective memory of Mexico and Latin America, so its conservation and proper use should contribute to the assimilation and recognition of its tangible and intangible cultural values. The monument plays a leading role as an evocative site of memory, closely linked to the cultural, economic and social history of the country and the world, from the first phase of Hispanic colonization to modernity. It is also one of the most important tourist attractions in Mexico, where the architectonic evolution has been respected, while also maintaining an outstanding socio-cultural program.

San Juan de Ulua and Veracruz looked to the sea and to the future: they were always attentive to everything that was happening in the Atlantic. Like no other place in Latin America and the Caribbean, they concentrated in their territory the largest number of cultural and migratory processes that resulted in unique ways of life, the result of the new ethnic composition of various continents: indigenous, Spanish (Extremeño, Andalusian and Castilian), mestizos, mulattos and Africans.

In this sense, in 2017 UNESCO declared San Juan de Ulua, together with the municipality of Yanga, as a Site of Memory of Slavery and African and Afro-descendant Populations, within the Slave Route Program: resistances, freedom and heritage.

San Juan de Ulua contributes, today, to ensure that society understands the value of material cultural heritage together with intangible values, intrinsically associated, underlining its importance in the future of Mexican and Latin American society, and in the relevance of these learning in everyday life: respect for others and individual and collective freedoms, dialogue between people, and historical resistances.

Déclarations d’authenticité et/ou d’intégrité


The effort that is being deployed to detect the singularities of San Juan de Ulua, accompanied by its authenticity and integrity, go beyond the formal and technical characteristics of the fortified heritage inscribed up to now, in order to be inserted in the understanding of the entire process and the historical and human contexts that support Outstanding Universal Value and its associated attributes.

The location of the fortress, on the reef known as La Gallega, was due to the fact that its roadstead was the only point on the central coast of the Gulf of Mexico, deep enough to receive Spanish ships and ships from other countries. In this sense, the fortification specialists who worked on the site faced physiographic adversities in the port, as well as innumerable difficulties in obtaining construction materials, but finally, thanks to their experience and technical knowledge, they were able to build, maintain, adapt and renovate the uses of a fortification in which food and water supplies were guaranteed for the military population, on which part of the regional security of the Greater Caribbean depended.

Along with slaves and original settlers who participated in the works, different groups of officers specialized in carpentry, stonework and “lime" also arrived, along with their families, mainly from Seville. The slaves extracted the múcara or muca stone from the sea, lung diving, cutting the coral and taking it up to the boats, to be transferred to the beach and start its drying and cutting process, and thus become the main construction material, both in the city of Veracruz and in the fortress (defensive binomial), in addition to the masonry, and the lime and sand mixture flattened walls.

Thus, in San Juan de Ulua, the Spanish fortification models were adapted to the characteristics of the site, making it an outstanding military model, a primary center for the exchange of constructive and urban ideas in the New World.

Finally, at the end of the 19th century, after the foreign attacks and due to the deplorable state of the building, in addition to the modernization of military technology, the construction went from a military fortress to a national arsenal and a floating dock, housing maritime workshops, as part of the port of Veracruz development. It had the ideal size and location to have an industrial function. There, boat rigging and utensils were manufactured, in addition to serving as a place for repairing ships and steamers that arrived at the port of Veracruz. The Arsenal had machinery, adjustment, foundry, boiler, blacksmith and carpentry workshops, cellars, warehouses and control points that, together with the Floating Dock facilities, carried out the tasks of cleaning, maintenance, repair and manufacturing of parts, for the national warships, as well as national and foreign trade.


The monumental complex does not belong to a single era, as it consists of a combination of projects and constructions, as well as styles and materials. It was built and modified from the mid-17th century well into the 20th century. That is why, the many works derived from the study of its architectural development show its importance as a key point of entrance and exit in the New Spain and a fundamental axis of Mexico’s history to this day.

The architectural complexity of San Juan de Ulua is the result of the extraordinary effort of more than 300 years of work in six stages justified by the development of artillery. The fortification constitutes a clear example of the ingenuity and technical preparation of its builders, whose works, in accordance with the most modern techniques of each era, attended to the three maxims that should prevail in the development of military constructions, firmness, comfort and symmetry. All its elements were arranged strategically: the officers' pavilions and troop lodgings, near the embankments of the curtains or walls; warehouses in dry, ventilated places and a short distance from the barracks; the arsenal near the square authority housing; the bakery far from the gunpowder stores and spare parts; the hospital near the water tanks, and these in points protected by detonation-proof walls or vaults, for their greater safety. All this, despite the inclement weather and the permanent siege of enemy powers.

Elements required in terms of protection and management

Two presidential decrees for the protection and correct use of the military architectural complex have been issued. One that assigned it to the service of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in 1961; and one that declared it a national historical monument in 2004, protected by the Federal Law on Archaeological, Historical and Artistic Monuments and Zones of 1972 and its Regulations of 1975. With them, the INAH is responsible of preserving its historical legacy as an integral part of the cultural heritage of Mexico, in addition to promoting educational and outreach programs that stimulate knowledge, study, respect and appreciation of the site's cultural heritage among the population.

In 1993, the “Study of the current state of the foundations of the San Juan de Ulua fortress" began, involving researchers from various disciplines: archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, historians, physicists and oceanologists. A year later, the “San Juan de Ulua Fortress Special Support Fund” was created, with the participation of the State government, the INAH and the National Council for Culture and the Arts, concluding in 1996.

In 1999, the “Los Suspiros” bridge, which connects the fortress with the San José Ravelin, was intervened with work to rebuild the foundation of the bridge’s vertical supports and its restoration. Later, during 2003 and 2004, work was carried out to stabilize the sea floor and the fortress through laminated piling as well as work to consolidate the foundations. During 2005, the metal sheet piling was built in front of the mooring ring harbor wall to prevent the sea floor wave erosion.

In 2004 the INAH World Heritage Office, together with the World Heritage Center, the UNESCO Regional Office in Havana and the Campeche INAH Center, held a “Experts Meeting for the Recovery of Americana’s Fortifications”, with a wide range of reflections on a broader territorial scale and more extensive historical perspective, including those dedicated to San Juan de Ulua.

In 2007 the National Coordination of Historical Monuments reactivated the restoration work on the Baluarte de Santiago, the Puente de los Suspiros, the Plaza de Armas del Pilar and Santa Catalina and on the foundations. And in 2009, when the “San Juan de Ulua Comprehensive Project" was reactivated establishing three intervention stages, which would conclude in 2010, for the celebrations of the Bicentennial of Independence.

Between 2012 and 2013, experts from the Engineering Institute of the Universidad Veracruzana carried out a project to identify the magnitude of particle velocities (PPV), caused by environmental and anthropogenic vibrations of the environment in the fortress, in compliance with international regulations for evaluating the effect of vibrations on the structural integrity of historical monuments, in order to monitor its conservation in the future.

Lastly, by presidential instruction and in order to “safeguard the historical memory" of the monument, a new comprehensive restoration project for the architectural complex began in 2021, with the participation of INAH and the Secretary of the Navy.

Comparaison avec d’autres biens similaires

  • Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo (1980), under criteria (i) and (iv). Added to the List of World Heritage in Danger (2012).
  • National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers (Haiti, 1982), under criteria (iv) and (vi) including Laferrière Citadel, considered the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere.
  • La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico (1983), under criterion (vi).
  • Port, Fortresses and Group of Monuments, Cartagena (Colombia, 1984), under criteria (iv) and (vi), including the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas, as an eminent example of military architecture.
  • Colonial City of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic, 1990); under criteria (ii), (iv) and (vi), which houses Fortress Osama, the oldest in America.
  • San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba (1997), under criteria (iv) and (v).
  • Brimstone Hill Fortresses National Park (St Kitts and Nevis, 1999), under criteria (iii) and (iv),
  • Historic Town of Saint George and related fortifications, in Bermuda (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 2000), under criterion (iv), an example of a fortified colonial city and the oldest English city in the New World.

In other regions of the world, we can highlight some military constructions also recognized by the World Heritage Committee:

  • Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions (Ghana, 1979), under criterion (vi).
  • Citadel, Ancient City and Fortress Buildings of Derbent (Russian Federation, 2003), with criteria (iii) and (iv).
  • Fortifications of Vauban (France, 2008), under criteria (i), (ii) and (iv).
  • Garrison Border town of Elvas and Fortifications (Portugal, 2021), under criterion (iv).
  • Hill Forts of Rajasthan (India, 2013), with criteria (ii) and (iii).

As for the integral conservation of the world heritage fortresses in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is still much to do and reflect on. According to studies by ICOMOS experts, the main problems consist of:

  • Bad interventions that distort the historical memory of the monument
  • Inappropriate use that alters and devalues the nature of the monument.
  • The lack of political will and financial support
  • There are several of them, devoid of adequate protection, dissemination and management of heritage, culture and tourism.