Puerto Rico

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Editors: Jay Kinsbruner and Erick D. Langer
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Country overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, the smallest island of the Greater Antilles, has an area of 3,435 square miles and a 2007 population of 3,944,259. Christopher Columbus landed on Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493, claimed the island for Spain, and named it San Juan Bautista. At that time, the island had a population of approximately 30,000 Tainos, the last of several Native American cultures, who had begun living on the island in the first century CE. The Tainos called the island Boriquén, "land of the brave lord," and this word and others of the Taino language survive in the idiomatic expressions used in Puerto Rico.


Juan Ponce De León led colonization of the island in 1508, arriving with forty-two settlers and founding the town of Caparra, near the site of present-day San Juan. Dissension soon arose over control of the island, and in 1511 the Consejo de Castilla, the highest court in Spain, granted Diego Columbus the right to govern the colony. Until 1536, when he sold his rights to the Crown, he controlled appointments to and administration of the island. The policies assigning native labor to colonists coupled with European diseases, rebellions, and desertions led to a decimation of the Taino population. From 1545 to 1581 the Crown named civilians as governors of the island but in 1582 elevated the island to a captaincy, administered by a captain-general.

Spain's rivals, angered by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and desiring the wealth found in the New World, coveted the colony as a gateway to Spain's empire. The French, English, and Dutch began military and economic incursions, attempting to break the Spanish trade monopoly. With the wealth found on the mainland, Spain gave meager attention to Puerto Rico, and between 1595 and 1625 San Juan suffered attacks from privateers. Although the residents repelled an attack by the forces of Francis Drake in 1595, the city was occupied and burned by George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland, in 1598, and again by the Dutch under Boudewün Hendrickszoon in 1625. After the Clifford attack, defenses for the city of San Juan were strengthened, though not adequately, and after the Dutch siege, the crown ordered construction of a wall around San Juan. Neither the fortifications nor the wall were completed until the last half of the eighteenth century. The crown ordered payment of a situado, a yearly amount to be paid for support of defenses, from New Spain (Mexico) in 1586, and despite its irregular delivery, it became the primary source of income for the colony through the next two centuries.

Early on, the colony depended on gold placer deposits, but these were exhausted by the late Page 409  |  Top of Article
Puerto Rico Puerto Rico 1530s and the island moved to a subsistence economy. Although sugar was introduced in 1512 and the first mill was in operation by 1523, the meager resources of the residents did not allow for expansive development. Since they could not compete in the global market, planters moved to production of ginger, despite objections by the Crown, and to tobacco and cacao by the seventeenth century. Coffee, introduced in 1736, made a contribution to the island's economy by 1765 but did not reach importance until the nineteenth century.

By the eighteenth century Puerto Rico had a strong agricultural base, but Spain refused to see her as anything but a military outpost. Because of contraband trade, island-based privateers plied her waters and harassed all shipping. The program of reforms under the Bourbon kings after 1700 did not reach Puerto Rico until 1755 when the Crown authorized the Compañía de Barcelona, a trading company created to control the flow of goods between Spain and Puerto Rico. The company existed until 1784 but sent few ships to the island, and its officials abandoned the legal system to join in the lucrative contraband trade.

After the fall of Havana to the British and its return to the Spanish in 1762, Charles III took major steps to centralize his authority, to improve the defenses of the empire, and to enhance profitability. He sent Field Marshal Alejandro O'Reilly to examine the military conditions on Puerto Rico, but, realizing the social conditions inherent to the decay of the military, he reported on all facets of Puerto Rico life. He found, among other things, the need for immediate improvement of defenses and training of soldiers and the pervasiveness of contraband trade. His census showed a total population of 44,883, consisting of 39,846 free persons (white and of color) and 5,037 slaves. He made suggestions to improve the island and efforts began to implement his recommendations. The 1775 census showed settlement projects and slightly improved conditions increased the total population to 70,210 and by 1787 to 103,581. However, the island and her mother country were soon to enter a century of upheaval.

The Haitian revolution of 1792 sent immigrants throughout the Caribbean, though only a few settled in Puerto Rico. Lacking large amounts of capital and with a small slave population, the island was again unable to expand her sugar industry. Spain entered wars against France and then England in the 1790s. Thanks to the improved defenses, San Juan repelled a siege by the British Page 410  |  Top of Articlein 1797. Due to disruptions in shipping, the Crown initiated trade with the United States. This trade remained open intermittently until 1819, when it became permanent under a treaty allowing the United States to purchase almost all of Puerto Rico's sugar output.

With the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the independence movements in Latin America, the face of the island changed. Growing Creole identity fostered a nationalistic movement evident in the election of Ramón Power y Giralt to the Spanish Cortes in 1810 and in the demands presented for the island. Power succeeded in obtaining abrogation of discretionary powers given to the governor, a response to the growing independence movements, and the creation of a separate intendancy for the island. The Cortes appointed Alejandro Ramírez y Blanco in 1811. He found an island dependent on a situado that had not arrived for eleven years and suffering from extreme poverty. He revitalized the tax and trade systems and, by the time he departed in 1816, turned the island into a self-sufficient colony. In 1815 Ferdinand VII issued the Real Cédula de Gracias, honoring the improvements in Puerto Rico and liberalizing immigration, taxation, trade, and naturalization laws. Under this decree, the first official representative of the U.S. government, John Warner, arrived in Puerto Rico to regulate trade matters between the island and the United States. U.S. government officials began to talk of the value of the island to their country.

With the independence movements in other parts of Latin America, revolutionaries hounded Spanish shipping, causing severe economic problems for Puerto Rico that were exacerbated by the influx of loyalists escaping the war-torn countries. These immigrants changed the tone of the political situation on the island because their numbers bolstered the conservative faction supporting the status quo. A second faction supported liberal reforms within the Spanish system and a third favored independence.

Many of the reforms and gains earned under Ramírez disappeared with the changes on the island. Unenlightened captains-general, seeing conspiracies in all corners, repressed the population to maintain a forced loyalty to the Crown. Plots for slave revolts were uncovered from 1822 onward and their leaders were executed. To facilitate the administration of justice, the Crown created the Real Audiencia Territorial de Puerto Rico in 1831, but events in Spain continued to intervene in the affairs of the island.

The Cortes, convened in 1837, rewrote the 1812 Constitution, declaring Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines to be under special laws and no longer eligible for representation in the Spanish Parliament. Revolts in the garrison of San Juan occurred in 1835 and 1838, the latter supported by civilians, both mirroring the sentiment in Spain for a return of the liberal movement. Although the Special Laws were never applied, from 1837 to 1864, the liberal Puerto Rican Creoles were denied a voice in island matters. Governors used the garrison uprisings as an excuse to persecute and exile Creole leaders, especially those vocal members of abolitionist and independentista societies. Among these was Ramón Emeterio Betances. Initially fleeing to New York, Betances settled in Santo Domingo to plan an armed revolt for independence. Led by the juntas from Mayagüez and Lares, the rebels, led by Manuel Rojas, took the town of Lares on September 23, 1868, declared the Republic of Puerto Rico, and set up a provisional government. A column then moved toward San Sebastián, where it was defeated with relative ease by the Spanish opposition. The rebels' proclamation, the Grito De Lares, became the symbol for independence of Puerto Rico under both Spanish and United States sovereignty.

The rebellion, coupled with the ongoing war in Cuba, thwarted the hopes and plans of the island's Creoles for many years. As a result, however, the Spanish government authorized the restoration of the diputación provincial (a provincial government) in 1870, the same year the first political parties were formed on the island. In 1873 slavery was abolished with little effect on the island.

The liberals working for reform within the Spanish framework then called for autonomous government. In 1887 Román Baldorioty De Castro formed the Autonomist Party. Almost simultaneous with the creation of the party was the founding of an organization to protect Creoles from Spanish reactionary policies. The conservatives and the governor saw these as covert actions for independence and began a regime of torture and persecution known Page 411  |  Top of Article
Puerto Rico Puerto Rico as Los Compontes that struck strongly at the region around Ponce.

Puerto Rico
Population: 3,944,259 (2007 est.)
Area: 3,435 sq mi
Language(s): Spanish, English
National currency: US dollar (USD)
Principal religions: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant and other 15%
Ethnicity: white (mostly Spanish origin) 80.5%; mixed race and other 10.9%; black 8%: Amerindian 0.4%; Asian 0.2%
Capital: San Juan (pop. 428,591; 2005 est.)
Other urban centers: Bayamon, Carolina, Ponce, Caguas
Annual rainfall: South coast, 32 in; highlands, 108 in; rain forest, 183 in. San Juan's average annual rainfall is 54 in, the rainiest months being May through November.
Principal geographic features: Mountains: Cordillera Central range, includes the island's highest peak, Cerro de Punta (4,389 ft); Luquillo Mountains, including El Yunque (3,496 ft).
Islands: Vieques, 51 sq mi; Culebra, 24 sq mi; Mona Island (uninhabited),19 sq mi.
Bodies of water: Rio de la Plata, Dos Bocas (artificial lake), Phosphorescent Bay.
Principal products and exports: Agriculture: sugarcane, coffee, pineapples, plantains, bananas; livestock products, chickens
Industries: pharmaceuticals, electronics, apparel, food products, tourism
Government: Became commonwealth of the United States 25 July 1952.
Armed forces: No local armed forces; defense the responsibility of the United States.
Transportation: Airports: 29 (2007); 17 with paved runways; railways: 60 mi; roadways: total: 15,991 mi; 15,132 mi paved (includes 265 mi of expressways); ports and terminals: Las Mareas, Mayaguez, San Juan.
Literacy and education: Total literacy rate: 94.1%
The main state-supported institution of higher learning is the University of Puerto Rico.

Baldorioty died in 1889 and party leadership fell to Luis Muñoz Rivera, who joined in a coalition with the Spanish Liberal Party. Its leader, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, agreed to grant autonomy when he attained power, which he did in 1897, immediately granting the Autonomic Charter. The charter created a bicameral legislature, elected by secret ballot by an expanded electorate. Headed by a governor-general, who appointed a five-member cabinet, the island moved to form its provincial assembly and elect representatives to the Spanish Parliament. Muñoz Rivera won the election for governor-general and prepared to take office in May 1898. However, on April 21, the Spanish government broke relations with the United States in response to an April 19 recognition by the United States of Cuban independence. On May 12, a U.S. fleet bombarded San Juan for four hours.

On July 17 the autonomous parliament called its first session to order, and on July 24 Luis Muñoz Rivera assumed the post of governor-general. Four days later, acting on information about the anti-Spanish sentiment in Ponce caused by the Compontes, U.S. troops took the city without firing a shot, raised the U.S. flag, and issued a proclamation that they were bringing freedom from Spanish rule. At the peace conference, the U.S. demanded the cession of Puerto Rico; thus, the experiment in autonomous government never really began. On December 10, Puerto Rico passed from the control of Spain to the sovereignty of the United States.


The military government installed on the island had no experience in administrative matters and, blinded by anti-Spanish rhetoric in the United States, saw little value in the Puerto Rican people. Some Puerto Ricans agreed that they had little foundation for democracy and needed a period of tutelage, but the new government gave no indication that self-government was in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, after a two-year campaign for elimination of the military government and citizenship for island residents, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, establishing a civil government for the island. All officials, from the governor to judges, were to be appointed by the U.S. president. A thirty-five-member Chamber of Deputies and a commissioner to the United States were to be elected directly by the islanders. The U.S. Page 412  |  Top of ArticleCongress reserved the right to annul any legislation passed by the Chamber and to legislate for the island. Subsequently installed civil governors were no more enlightened than their military predecessors, and none would call for direct election of the governor until Rexford Tugwell in 1948.

Officials ruling the island understood little about Puerto Rican culture or values. Assuming the imperialistic attitude of American superiority, governors attempted to legislate "americanization" of the residents. For example, they decreed that all education be conducted in English, despite the fact that Spanish was the language of popular choice. After years of dispute, the Puerto Ricans settled the issue in 1991 when they voted Spanish their official language.

Political parties calling for statehood began internal and external campaigns. In 1917, under the Jones Act, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, and in June of the same year island males became eligible for the military draft.

Economically the island benefited little from U.S. administration. A 1900 census showed a total population of 953,243, with a density equal to that of New Jersey. Only 21.4 percent lived in urban centers, while the remainder was rural. Of that rural population, absentee ownership comprised only 7 percent of the total area under cultivation. Most of the sugar plantations were owned by whites, but the coffee industry was more ethnically diversified and family oriented. By 1930 the population stood at 1,869,000, with 70 percent still in agriculture, but 59 percent of the island's wealth was controlled by three absentee sugar corporations. Free incorporation into the U.S. system did not occur immediately, and tariffs were placed on Puerto Rican goods entering the United States, thwarting the desires of many of the Creoles. During the tumultuous period of the 1920s and 1930s, a resurgence of independence support occurred while the worldwide depression dropped per capita income to $86 in 1932. Two major political movements emerged in this period. One, led by Pedro Albizu Campos, called for independence; the other, led by Luis Muñoz Marín, son of Muñoz Rivera, called for reform within the system. Under Albizu Campos, the Nationalist Party adopted violent means, and the tumult came to a head in 1937 when the police opened fire on a Nationalist Party parade in Ponce, killing 21 and wounding over 150, including spectators. Albizu Campos was tried and convicted for conspiring against the United States, and the party declined with its leader imprisoned. An investigation determined the fault to lie with the governor of the island and with the police who opened fire without provocation.

In 1938 Muñoz Marín founded the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and assumed control of Puerto Rican politics for the next three decades. Muñoz Marín is seen as a true reformer by some historians and by others as the man who led Puerto Rico firmly into the U.S. fold. He implemented a policy of reform and industrialization that increased per capita income from $121 in 1940 to $900 in 1965. Illiteracy dropped from 41.5 percent to 15.1 percent while college enrollment grew nearly eight times in the same period.

In 1949 Luis Muñoz Marín became the first Puerto Rican governor of the island. In 1950 the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 600. It required a referendum to choose between continuing the status quo or creating a commonwealth government on the British model. The people chose the latter. They elected officials to write, and then voted approval of, a constitution. On approval by the U.S. Congress, Muñoz Marín declared the Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State) on July 25, 1952. Relations between the United States and Puerto Rico are governed by the United States-Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, comprised of three sections of the Jones Act not repealed by P.L. 600. Puerto Rico has full autonomy in internal affairs and shares a common currency, defense, market, and citizenship. In 1953 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared Puerto Rico no longer a dependent territory but in 1972 resolved for Puerto Rico's right to become independent.

Muñoz Marín chose not to seek reelection in 1965, naming his own successor, whose defeat in 1968 was the first PPD defeat in nearly three decades. A referendum in 1967 voted for continuation of commonwealth status, though actions by the independentistas to boycott the election resulted in 33.7 percent of the 1,067,349 registered voters abstaining from the election. In the U.S. election campaign of 1988, the Republican candidate George H. W. Bush called for a plebiscite to determine the status of Puerto Rico. To date it has not been held, mainly because of the conditions placed Page 413  |  Top of Articleon the various options. Puerto Ricans were given the choice of either continuing the tax and industrial incentives under the status quo, losing all if they chose statehood, or else attempting self-government with independence. While a majority seem to desire some affiliation with the United States, there is an active independence movement on the island. Political consensus has disappeared as leaders after Muñoz Marín have failed to form the necessary coalitions or popular followings. The electorate is affected by personalities and by the economic conditions on the island. There are two main parties that lock horns consistently. Puerto Ricans are torn by U.S. officials pushing for statehood and UN representatives advising independence.

Operation Bootstrap, formed in the 1940s to industrialize the island, was weakened during the 1970s and 1980s. The population grew to over 3.1 million in 1980 and to over 3.5 million by 1990. Federal aid disbursements increased dramatically during this period, partly because of inclusion of Puerto Rico in the food stamp and other assistance programs. Recent island governments adopted programs leaning toward more rather than less federal assistance.

Job programs instituted during World War II promoting Puerto Rican employment in U.S. industries on the mainland as well as other economic factors have led to a mass migration and traffic between Puerto Rico and the United States. Large Puerto Rican populations exist in eastern metropolitan centers, and travel between the two areas is common. Economic difficulties in the United States have further exacerbated the problems of assimilation into mainland society, and some Puerto Ricans have returned to the island.

Although Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush formed commissions to resolve the problems of Puerto Rico, no long-range planning has laid a foundation for development or improvement on the island. Factional interests within the United States debate the Puerto Rico issue as strongly as it is debated on the island. At this point, Puerto Rico's economic future and political status remain unanswered questions. The full impact of the elimination in 1996 of Section 936 of the IRS code that granted tax incentives to U.S. firms operating in Puerto Rico is still to be felt. As of 2001, however, the per capita income of Puerto Ricans living on the island was $11,200, which was about 30 percent of that of the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rico's double-digit unemployment rate is twice that of its North American metropolis.


Puerto Rican culture reflects the contributions of the island's Taino, European, and African heritage. The European element stems largely but not exclusively from the Spanish explorers, military men, convicts, and immigrants who put down roots in the Antillean colony at various points after 1493. Newcomers from other Old World origins, most notably from Portugal, France, Italy, and Ireland, also added to the white population of the island, especially after the promulgation of the 1815 Cédula de Gracias. Early on, Iberians were concentrated in a few urban centers, such as San Juan and San Germán, where they enforced Catholicism and its liturgical calendar, communicated in Castilian, experimented with imported European animals and plants, and developed housing, centers of worship, defensive bulwarks, and a communications infrastructure consonant with their Spanish background and imperial objectives. Their attempts to extend this activity to out-of-the-way parts of the island peopled by fugitive Amerindians and Africans, deserters, and religious dissidents had to wait until the urbanizing and commercializing thrust set in motion by the Bourbon reforms.

Following their steep decline, the Amerindians were all but written off the official historical records. However, the listing of about two thousand "indios" as a distinct category in the censuses of the late eighteenth century suggests that some may have survived the Spanish Conquest or that others imported from elsewhere in the Americas remained in the island. Whatever the case may be, nineteenth-century creoles seeking to construct a Puerto Rican nation revived the indigenous legacy. As a result, both Borinquén and Boricua began to resurface with some frequency in their literary and political projects. For instance, an early 1820s conspiracy called for the creation of a República Boricua. Borínquen appears in the subtitle of a novel penned by Ramón Emeterio Betances in 1853. A decade later, "La Borinqueña" became Puerto Rico's national anthem. Numerous Taino/Arawak terms can also be found in the Page 414  |  Top of Articleisland's cuisine, flora and fauna, music, religion, and folklore and in the names of towns, rivers, mountains, and communities.

Wolofs, Mandingas, Fulas, Fantis, Ashantis, Yorubas, and Congolese, among others, represent the ethnic origins of Africans that became part of Puerto Rican culture. Whether enslaved or free, they filled just about every occupation in the coastal areas, hilly outback, and sea-lanes that connected Puerto Rico to the Atlantic world. Far from passive victims, those who had been brought across the Atlantic in chains asserted their right to be free, as exemplified by the Maroon town of San Mateo de Cangrejos. They partook in the day-to-day forms of resistance that undermined the system of slavery and figured prominently in the abolitionist and revolutionary events that periodically shook the white-controlled colonial society. Various crops (such as plantains and their unique preparations in mofongos, tostones and pasteles), religions (Santería), dances (bomba, plena), and percussion instruments (congas, bongos) reveal the island's unmistakable ties to the African diaspora.

During the five hundred years of colonialism, countless Puerto Rican men and women have sought to carve a niche for themselves or make meaningful contributions to the world around them. The carpenter of Jewish extraction Alonso Ramírez may have been the first Puerto Rican to travel to Asia. The letrado Francisco Ayerra y Santa María (1630–1708) distinguished himself as a poet and administrator in Mexico. Popular folklore has immortalized José "Pepe" Díaz, who died heroically during the 1797 British siege of San Juan. The watercolorist, sketcher, and painter José Campeche (1751–1809) stands among the best visual artists of eighteenth-century Latin America. María Mercedes Barbudo and Mariana Bracetti took leading roles in the struggle to gain independence from Spain in the nineteenth century. Schoolchildren in Puerto Rico are reminded of "El Maestro" Rafael Cordero, a humble teacher who plied his trade without pay. The freedom fighter Betances (1827–1898) was also a noted physician with scientific and humanities interests in ophthalmology, public health, botany, agronomy, journalism, history, and literature. The essayist and educator Eugenio María de Hostos (1839–1903) condemned slavery and Spanish colonialism. Antonia Pantoja spearheaded the establishment of several educational programs and community agencies in the mainland United States. The singers Ismael Rivera and Héctor Lavoe helped to popularize Puerto Rican musical rhythms around the globe. The outfielder Roberto Clemente became the first Puerto Rican player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

History reveals that, whether fashioning a Maroon-like lifestyle in the remote interior, engaging in acts of civil disobedience, crafting their own artistic expressions and organizations, or immersing themselves in protracted electoral politics, Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the United States share the values of nationalism and cultural affirmation. The popular outcry over the U.S. Navy's use of the island municipality of Vieques for live-bombing training—which in April 1999 resulted in the death of a security guard, David Sanes Rodríguez, and the wounding of four civilians—sparked widespread protests. The case even galvanized support for the release of eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners, who were offered clemency in August 1999 and were released the following month. Between 1999 and 2003 key members of all three major political parties, the Catholic Church, college students and faculty, organized labor, and Puerto Ricans in the United States mobilized to stop the naval maneuvers. Another nationalist wave surged in response to the FBI's 2005 killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, leader of the Macheteros, or Ejército Popular Boricua.


On pre-Spanish culture see Sven Lovén, Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies (1979). Good overviews are Arturo Morales Carrión, ed., Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History (1983), and his Puerto Rico and the Non-Hispanic Caribbean (1972). A thorough, but alternative, view from an independentista standpoint is Manuel Maldonado-Denis, Puerto Rico: A Socio-Historic Interpretation (1972). A good reference work is Federico Ribes Tovar, A Chronological History of Puerto Rico (1973). For an overview of the tumult of the nineteenth century, see Lidio Cruz Monclova, Historia de Puerto Rico en el siglo XIX (1962). Its effect on the predominant agricultural society is detailed in Fernando Pico, Cafetal adentro: Una historia de los trabajadores agrícolas en el Puerto Rico del siglo 19 (1986). Fernando Bayrón Toro, Elecciones y partidos políticos de Puerto Rico 1809–1976 (1988), Page 415  |  Top of Articleprovides a good overview of the twentieth century. The migration to and from the United States has a growing bibliography, notably National Puerto Rican Forum, The Next Step Toward Equality: A Comprehensive Study of Puerto Ricans in the United States Mainland (1980), and Celia Cintrón and Pedro Vales, A Pilot Study: Return Migration to Puerto Rico (1974); and Luz M. Torruellas and José L. Vázquez, Los puertorriqueños que regresaron: Un analisis de su participación laboral (1984).

Additional Bibliography

Barreto, Amílcar Antonio. Vieques, the Navy, and Puerto Rican Politics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Malavet, Pedro A. America's Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict between the United States and Puerto Rico. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

García Passalacqua, Juan Manuel. Afirmación nacional: Verdadera historia de los puertorriqueños. San Juan: Editorial Cultural, 2001.

                               JACQUELYN BRIGGS KENT

                                       JORGE CHINEA

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3078904569