Population and Society / Geographic Distribution of the Population, 1765-1980
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In 1765, the population of Puerto Rico was concentrated along the coasts, and the interior was virtually unpopulated. In that year, according to the census, 94 percent of the population lived in coastal towns, while only 6 percent lived in the interior. Another fact that stands out in the census of 1765 was that most of the people lived in the western part of Puerto Rico. Some 61 percent of the population lived in the west and 39 percent in the east. Only San Juan, second to San Germán in size with 4,749 inhabitants, was located outside the western region.

Between 1765 and 1827, there was increased growth of the population toward the east of the island. There was also a marked movement of the population toward the interior. The most notable change in the distribution of the population was that the west coast became less important in regard to population, while the population of the interior of the western region increased appreciably. It is probable that the development of the coffee industry produced significant currents of migrationmigration: People moving from one place to another, or expanding their original place. from the coast toward the interior of that region of the island.

Agriculture based on coffee became concentrated in the mountainous interior, especially in the west, as the climatic conditions of the region were very favorable for that crop. Large haciendas were established throughout the region (San Sebastián, Las Marías, Maricao, Lares, Utuado, Adjuntas, and Jayuya), as well as in portions of the interior near some of the coastal towns (Mayagüez, Yauco, and Ponce). The economic prosperity of the region attracted thousands of immigrants, especially from the western coastal areas.

While the 19th century was characterized by demographic movements that resulted in a more even distribution of the population, the 20th century was entirely contrary in its tendencies. San Juan was the town that grew the most during the first four decades of the that century. Between 1899 and 1980, the northeast coast experienced extraordinary growth, an increase of more than 800 percent, while the other regions grew at a rate that was much lower than their biological potential . The decreasing demographic importance of the western interior was remarkable. In Las Marías and Maricao, the population decreased in the period from 1899 to 1940.

As a result of this uneven growth, the northeast coast became the center of population density. In 1980, almost 40 percent of the population of Puerto Rico lived in that region. The municipality that grew the most during the period from 1899 to 1980 was Toa Baja, whose population multiplied 19 times during those years. Something similar happened in Bayamón. The seven municipalities of greatest demographic growth in the period from 1899 to 1980 form an unbroken line along the north coast, with San Juan at the center.

Changes in the geographic distribution of the population of Puerto Rico during the 20th century were a response, in large part, to internal migrationInternal migration: The movement of persons from one place to another within the same country, generally for economic reasons. movements. These, in turn, were caused primarily by the economic changes that took place beginning in 1898, when Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States. One of the most important economic facts at the beginning of the century was the decreasing importance of the coffee industry. As a consequence of US economic interests and the changes in international relations, coffee, Puerto Rico’s most important export product, lost its European market toward the end of the nineteenth century. This disaster greatly affected the interior portions of the island. As a result, thousands of people emigrated from the coffee zones to the coasts of the island to work in the planting and cultivation of sugarcane. One of the major centers of attraction for these emigrants was the northeastern coast, where a large number of sugar processing mills were built.

The northeastern coast offered other attractions, as well. San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico and the center of the region, rapidly became the indisputable commercial, industrial, financial, and cultural center of Puerto Rico during the first decades of the 20th century. The changes that took place in the economy of Puerto Rico, beginning with the decade of the 1940s, also had a great impact on the geographic distribution of the population. The new development strategy placed extraordinary emphasis on industrialization, while agriculture languished over the years. The northeastern coastal region was the most favored by industrialization, due to its access to the port facilities of San Juan.

Similarly, the housing construction industry, subsidized by long-term federal loans, began to surge from the beginning of the decade of the 1950s and developed at a dizzying pace in the metropolitan area of San Juan. This uneven development has brought about migration from all parts of Puerto Rico toward the San Juan metropolitan area and its adjacent municipalities. These municipalities are now practically saturated from the point of view of housing construction, and the price of land for that purpose is prohibitive. The increasing cost of land has been the principal cause of the displacement of housing construction toward municipalities which are near San Juan, but increasingly distant from the city.

Original source

José L. Vázquez Calzada, "La distribución geográfica de la población de Puerto Rico," Revista de Ciencias Sociales 23, nos. 1-2 (1981): 93-124.

Autor: José L Vázquez Calzada
Published: September 16, 2014.

Version: 06081506 Rev. 1
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