Reenactment of a Taíno Indian ceremony at the Caguana Ceremonial Center in Utuado

Reenactment of a Taíno Indian ceremony at the Caguana Ceremonial Center in Utuado

Puerto Rico is the smallest island in the chain known as the Greater Antilles, which is located in the Caribbean Sea. For four centuries the island was a colony of Spain, before becoming a U.S. territory in 1898.

The island’s first inhabitants, referred to as archaic, migrated from the Orinoco river valley, in the northern region of South America, more than two thousand years ago. When the Spaniards first arrived in Borinquén (the name given to the island by its native population), during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas in 1493, they encountered a culture known as the Taino, who were part of the Arawak ethnic group that extended across the Greater Antilles. This indigenous culture and its legacy have left an indelible mark on the culture of Puerto Rico.

The Spanish Colony

Columbus named the island of Borinquén, San Juan, after Saint John the Baptist, but it was not until 1508 that the Spaniards established a permanent settlement here, with Juan Ponce de León serving as first governor. The subjugation and inhuman treatment of the indigenous population sparked a rebellion in 1511, however the native stone axes were hardly a match for the gunpowder, harquebuses and military strategies of the conquering Spaniards. Diseases transported across the Atlantic, along with the dismal conditions of forced labor, inevitably led to the decimation of the native population. Their role as forced laborers was in turn ceded to the Africans who were brought as slaves first from Spain, and then directly from West Africa. The interrelation between these three cultures—Taino, Spanish and African—created the ethnic and cultural foundations for Puerto Rico. Racial and cultural mixing continued over the course of the next four centuries, fed by successive waves of immigration by freed Africans from neighboring islands (in the 18th century), Catholic Europeans (in the 19th century), as well as immigrants from the continental United States, Cuba and the Dominican Republic (in the 20th century).

The colony developed rapidly, acting as a base for the Spanish Empire as it expanded into the Americas. The island’s main city was called Puerto Rico (Rich Port), because of its spacious bay and natural harbor. Over the course of time, the port came to be known as San Juan, and the island as Puerto Rico. As the empire grew and began to confront rivals among other European powers, Puerto Rico’s strategic value overshadowed any economic importance it might have had, particularly after the conquest of such rich civilizations as the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru. Puerto Rico soon became the “key to the Indies” for this sprawling empire, a tactical defense point for repelling intrusions and insurrections within the newly claimed Spanish sea.

Miguel Enríquez, famous smuggler from the 18th Century

Miguel Enríquez, famous smuggler from the 18th Century

The island’s strategic importance became clear given the constant threat from European powers, all eager to stake their claim to the riches pouring out of the Americas. The wars being fought elsewhere by the Spaniards also led to a series of repercussions for the island’s early history— successive attacks by the French, English, and Dutch, and the construction of forts and walls to fortify the city of San Juan. These walls, and the decisive action taken by the city’s militia, repelled the last attack by the English in 1797, thwarting their attempt to lay siege to San Juan (as the British had successfully done in Havana, Cuba, in 1763). Puerto Rico’s tactical importance also had other effects. From 1582 onward, each governor appointed to rule the colony was conferred the title of captain general. From 1582 to 1810, payment for Puerto Rico’s military expenses was covered by an annual subsidy (known as the Situado) sent from the Royal Treasury of New Spain (Mexico).

San Juan became isolated from the rest of Puerto Rico, and even to this day, residents of the city often describe their trips to any other part of Puerto Rico as “traveling to the island.” From its very beginnings as the island’s capital, San Juan has served as the seat for all government, church and military institutions. The “other” Puerto Rico in effect benefited from the Spanish government’s indifference, developing its own varied subsistence economy, and even a wide range of products that served as contraband (such as ginger, precious woods, and leather) in a flourishing trade along the island’s southwestern coast.

Monopoly and Contraband

Puerto Rico suffered relentless economic hardship due to Spain’s imperial monopoly on trade. Isolation and neglect by the Spaniards during the 17th and 18th centuries forced Puerto Ricans to resort to illegal forms of trade and livelihood. For more than 200 years, the island survived on clandestine exchanges with the French and English, as well as with colonial subjects from other parts of the Americas. The population saw no inherent contradiction between loyalty to Spain and the commercial activities it conducted with the Crown’s enemies. Contraband greatly aided local entrepreneurs like the mixed-race cobbler Miguel Enríquez, who became the island’s wealthiest and most powerful man in the 18th century. Despite Puerto Rico’s largely rural population, smuggling also benefited the island by providing links to the outside world. Along with goods to satisfy material needs, imported ideas also arrived in the form of smuggled books. The local population, particularly in the island’s western region, was thus able to keep abreast of the philosophical developments of the Enlightenment. This can also be seen in the Instrucciones (grievances and petitions) given by Puerto Rico’s five Cabildos (municipal councils representing the Spanish crown) to Ramón Power y Giralt, the first Puerto Rican to serve as a representative before the Spanish Cortes (equivalent to a congress) in 1810.

Governor Miguel Ustariz (1789-1792) Portrait by José Campeche in 1792

Governor Miguel Ustariz (1789-1792) Portrait by José Campeche in 1792

Pride in being Puerto Rican, and not Spanish, began to emerge among the islanders toward the middle of the 18th century. This phenomenon is evident in the works of José Campeche (1751-1809), Puerto Rico’s first great painter, who was the son of a freed slave. In 1988, when his paintings were exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of them was erroneously attributed to Spain’s Francisco de Goya. Puerto Rican identity has become a fixed theme in the visual arts since Campeche’s time. The sense of being different from the Spaniards reached a highpoint of reaffirmation after the English invasion was successfully repulsed in 1797. By the beginning of the 19th century, Puerto Rican identity became a driving force for the Criollos, or native-born islanders, in their demands for political, social and economic reforms. The feeling of “Puerto Ricanness,” evolving over the course of many years, found its first official expression when Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, Puerto Rico’s first archbishop, urged Ramón Power y Giralt to protect “the rights of our compatriots.”

The 19th century brought tremendous upheaval to Spain and significant changes to Puerto Rico. The century began with Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, which also sparked the wars for independence and the eventual loss of all of Spain’s possessions in the New World. Open expressions of Puerto Rican nationalism were treated as subversive by a government which strove to keep the island free of the revolutionary “contagion,” particularly from nearby Caracas, which was considered the hotbed for anti-Spanish separatism. In the Caribbean, only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained locked under Spanish rule. This was due to the establishment of highly repressive governments, which had the complicit support of the slave-owning ruling class. The immigration of hundreds of loyalists from Venezuela strengthened the conservative and pro-Spanish political mindset on both these islands.

Real Cédula de Gracias, a royal decree granted by Spain in 1815

Real Cédula de Gracias, a royal decree granted by Spain in 1815

After the Napoleonic forces were defeated in 1814, Spain’s new king decided that economic reforms would be the key to ensuring Puerto Rico’s continued allegiance. Fears of slave rebellions sparked by the recent revolution in Haiti led to campaigns for greater racial balance. The Real Cédula de Gracias, a decree issued by the Spanish Crown in 1815, stimulated the immigration of white Catholics. Puerto Rico’s demographic makeup was transformed when hundreds of French nationals (mainly white Creoles from Haiti, Louisiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique), as well as Italians and Irish, arrived along with their slaves. Continued slave trade also brought many Africans to the island’s shores. By mid-century, new waves of immigrants arrived from Corsica, Mallorca and Catalonia.

The Cédula de Gracias had both economic and social consequences. It led to significantly increased development of three agricultural products: sugar cane, coffee (which was introduced in the mid-18thcentury and rapidly became a major export for European markets), and tobacco. The plantation system was adopted extensively on the island, and with growing sugar output there was also a rise in African slave trade, as in the rest of the Caribbean.

The ever-increasing demand for labor, and the greater difficulties in acquiring slaves given the restrictions on this trade, drove landowners to look to the island’s free inhabitants, which in number far exceeded the population of slaves. Landowners convinced the government to establish a mechanism that would force the landless poor—at the time a majority in Puerto Rico—to work as day laborers. These workers were also forced to carry identity cards, in which productivity and conduct would be recorded. This system, known as the régimen de la libreta (literally the “passbook system”) lasted from 1849 to 1873.

By this time, a mainly urban criollo elite had begun to emerge and demand a greater role in the island’s affairs, which was in turn rejected by the Spanish government. Those who had money, or who could secure private scholarships, left to pursue university studies in Europe, after graduating from the Dominican Seminary in San Juan. In the 1840s, a group of young Puerto Rican students in Spainproduced the first works of the island’s national literature, and introduced the emblematic figure of the jíbaro, the archetypal rural peasant of Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior.

Abolition of slavery and independence served as the most heatedly debated topics among the island’s more enlightened criollos, however political extremists were generally deported. While in exile, Ramón Emeterio Betances—a physician who had been educated in France and who went on to become the leader of the independence movement—organized the most serious revolt against Spanish control of the island. This uprising, the famous Grito de Lares, occurred in 1868, and was immediately quashed by the Spaniards. The abolitionists had better luck, and on March 22, 1873, slavery was officially ended under the First Spanish Republic.

In the mid-19th century, the same generation of criollos was also responsible for drafting far-sighted development projects, in part due to the crisis in the sugar industry, which had exposed Puerto Rico’s economic vulnerability. The new intellectual elite, which was mainly centered in the cities of Ponce and San Juan, sought economic, social, and cultural changes. They created cultural institutions, such as the Puerto Rico Atheneum in 1876, and imprinted their vision on literature (Manuel Zeno Gandía, Salvador Brau, Eugenio María de Hostos, and Alejandro Tapia, to name a few), painting (Francisco Oller, who had befriended Cézanne and Pisarro during his stay in France), and science (the agricultural projects of Agustín Stahl). Newspapers began to appear everywhere, providing a more channeled voice for these agents of change. This new generation had been fed on the most current progressive ideas (such as democracy in the United States, which by this time had become Puerto Rico’s second most important trading partner) as well as other influential events that were occurring across the globe.

The Canadian model of autonomous government inspired new plans among intellectuals in the southern city of Ponce, which led to the founding in 1887 of the Partido Autonomista Puertorriqueño (Autonomist Party), under the direction of Román Baldorioty de Castro, at Ponce’s La Perla Theater. That same year saw the rise of one of the most radical movements in Puerto Rico’s history, La Boicotizadora (literally “The Boycotter”), which drew its influence from the Irish Land League. This secret society boycotted Spanish businesses, promoting only those that were owned by Puerto Ricans. The Spanish government responded with a campaign of persecution and torture (the Compontes) of autonomists, and the group’s main leaders were imprisoned at San Juan’s El Morro fortress. Historians have referred to this as the “Terrible Year of ’87.” Ten years later, the Spanish government finally conceded by issuing the Autonomic Charter, reacting to pressure from the United States, which was now threatening to intervene in Cuba.

Bombing El Morro during the Spanish-American War in 1898

Bombing El Morro during the Spanish-American War in 1898

The autonomous government granted by Spain did not last long. In 1898, with Puerto Rico’s cabinet newly formed, the USS Maine exploded in Havana bay, thus setting off the Spanish-American War. Eight days after the island’s autonomous legislature met in its first session, United States troops landed at Guánica, thus marking the end of Spain’s experiment with self-government and the beginning of American colonial control of the island. Although Puerto Rico had never fought in any war, its acquisition by the United States transformed it into part of the new geopolitical vision of American dominance in the Caribbean. In December of 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Spain formally ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. The civil rights and political status of the islanders would now be decided by the U.S. Congress. After more than a century, Puerto Rico’s political destiny still resides in the hands of Congress.

Invading U.S. General Nelson A. Miles (who was responsible for ending the American Indian Wars) knew exactly where to land his troops in Puerto Rico. He had been well-informed about anti-Spanish sentiment on the island’s southern coast (where the Compontes of 1887 had never been forgiven). Miles’ surprise landing in Guánica Bay, and the enthusiastic welcome by the residents of Ponce (a Criollo stronghold) and Yauco (a largely Corsican settlement) served to embolden the invading troops, while the Spaniards withdrew into the island’s interior. The military campaign was carried out swiftly, despite several battles that were fought until the Armistice was signed one month after the Americans landed. Spain had lost Cuba, and thus knew it had lost the war.

An unfortunate surprise met the Puerto Rican liberals and separatists who had welcomed—and even aided—the invading Americans. They viewed the United States as the great democratic nation, which would bring to Puerto Rico, as Miles had promised, the “blessings of civilization.” The American presence in Puerto Rico began with the establishment of a military government that lasted two years. When a civil government was created through the Foraker Act in 1900, even some of its authors, such as Lyman Gould and William Tansill, felt that it was inferior to what the fading Spanish monarchy had granted. In legal terms, Puerto Rico was defined as an unincorporated territory which “belonged to but was not part” of the United States. The disillusionment over political status sparked bitter protests and led to the birth in 1904 of a new political organization, the Unión de Puerto Rico. For the first time in the island’s history, independence was included as a legal alternative when it was adopted as one of the Unionist objectives. The Unionists became the dominant political party for 20 years, until the rise of the Socialist Party (a workers party that supported the cause of statehood) led to a series of coalitions and alliances that prevailed until the founding of the Popular Democratic Party in 1938. The Popular Democrats had initially built their constituency from what remained of the former Unionists.

Puerto Rican Nationalist Party reunion near 1940

Puerto Rican Nationalist Party reunion near 1940

Americanization as Primary Goal 

The first three decades of the 20th century were marked by an unwavering effort to Americanize the Puerto Ricans. The English language was required in public schools. This strategy failed, given the population’s resistance to learn “the difficult one,” as English was commonly referred to. Today, less than 30 percent of the island’s inhabitants speak English.

Progress did come in many forms to Puerto Rico during the early years of American sovereignty. Educational institutions expanded, and included the establishment of the island’s first university in 1903. Great improvements also occurred in health and communications. However, cultivation of diversified and resistant crops suffered tremendously against a backdrop of expansion in the sugar industry, which was orchestrated almost entirely by three U.S.-based corporations. The channeling of agricultural work into a single monoculture also led to a dramatic rise in landless proletariat. This also fueled anti-American sentiment among large portions of the population. The most prominent intellectuals of this time, such as Nemesio Canales, Luis Lloréns Torres, and Manuel Zeno Gandía, have all left written testimonies of the hardships endured during the early 20thcentury.


With the onset of World War I, Puerto Rico’s geopolitical importance for the United States pushed Congress to approve the Jones Act in 1917, which extended citizenship rights to all Puerto Ricans. However, pride in Puerto Rican identity did not simply evaporate with the granting of U.S. citizenship, and various sectors of society continued to foster a strong sense of nationalism. In 1922, the Nationalist Party was formed under the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos. This party became instrumental in the resistance movement of the 1930s. Albizu argued that Puerto Rico’s Hispanic roots and Catholic religion should be used to protect the island from Americanization (just as Irish patriots had urged their countrymen in the confrontation with the English). Albizu had a tremendous influence on the first generation of writers to emerge under United States rule.

The Crisis of the 1930s

The 1930s were marked by social, economic, and political upheaval not only in Puerto Rico but throughout the world. The Great Depression protracted the cataclysmic effects of Hurricane San Felipe, which devastated the island in 1928. The grim realities of the period were immortalized in Rafael Hernández’s popular song, “Lamento Borincano.” At the time, Puerto Rico was known as “the poorhouse of the Caribbean,” despite three decades under American rule. The policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal were extended to the island, in the hopes of curbing rampant unemployment and poverty. However, social disturbances and strikes, particularly in the sugar industry, as well as workers’ meetings with Albizu, forced members of the ruling elite to urge Washington to send a “strong hand” to the island. The result was the appointment of U.S. General Blanton Winship as governor. This appointment triggered a series of violent events including the shooting of the chief of police by Nationalists Beauchamp and Rosado, who in turn were immediately killed by the police. Albizu was arrested, and, following a somewhat questionable trial, was imprisoned in Atlanta.

These tensions culminated in the Ponce Massacre of 1937, in which, according to the Hays Commission Report, heavily armed policemen, who had the governor’s support, fired into a crowd of unarmed Nationalists who were marching in a peaceful demonstration. Once Albizu had been removed from the scene, Luis Muñoz Marín, founder of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), emerged as the island’s clear political leader. The PDP, which he founded in 1938, controlled Puerto Rico for three decades, and today remains one of the two main parties.

The Muñoz Era

The Populist Era (1940-68) completely transformed an island still under U.S. rule. Puerto Rico went from being the “poorhouse” to the “showcase of the Caribbean.” Some writers have referred to this period as the “peaceful revolution.” A traditional agrarian and rural society was replaced by an urban, industrial society, with new class structures and greater educational opportunities for all. To secure continued progress, the island’s government fostered mass emigration to the continental United States. As can be expected, the literature of the period reflected these tremendous changes. La Carreta (The Oxcart) by René Marqués focused on issues of demographic change, including emigration to New York. The “Nuyorican” reality is also described in the works of José Luis González, particularly his novella Paisa, and in Pedro Juan Soto’s Spiks.

In the 1940s, Puerto Rico’s destiny was once again reconfigured as a result of its strategic importance. During the Second World War, the island was to serve as a center for hemispheric defense, and U.S. military bases began to appear throughout the Puerto Rican archipelago, including the islands of Culebra and Vieques. The largest American Naval base in the world was developed on Puerto Rico’s eastern fringe, under the name of Roosevelt Roads.

Rise of the Commonwealth

After the war, the pro-independence faction of the PDP renewed their efforts to make Puerto Rican self-determination a reality. Meanwhile, at the newly formed United Nations, the Soviet Union and its allies accused the United States of still maintaining a colony. As a result, a plan was drafted, with the backing of Muñoz Marín, to resolve Puerto Rico’s colonial situation. An intermediate status (that was neither pro-statehood nor pro-independence) was developed, and after an arduous process—and a Nationalist uprising in 1950 that required the intervention of the National Guard—a new constitution was adopted in 1952. And thus the commonwealth, or the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) as it is referred to in Spanish, came into being. The new designation did not resolve the status issue as Muñoz Marín had wanted, but, to this day, it continues to define the complex political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The debate over the meaning and legitimacy of this term has been ongoing since it was created.

An Era of Shifting Power

In 1968, the PDP lost the elections for the first time in 40 years, and a pro-statehooder, Luis A. Ferré, was elected as the New Progressive Party (NPP) candidate for governor. Ferré lost in the following elections, and the PDP candidate, Rafael Hernández Colón, became governor in 1972. Hernández Colón’s administration was forced to confront the world oil crisis. As a solution, the federal government granted certain tax exemptions to the multinational corporations operating on the island, and also included Puerto Rico in the federal food-stamp program. The 1970s witnessed the dismantling of Operation Bootstrap (the industrialization program based on exemptions for U.S. companies, which had been created in 1947) and a subsequent increase in dependency on federal funding. The island’s economy shifted from manufacturing to finance, fueled by multinational bank accounts. This period ended when the U.S. Congress eliminated the tax benefits that had been granted to multinationals (under Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code) in the 1990s. Since then, each administration governing the island has sought a new economic model that would ensure a continued high standard of living for Puerto Rico’s inhabitants.

The most recent decades in the island’s political history have been marked by constant shifts in power, with administrations alternating between the two main parties (PDP and NPP), and by social polarization. Some Puerto Ricans seek a resolution to the island’s political status, either through statehood, independence or some form of resolved commonwealth status. Others wish to maintain commonwealth status as it is, with some additional freedoms. Between 1976 and 1984, and 1992 and 2000, statehooders have controlled Puerto Rico’s government. Nevertheless, plebiscites held during this period to determine the status issue have never garnered a majority vote favoring statehood.

The last 30 years have witnessed an ever-increasing sense of pride in Puerto Rican culture and identity. A new definition of what it means to be Puerto Rican has evolved, in part influenced by views of the Puerto Rican community residing in the United States, also referred to as the diaspora. This community has grown not only in numbers, but also in terms of political power. Over recent years, three members of Congress have been elected who share a common Puerto Rican ancestry—two in New York and one in Chicago.

As we begin the 21st century, Puerto Rico still finds itself in search of its destiny, still maintaining strong ties with the United States, with a solid sense of identity, an exuberant cultural and artistic life, and pride in the important advances made in communication and technology. This Encyclopedia should serve as proof of our accomplishments and of where we stand on the global stage.


Author: Dra. Ivonne Acosta 
Published: September 12, 2014.

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