In the photo, women working in the needle industry, 1950s.
Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles and the largest of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. It was a Spanish colony for four centuries and has been a colony of the United States since 1898.
The first inhabitants, called the Archaics, came from the Orinoco River delta in the north of South America thousands of years ago. Archaeologists have documented a human presence on this land since 4,000 (at Angostura, Barceloneta) and 3,000 B.C. (at Maruca in Ponce). When the Spanish came to Boriquén (the name the native inhabitants gave the Island) in Christopher Columbus’s second voyage in 1493, they affected the Tainos, the descendants of the Arawak people from northern Venezuela. The Tainos were the product of a fusion of various earlier cultures. They had developed productive agriculture and applied knowledge of astronomy and meteorology. They believed in multiple gods. Their society was ruled in a pyramidal structure led by a cacique to whom they paid tribute. It was an intermediate social, economic and political structure whose subsequent stage was represented in the Americas by the city-states exemplified by the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. The Taino indigenous heritage has left a significant mark on Puerto Rican culture.
The Spanish colony
Columbus named Boriquén San Juan Bautista when he stopped at the Island on November 19, 1493, but it was not until 1508 that the Spanish established a permanent presence with Juan Ponce de León as the first governor. The subjugation and mistreatment of the indigenous people caused a rebellion in 1511, but there was little their stone hatchets could do against the arquebuses and other weapons and strategies of the conquistadors. Additionally, the imported diseases and harsh conditions of the forced labor reduced the indigenous population. Their role as forced labor was replaced by slaves from western Africa. The crossing of these three ethnicities (Taino, Spanish and African) represents the ethnic and cultural origin of the Puerto Ricans. The racial and cultural mixing continued in the following centuries with the arrival of other immigrants, such as free blacks from neighboring islands (in the 18th century), white Europeans (in the 18th century) and, later, people from the United States, Cuba and the Dominican Republic (in the 20th century).
The colony grew rapidly and was one of the bases of support for the Spanish imperial advance into the continents. The main city was called Puerto Rico, for its spacious bay and natural port. In 1522, San Juan de Puerto Rico was founded as its capital, after moving from Caparra, the initial enclave of the management of the conquest and colonization. By 1582, the total Island was identified as Puerto Rico. While the empire grew and faced the rivalries of other European powers, the Island’s strategic and military importance overshadowed its economic value (especially after the conquest of the wealthy civilizations of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru). For a growing empire, Puerto Rico became “the key to the Indies,” a crucial site for repelling intruders and those who were not loyal to the Spanish Main.
The rise of Puerto Rican sentiment
EPride in being Puerto Rican, not Spanish, arose among the Island residents at least as early as the 18th century. This is evident in the paintings by José Campeche (1751-1809), the first important Puerto Rican painter of the time, who was the son of a freed slave and a white woman from the Canary Islands. His paintings (some of which were wrongly attributed to Francisco de Goya in Spain) were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1988. From Campeche on, expressions of Puerto Rican identity have been a constant in our visual arts. This sense of our differences from the Spanish were reaffirmed after the victory against the invading British in 1797. It also led the Island residents to demand political, social and economic reforms in the early 19th century. The feeling of Puerto Ricanness that developed over the years found its first political expression in the election of Ramón Power, the first representative of Puerto Rico in the Cortes of Cádiz. Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, the first and only Puerto Rican bishop under Spanish rule, named in 1803, also reinforced the prominence of Puerto Rican heritage when, in 1809, he charged Power with protecting “the rights of our countrymen.”
The 19th century was very chaotic in Spain and brought significant changes to Puerto Rico. It began with the invasion by Napoleon of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, a situation that in part encouraged the wars of independence and the loss of all the Spanish possessions on the American continents. Therefore, open expressions of Puerto Rican identity were considered subversive by a government that tried to keep the Island free of the revolutionary “contagion,” especially from nearby Caracas, which was considered a center of anti-Spain separatists. By the middle of the 1820s, only Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean, remained under Spanish rule as a result of the establishment of repressive governments on those islands, with the complicity of the dominant slave-owning classes. The immigration of hundreds of monarchists who escaped Venezuela strengthened the conservative and pro-Spanish political sector on both islands.
Social and economic changes in the 19th century
Royal Decree of Graces of 1815
After the defeat of the Napoleonic forces in 1814, Fernando VII returned to Spain and decided to keep Puerto Rico loyal and secure through economic reforms. Additionally, because of the Haitian revolution, fear of slave rebellions on one hand led to greater repression of the forced laborers along with the arrival of more Europeans. The Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 encouraged immigration of white Catholics. As a result, the demographics of Puerto Rico changed, as hundreds of French (mostly white islanders from Haiti, Louisiana, Guadalupe and Martinique), Italians and Irish arrived on the Island with their slaves. Many African slaves were also smuggled in. In the middle of the century, a new wave of immigrants arrived from Corsica, Mallorca and Catalonia.
Documentary “Islands Interwoven: Puerto Rico and Corsica”
The royal decree, along with others, led to economic and social changes. There was a notable increase in agricultural production of three commercial crops: sugar cane, coffee (introduced in the middle of the 18th century and quickly becoming an import export to Europe) and tobacco. The plantation system was widely adopted and with the increase in sugar production came a growth in African slave trade, as in the rest of the Caribbean.
Eventually, the growing demand for labor and the difficulty in acquiring slaves, given the restrictions on the slave trade, led the landowners to look to the free population of the Island, which was bigger than the slave population. The landowners convinced the government to establish a mechanism to force the peasants who did not own land, the majority of the population, to work as day laborers. They also had to carry a booklet in which their employers noted the dates they worked. This system lasted from 1849 to 1873.
By this time, a local island elite, mostly urban, had developed and demanded a role in the affairs of the Island, demands that the Spanish government resisted and persecuted. Some youths who had the resources or could get scholarships went to Europe to study after graduating from the Council Seminary in San Juan. A generation of Puerto Rican students in Spain, in the 1840s and 1850s, produced foundational texts of our literature and the emblematic figure of the jíbaro, the white rural peasant of the mountains.
The abolition of slavery and the call for independence from Spain arose as counter discourses mainly among local island liberals. The most extreme were exiled and, even in exile, the leader of the pro-independence movement, Ramón Emeterio Betances (a doctor educated in France) promoted the most forceful revolutionary attempt against Spanish rule in Puerto Rico, the Grito de Lares in 1868. The revolt was put down in short order, although it had both short and long-term consequences. For example, the following year, Spain allowed the formation of a first political party, which was followed a few months later by another. On March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished and on July 13 of the same year the labor booklet system was eliminated.
This same generation of Puerto Ricans outlined a liberal project beginning in the middle of the 19th century, in part because the sugar crisis revealed the vulnerability of the Island economy. The new intellectual elite, mostly living in Ponce and San Juan, wanted economic, social and cultural progress. They created cultural institutions such as the Puerto Rican Athenaeum in 1876. Newspapers appeared everywhere, giving voice to the demands for change. The locals were up to date on progressive ideas (including democracy in the United States, which was already the second most important country in terms of trade with Puerto Rico) and events in other parts of the world that influenced them.
The Canadian model of autonomous government inspired a new project among the intellectuals of the southern city of Ponce, led by Román Baldorioty de Castro, that resulted in the founding of the Autonomist Party in La Perla Theater in 1887. The same year, one of the most radical movements in our history arose, the Boycott movement, influenced by the Irish Land League. This secret society committed to boycotting Spanish businesses and promoting only Puerto Rican businesses. The Spanish government responded with persecution and torture of the autonomists in measures known as the Compontes. The main leaders were imprisoned in El Morro. Historians have called this period the “terrible year of 87.” Ten years later, the Spanish government approved the Autonomous Charter, under pressure by the United States, which was threatening to intervene in Cuba.
Puerto Rico becomes a U.S. colony
Bombardment of El Morro in the Spanish-American War 1898
The autonomous government Spain granted did not last long. In February of 1898, the U.S. ship the Maine exploded in Havana Bay, which led to the Spanish-American War. Eight days after the recently inaugurated Puerto Rican Legislature met for the first time, U.S. troops landed at Guánica on July 25, 1898. This marked the end of the Spanish experiment in self-government and inaugurated the U.S. colonial experiment. Although the Island had not participated in the war, its acquisition became part of a new geopolitical vision of U.S. hegemony 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 Puerto Ricans would be determined by the U.S. Congress. After more than a century, the control of Puerto Rican sovereignty and its political status remain in the hands of Congress.
The invading U.S. general, Nelson A. Miles (who was responsible for ending the wars against the Indians in the United States) knew exactly where to land in Puerto Rico. He was well informed of the anti-Spanish sentiment of the people on the southern coast (who had not forgiven the repression of the Compontes of 1887). The surprise landing at Guánica Bay was successful, as the troops were received enthusiastically by the residents of Ponce (stronghold of the island elite) and Yauco (center of Corsicans) while the Spanish army retreated to the mountains. The military campaign in Puerto Rico was quick (the Spanish knew they had already lost Cuba, and thus the war) although some battles continued until the armistice was signed a month after the landing.
What happened next surprised both the liberals and the separatists in Puerto Rico who had welcomed – and even helped – the invasion. They saw the United States as the great democratic country that would give Puerto Rico, as Miles had promised, “the blessings of civilization.” Instead, for two years the United States imposed a military government. When a civil government was established in 1900 through the Foraker Act, U.S. writers such as Lyman Gould and William Tansill still considered it inferior to the Autonomous Charter granted by the Spanish monarchy. In judicial terms, Puerto Rico became an unincorporated territory “belonging to the United States but not a part of the United States.” Disappointment with the political status caused open protests and led to a new political organization, the Union Party of Puerto Rico, in 1904. It gathered supporters of autonomy, annexation and independence as the possible ways to define the relationship with the United States. For the first time in Puerto Rican history, independence was included as a legal option in a political party’s program. The Unionists became the dominant party for 20 years, until the rise of a solid Socialist Party (which represented workers and favored statehood) led to alliances and coalitions that prevailed until the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), founded by descendants of the Unionists and other parties, was formed in 1938.
First half of the 20th century: Americanization is the goal
Meeting of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico circa 1940
During the first three decades of the 20th century, in a strong effort to Americanize Puerto Ricans, the English language was made obligatory in the public schools. The strategy failed due to the resistance of the population to learn the language. In the 21st century, there are still sectors of the population that resist English and do not speak it, despite government campaigns and the huge influence of the internet and cable television.
Puerto Rico progressed in many aspects during the first decade of U.S. rule: the number of schools increased and health conditions and communications improved. In 1903, the University of Puerto Rico, which had been sought after since the early 19th century, was finally inaugurated. The first steps were the creation of a Normal School, dedicated to educating teachers – in English – to enable the great project of transculturation.
In terms of agriculture, production of subsistence crops declined. A major expansion of sugar cane took place in Puerto Rico, led mainly by three absentee U.S. corporations, which caused an increase in the landless proletariat. This also fed anti-United States sentiment among significant parts of the population. The most important intellectuals of the time, Manuel Zeno Gandía (1855-1930), Luis Lloréns Torres (1876-1844) and Nemesio Canales (1878-1923), wrote about these conditions.
After the beginning of World War I, the geopolitical importance of Puerto Rico to the United States led the Congress to approve the Jones Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans in March, 1917. But feelings of Puerto Ricanness did not disappear with citizenship. These feelings remained especially strong in some sectors of society. The Nationalist Party was founded in 1922 and, under the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos beginning in 1930, became an instrument of radical resistance. Albizu emphasized Spanish roots and the Catholic religion as protection against Americanization (just as Irish patriots had done when facing the British in Ireland). Albizu’s influence was obvious among the first generation of local writers who emerged under U.S. rule.
The crisis of the 1930s
It was a period of great social, economic and political crisis, not only in Puerto Rico but in the world. The Great Depression began in 1929, worsening the terrible consequences of Hurricane San Felipe, which had occurred the year before. The situation was appropriately described in the popular song by “Lamento Borincano.” Puerto Rico was known as “the poorhouse of the Caribbean,” after three decades under the U.S. flag. The policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal were extended to the Island to reduce the rampant unemployment and poverty. However, the combination of social strife and strikes, in particular against the sugar industry, and the workers rallies with Albizu, led members of the elite to ask Washington to take a “firm hand” with Puerto Rico. The result was the appointment of the U.S. general Blanton Winship as governor. This appointment provoked a series of violent events that included the assassination of several nationalists by the police in the Río Piedras Massacre in 1935, and the assassination of Police Chief Elisha Riggs by nationalists Elías Beauchamp and Hiram Rosado in 1936. Both were immediately killed by the police. Albizu was arrested and after a questionable trial was imprisoned in Atlanta. These tensions led to what is called the Ponce Massacre in 1937, when armed police, under orders from the governor, opened fire on a protest, which led to 19 deaths, including two police officers, and wounding 235 people. The nationalists were unarmed and were participating in a peaceful march and protest, according to a report by the Hays Commission in the United States. Once Albizu was removed from the political scene, Luis Muñoz Marín, founder of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), became the main leader in Puerto Rico. The party, which was founded in 1938, controlled politics on the Island for three decades and remains one of the two main parties today.
The Muñoz era
The era between 1940 and 1968 brought significant changes to Puerto Rico, which went from being “the poorhouse of the Caribbean” to “the showcase of the Caribbean.” Some writers have referred to these years as “the peaceful revolution.” Puerto Rico went from being an agrarian and rural society to an urbanized and industrialized society with new social classes and many more educational opportunities for the people. To ensure this progress, the government promoted a massive emigration to the continental United States. As expected, the literature of the era reflected these changes. “La carreta” by René Marqués showed the new population changes, including emigration to New York. The conditions of the “neoricans” are described by writers such as José Luis González in his short novel “Paisa” and Pedro Juan Soto in “Spiks.”
In the 1940s, Puerto Rico’s destiny was once again affected by its strategic importance. During World War II, Puerto Rico was at the center of plans to defend the hemisphere and U.S. military bases appeared throughout the Puerto Rico archipelago, including the islands of Culebra and Vieques. The largest U.S. base in the world was developed in Ceiba, on the east end of the Island, and named Roosevelt Roads.
Second half of the 20th century: the Commonwealth
After the war, the pro-independence faction within the PPD renewed its efforts to fulfill the promises of self-determination for Puerto Rico, while in the United Nations, created in 1945, the Soviet Union (today Russia) and its allies accused the United States of maintaining a colony. As a result, a plan was created with the support of Muñoz Marín to resolve the colonial problem. An intermediate status (neither statehood nor independence) was designed and, after a long process – and the Nationalist Revolt of 1950 – the local constitution was adopted in 1952. It created the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) in Spanish, a term translated to English as a “commonwealth.” This did not resolve the status question as Muñoz Marín had wanted, but it still defines the political relationships between Puerto Rico and the United States. The debate continues.
The era of alternating power
In 1968, the PPD lost the elections for the first time in four decades. Luis A. Ferré, who favored the annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States, was elected under the New Progressive Party (PNP) banner. An era of alternating control between the PPD and PNP began. Ferré lost the following election and Rafael Hernández Colón, of the PPD, was elected in 1972. The Hernández Colón administration had to face the worldwide crisis caused by the increase in petroleum prices. As a solution, the federal government granted tax exemptions to multinational corporations that operated in Puerto Rico and extended the federal food stamps program to the Island. The 1970s witnessed the weakening of Operation Bootstrap (the industrialization plan based on U.S. tax exemptions created in 1947) and an increased dependency on federal funds. The economy shifted from manufacturing to high finance based on bank deposits of multinationals. This stage ended when the U.S. Congress eliminated the tax benefits to multinationals (under Section 936 of the federal Internal Revenue Code). In 2006, the benefits fully ended in Puerto Rico. Since then, all administrations have sought a new economic model that would help to ensure a high standard of living.
Recent decades of political history in Puerto Rico have been characterized by the exchange of power between the two main political parties (PPD and PNP) and the polarization of society. One sector of Puerto Ricans wants a resolution of the political status, whether statehood, independence or free association with the United States. Another sector wants to maintain the status quo of the commonwealth with certain additional freedoms. Between 1976 and 1984, and from 1992 to 2000, pro-statehood factions controlled the government. However, in the status plebiscites during this era (1993 and 1998), the statehood option did not achieve the majority this sector desired. In 2012, for the first time, a plebiscite returned results favoring statehood. It consisted of two questions: 1, if the voter was in agreement with the current territorial status of Puerto Rico, and 2, which status was favored. On the first, the majority (970,910 or 53.97%) voted that they were not in agreement with the current status. On the second question, 834,191 voters or 61.16% were in favor of statehood. The second question was not answered by 480,918 voters, which was the source of controversy. None of these plebiscites has had a commitment from the U.S. Congress to accept the decision of the Puerto Rican voters.
During these years, and continuing today, there has been a resurgence in Puerto Ricans’ pride in their culture and identity and a new definition of Puerto Ricanness that has been influenced by the vision of the Puerto Rican community in the United States, the diaspora. This population grew in terms of numbers and political power, including the election of several members of Congress of Puerto Rican origin, representing New York and Illinois.
In the early 21st century, Puerto Rico continues its search for its destiny, with strong ties to the United States, a solid sense of identity and extraordinary artistic and cultural productivity.
Acosta Lespier, Ivonne. “La mordaza: Puerto Rico 1948-1957”. Río Piedras: Editorial Edil, 1987.
Cabrera Salcedo, Lizette. “Reflejos de la historia de Puerto Rico en el arte. San Juan: Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte y Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, 2016.
Dietz, James. “Historia económica de Puerto Rico”. Río Piedras: Ediciones Huracán, 1989.
Moscoso, Francisco. “Fundación de San Juan en 1522”. San Juan: Ediciones Laberinto, 2020.
Moscoso, Francisco y Lizette Cabrera Salcedo. “Historia de Puerto Rico”. San Juan: Ediciones Santillana, 2008.
Rivero, Ángel. “Crónica de la Guerra Hispanoamericana en Puerto Rico”. Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1922.
Robiu Lamarche, Sebastián. “Mitología y religión de los taínos”. San Juan: Editorial Punto y coma, 2006.
Scarano, Francisco. “Puerto Rico: Cinco siglos de historia”. Estados Unidos: Mc Graw Hill, 1993.
Author: Dr. Ivonne Acosta Lespier
Published: September 12, 2014
Reviewed: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, October 20, 2020