Known as "the isle of enchantment," Puerto Rico is a densely-populated island in the Caribbean. Currently a commonwealth of the United States, "Bori(n)quen," as the native Arawark (Taino) Indians called it (and locals still affectionately refer to it), was discovered and claimed for Spain by Columbus during his second voyage in 1493. Columbus renamed the island San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), from which the island's capital, San Juan, takes its name. "Puerto Rico," the name given to it by Ponce de Leon (a 16th century settler and seeker of the Fountain of Youth), means "rich port."
The Spanish brought African slaves to the island starting in 1518, just a few years after they had introduced sugarcane. By the end of 16th century, most of the native population had disappeared. The Spanish fought off a number of attacks from the British, the French, and the Dutch, but they never had to contend with a war of independence as they did in other colonies. Following the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898. Under the Jones Act of 1917, all Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the United States. In 1948, Puerto Ricans for the first time elected their own governor, Luis Munoz Marin. Munoz Marin introduced "Operation Bootstrap," a plan to improve the island's economy by attracting industry through tax incentives and low labor costs. In 1952 the island became a commonwealth of the United States. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico's residents have the same rights, privileges, and obligations as other U.S. citizens but pay no federal income tax and lack voting representation in Congress and the right to participate in presidential elections.
In plebiscites held in 1967, 1993, and 1998, Puerto Rican voters chose not to alter the existing political status.
Today, more than 3.9 million Puerto Ricans inhabit the island. Another 4 million Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland, many in New York City. Puerto Ricans in New York City often refer to themselves as "Nuyoricans." It is difficult to determine the exact Puerto Rican American population because there is a high rate of travel between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. It is impossible to know who is immigrating on a permanent basis, who is coming on a trial basis, and who is just visiting family and friends or traveling on business. There are no official immigration records because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and cross the border freely, and U.S. Census figures are only approximate because not all Puerto Ricans report themselves as "Puerto Rican."
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Approximately 1,609 km (1,000 mi) east-southeast of Miami, Florida, Puerto Rico (160 km or 100 mi long and 51 km or 32 mi wide) offers beaches, mountains, and urban areas. It is in the urban areas where most of its nearly 4 million inhabitants are found. The capital, San Juan, is home to approximately 434,000 residents. The next-largest municipality, Bayamon, boasts about half as many dwellers. In addition to the main island, Puerto Rico also consists of several smaller islands, including Culebra, Mona, and Vieques.
Puerto Rico enjoys a subtropical marine climate with an annual mean temperature of 24°c (75°f). Puerto Rico is a popular beach resort and is one of the world's busiest cruise ship ports. Unfortunately, the island is often in the path of hurricanes. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo brought much damage. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 caused seven deaths.
Unique to the island is the Coqui, a tiny frog that sings "cokee." Its likeness, however, is sure to be found the world over on tee-shirts, hats, and other souvenirs.
Puerto Ricans speak both Spanish and English, but predominantly Spanish. In 1991, Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon signed a law making Spanish the only official language. Two years later, his successor, Pedro Rossello, restored English as an official language. The Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico (or any other former Spanish colony) is as different from the Spanish spoken in Spain as American English is different from the English spoken in England—that is to say, different, but still the same language.
"Spanglish," a mix of English and Spanish, can sometimes be heard on the island but is most often spoken in Puerto Rican communities on the U.S. mainland.
In Puerto Rico names are traditionally composed of three parts: first (given) name, father's surname, and mother's maiden name; for example, Juan Gomez Lopez.
Puerto Rican folklore, with origins in Taino, Spanish, and African traditions, deals mostly with stories of demons who roam the island after dark, seeking food or people, or protecting gold stashed by pirates. Other tales give an account of hurricanes and the damage they cause.
The legend of "El Chupacabras" (The Goat Sucker) spread throughout Puerto Rico in the early 1990s. "Chupa" is said to be a panther-like creature that stands on its hind legs and hops around like a kangaroo. It has claws on its appendages and plumage down its back. Some believe that the creature, which leaves behind bloodless animal carcasses with surgically precise incisions, may be a space alien. Others believe it is the work of satanic cults.
Most Puerto Ricans are Christian, mainly Roman Catholic (85% of the population). Santeria, the religion introduced by the African slaves, is also prevalent.
While every town has its own feast honoring a patron saint, the main festivities occur on San Juan Bautista Day. At midnight celebrants dip their fully clothed bodies in water in order to bring themselves good luck.
Puerto Ricans also celebrate American holidays such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. Christmas celebrations take place on December 25 (as is done on the mainland) and on January 6, Three Kings Day (as is traditional). During the Christmas season, Puerto Ricans carry out what is called an asalto ("assault"). Celebrants go from house to house, singing songs called aquinaldos. Members of each household then join in and move to the next house.
RITES OF PASSAGE
The rites of passage in Puerto Rico are mainly those of the Catholic Church. Soon after a child is born it is baptized, and great emphasis is often placed on the padrinos (godparents). First Holy Communion is cause for great celebration. Death is mourned in much the same way as on the U.S. mainland.
Puerto Ricans, like many other peoples of the Caribbean, are characterized as being warm, open, and friendly—they will give you the shirt off their back.
Puerto Ricans enjoy a standard of living that is among the highest in the Caribbean. Health care on the island has continued to improve since the 1940s. The majority of Puerto Ricans have cars. While per capita income for Puerto Ricans is higher than that of other Caribbean nations, it is much lower than that of any of the 50 U.S. states. The per capita gross domestic product (GDP) for Puerto Rico in 2007 was $19,600, while the per capita GDP for the American mainland was $46,000.
The extended-family setting prevails over that of the nuclear family. However, the fertility rate in 2008 was 1.76 children born per woman in Puerto Rico, compared with 2.1 children per women on the U.S. mainland.
The guayabera, an embroidered man's shirt, is considered a traditional, elegant article of clothing and is still worn today in both formal and informal settings. For everyday purposes, however, people tend to wear casual attire.
"Fondas," small, cafeteria-like restaurants on the island, are popular eateries for locals and tourists alike looking for generous portions at reasonable prices. Arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) is a typical Puerto Rican dish. Pasteles are tamales made from plantains and stuffed with meat. In large cities, like San Juan, one can find most of the same fast-food chains found on the U.S. mainland.
Like many other Latin Americans, Puerto Ricans typically have a simple breakfast; the most common breakfast is cafe con leche (coffee—usually espresso—with milk). If one happens to visit a family at dinnertime, they are likely to insist that the visitor stay and eat. To refuse may be considered impolite.
Puerto Rico is known for its rum. The Bacardi family, which moved the center of its production from Cuba to Puerto Rico in the 1930s, is the world's largest producer of rum.
Like many of the Caribbean people, Puerto Ricans are known for their sweet tooth. Most desserts employ ingredients that are grown right on the island. Below is a simple recipe for something called Polvo de Amor ("love powder").
1 pound of sugar
Open the coconut and extract the milk. Grate the meat. Mix with sugar and cook in a kettle. Stir for 5 minutes on a high flame. Reduce heat and stir for an additional 10 minutes. Serve crisp and golden brown.
More than 94% of the island's population is literate. The government spends more money on education than on any other sector. The University of Puerto Rico provides higher education at several campuses throughout the island.
Puerto Rican culture has strong roots in Spanish and African traditions. Nowhere are those traditions more visible than in its popular music. Like other Spanish-speaking nations, salsa is the music of choice for Puerto Ricans. It blends elements of Spanish music with African rhythms.
The Decima (literally, "tenth") is a poetic form of traditional Puerto Rican music in which the Jibaro (peasant farmer) expresses his hopes, dreams, and letdowns. The decima is usually improvised.
In the world of classical music, Puerto Rico boasts cellist Pablo Casals. Born in Spain in 1876 of a Puerto Rican mother, Casals is recognized the world over as one of the finest classical musicians of all time. He founded the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra, the Conservatory of Music, and the Festival Casals, a series of classical music concerts held in mid-June. Casals, who passed away at the age of 97 in 1973, is considered a national hero.
Other notable Puerto Rican "exports" in the arts include Raul Julia, Tito Puente, Jose Ferrer, Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, and Jose Feliciano. Feliciano and his music embody the Puerto Rican spirit and its American influences. A true crossover artist, Feliciano is as acclaimed for his English-language recordings as for those in Spanish. One of his better-known works, "Feliz Navidad," is a bilingual piece that has become a holiday classic.
Of all the Puerto Rican painters, none has gained greater acclaim than Jose Campeche. Campeche lived during the late 18th century and spent all of his life in San Juan. He was the son of a freed slave and an immigrant from the Canary Islands. The artist is renowned for his masterful religious works. Francisco Oller, born in 1833, demonstrated a European influence in his works. Oller applied the impressionist style to scenes depicting plantations, palm trees, and other local sights.
In literature, poet Francisco de Ayerra y Santa Maria and Latin scholar Alonso Ramirez stand out as notable contributors from the time of the conquistadors. The 19th century brought noted poets such as Lola Rodrigues de Tio, Jose Gautier Benitez, and Jose Gualberto Padilla ("El Caribe"). That same era featured distinguished writers such as Salvador Brau, Eugenio Maria Hostos, and Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. The 20th century was marked by works that deal with Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States. Poets and writers include Jose de Diego, Evaristo Ribera Chevremont, Antonio Pedreira, Enrique A. Laguerre, Pedro Juan Soto, and Rene Marques. Contemporary Puerto Rican writers include Rosario Ferré, Mayra Calvani, Esmeralda Santiago, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Ivan Silen, Giannina Braschi, and Jesús Colón.
Puerto Rico is strong in commerce, finance, tourism, and communications. The labor force of 1.3 million is divided into services (77%), industry (20%) and agriculture (3%). Puerto Rico is one of the world's largest producers of pharmaceuticals. At $77.4 billion in 2007, the island's gross domestic product (GDP) is by far the largest in the Caribbean, and one of the largest in Latin America. A diverse industrial sector has far surpassed agriculture as the primary source of economic activity and income. Encouraged by duty-free access to the United States and by tax incentives, U.S. firms have invested heavily in Puerto Rico since the 1950s. In agriculture, dairy production and other livestock products have surpassed sugar production. Tourism has traditionally been an important source of income, with estimated arrivals of nearly 5 million tourists in 2004. The "siesta" is becoming a thing of the past, as more and more businesses adopt a "nine-to-five" mentality.
As in other Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands, baseball reigns supreme above all other sports in Puerto Rico—both as a participatory and as a spectator sport. Professional baseball is played by teams in the Caribbean League. Often players from the U.S. major leagues will also play in the Caribbean League. Roberto Clemente, who played in the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960s and 1970s, is arguably one of the finest athletes Puerto Rico has ever produced, and one of the best players of the game. Tragically, Clemente died at the height of his career in an airplane accident while performing charity work. Roberto Alomar is considered by many to be one of the best second basemen in history.
Other notable Puerto Rican athletes include jockey Angel Cordero, tennis player "Gigi" Fernandez, and golfer "Chi Chi" Rodriguez.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Like others in the Caribbean, Puerto Ricans cherish baseball, basketball, and a good game of dominoes. Highly controversial, cockfighting remains of great interest. To pass the time, people read, listen to one or more of the over 100 radio stations, or watch any of a half-dozen TV stations. On weekends, high school and college students frequent dance clubs and bars.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Carved religious figures called santos (saints) have been produced for more than 400 years on the island of Puerto Rico. Mundillos (tattered fabrics) is a lace craft that is equally old and equally popular. Musical artisans in Puerto Rico make cuatros (four-stringed guitars). Other craftspeople make caretas, festive masks (made of papier-mâché) in the shape of animal or devil heads, used during the Lenten season.
Puerto Rico is not immune to the problems of racial and sexual discrimination that plague the world. Large, densely populated cities like San Juan suffer the same social and criminal problems as do other large, densely populated cities on the mainland—AIDS, drugs, theft, unemployment, and violent crimes. The annual murder rate on the island is high. In response, many of the wealthier neighborhoods have barricaded themselves with electronic gates.
The gender roles of Puerto Rican women are more traditional than those of American women on the mainland. The women's movement was slow in coming to Puerto Rico, and a "machismo" attitude among men is still prevalent.
"SanJuanBrothas" is an annual gay pride event held in San Juan each Memorial Day weekend. It is marketed toward gay men of color, but everyone can join in. Homosexuality in Puerto Rico is legal since a new penal code was passed in 2005. As of 2008 Puerto Rico's legislature was debating giving same-sex couples some of the rights of marriage through civil unions. Crimes motivated by prejudice based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity are considered hate crimes and are prohibited according to the Article 72 of the Penal Code of 2004.
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Wagenheim, Kal, and Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim, ed. The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History. Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1993.
—revised by J. Hobby