The Fascinating History and Culture of Puerto Rico
What characterizes Puerto Rico is its distinctive location. It is an ideal place for trade, which has made it a target for foreign conquest for many centuries.
Join me as I explore the fascinating history of this valuable land and the intriguing culture they have to offer.
History of a Profitable Land
As a part of the West Indies, Puerto Rico has a complicated history of battles for land, socio-economic crises, and constant questioning about their belonging.
The first inhabitants of the land now known as Puerto Rico were the Arawak Indians over 1,000 years prior to the Spanish arrival. Owners of the taíno culture, they settled on small villages growing tropical foods—they named their land Boriquén.
Nonetheless, neighbor islands constantly attacked Boriquén to gain control of the land. Upon his arrival in 1493, Christopher Columbus rescued Taino prisoners held in the Carib, an enemy island. When he returned them to Boriquén, he settled in a bay he chose to rename as San Juan Bautista, and claimed the land for the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella I.
Shortly after, Christopher Columbus moved the settlement to Hispaniola—now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic—establishing the first permanent settlement in the New World.
Caparra was the first official town. This bay served as anchorage for sailing vessels. Juan Ponce de León founded it in 1508 with mining and agriculture as the main economic activities.
Later in 1521, they decided to move the town up north and renamed the bay as Puerto Rico. As years went by, they changed the bay’s name to San Juan—the whole island became Puerto Rico.
The Indians rebelled against the Spanish when they were fed up with years of injustice. They were treated as vassals, forced to pay tribute to the Spanish crown, and suffered diseases the Spanish spread in their population, in addition to the imposition of a new religion.
In consequence, the Spanish decided to bring Indian and African slaves to work in the mines and the later-established sugarcane and ginger plantations.
At the sight of thriving economic conditions in Puerto Rico, neighbor islands attacked to take over the land.
The economic setbacks due to the attacks, the diseases that kept striking the population, and the other European pirates threatening to take them down, all resulted in the Spanish colonists beginning to leave the islands gradually.
Still attempting to protect their land, the Spanish turned San Juan into a military station to avoid further attacks.
Other European Invasions
The French, British, Danish, and Dutch kept attacking, resulting in defensive attacks from the Spanish, too. It became a constant battle over the island.
Eventually, Spain decided to settle on reforms to promote trade between Puerto Rico and Spain to improve the economy and cease the battle, turning Puerto Rico into an important space for economic growth.
With a long history of economic development, exportation to the United States, alternating political periods, and constant quests for independence, Puerto Rico obtained the right to a constitutional government by 1870.
The United States in Puerto Rico
The United States took colonies from Spain during the Spanish-American war by the end of the 1890s. This resulted in Puerto Rico being unable to claim an independent government.
Seeking a safe, strategically located military station, the United States established their navy with the objective of creating the infamous Panama Canal later on.
Read more: The Spanish-American War.
Under the Treaty of Paris, the United States obtained Puerto Rico in 1899. Later in 1917, under the Jones Act, the U.S government granted Puerto Ricans the U.S citizenship. In 1950, President Truman signed the Puerto Rico Commonwealth Bill, and Puerto Rico was then able to establish their own constitution.
Year after year, the country has struggled to determine their real role within the United States, as well as to establish what kind of nation they want to be: either to remain a US commonwealth, a state, or to become an independent country.
Now, Puerto Rico is a United States territory, with their own constitution and government. They also elect their own governor and some even participate in the U.S general elections.
By 2016, their population was 3.4 million inhabitants. However, due to many years of economic recession, Puerto Ricans keep moving to the United States—particularly Florida—to seek better job opportunities.
For those who stay in their homeland, statistics indicate that they have a lower median household income.
The Puerto Rican flag is a representation of their rich history of battles and constant struggles for independence. They celebrate Flag Day on December 22nd.
- The red stripes stand for the blood shed by those who defended their land.
- The white stripes stand for victory and peace.
- The blue triangle represents the blue sky and the sea around them.
- The white star stands for the island itself.
Similarly to Latin Americans, Puerto Ricans are mostly Christian. Up to 56% of the population identify as Catholic whereas 33% of them identify as Protestants.
It was amazing to see how many festivals Puerto Ricans hold all over the country! Here are some of the most memorable celebrations.
Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián
Taking place on the third weekend of January, this festival takes over town squares. People perform live music among other performances.
Festival de la Piña Paradisíaca
They enjoy this awesome festival in La Parguera from June 7th to the 9th. With local vendors and live music, people witness runners on a 5K race around the beach and its coves.
Noche de San Juan
On June 23rd, Puerto Ricans celebrate the birth of Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista.) The tradition dictates that at midnight, people jump backwards into the ocean seven times for good luck.
Festival de Santiago Apóstol
Vejigantes star in this festival. They are masks people use to represent African slaves on a huge parade that travels the town. At unique performances, they represent vejigantes against Spanish knights to remember the battles that shaped their history.
Festival de la Novilla
Also on the third weekend of January, Puerto Ricans perform live music—folk and salsa—while others enjoy street food and amusement park rides.
With a wide variety of ingredients, mainly tropical foods, Puerto Rico has dozens of typical foods that represent their history and their unique taste!
1. Chuletas a la Primavera
Fried pork chops accompanied with rice and any type of beans.
2. Mojo Isleño
Tomato sauce, usually added to fried fish.
3. Arepas de maíz
Dessert with a biscuit-like texture made out of corn, milk, and served with queso de papa.
A sandwich totally unique to Puerto Rico. Flattened fried plantains instead of bread over your favorite ingredients.
5. Budín de calabaza
Pumpkin pureé spiced up with orange, ginger, and cinnamon.
Boricuas are surely fans of flan; they make tons of flavors such as pumpkin, coconut, milk, cheese with pineapple, and vanilla.
7. Boriqua Island Punch
A delicious beverage that combines coconut milk, coconut kernel, rum, and other flavors to make it a tropical flavor explosion.
A beverage combining evaporated milk, coconut cream, condensed milk, spiced rum, egg yolks, vanilla, and cinnamon.
The influence of many settlers claiming this land reflects on the music Puerto Ricans enjoy. Check out all these music styles that will remind you of this island.
Due to the mixture of earlier inhabitants of the land, Puerto Rico has bred talented classical composers like Manuel Tavares. Inevitably, some native composers have been brave enough to adapt Puerto Rican vibes into classical scores. Juan Morel Campos successfully achieved such style.
Puerto Rico easily captured their Spanish influence in taking this music for their culture. In this unique island, jíbaros play folk music with string and percussion instruments. People enjoy folk music at weddings and whenever a Puerto Rican finds themselves away from home, hearing some jíbaros play folk music makes them feel like home.
Bomba y Plena
As different as these styles are, both are excellent for dancing. African heritage is responsible for Bomba, the rhythmic percussion-based music along with maracas are a must for those looking for an upbeat dance-off.
Plena reminds Puerto Ricans of the original inhabitants of their land, the Arawak Indians. It also blends with Spanish instruments like guitars.
Including much more sophisticated instruments and rhythms than some styles listed above, salsa brings together lots of Caribbeans into danceable music that represents the heart of Latin culture.
Being an island with lovely weather and tons of gorgeous beaches, it offers an abundance of activities to engage in. Snorkeling, touring Old San Juan to find the best restaurants, kayaking, and jet skiing are some of the amazing experiences you can have in this beautiful island.
Check out this list of stunning places you must see on your next visit!
This historical site originally was a military fort. It dates back to 1539 and it served as protection for the Spanish settlers from foreign attacks.
The astonishing Isla de Vieques is the ideal spot for those looking for a quiet trip and low-key days under the sun.
You can do fun activities like scuba diving, snorkeling and sunbathing! There are many resorts you can stay at that offer a unique view of the island.
Old San Juan
If the intricate history of this island captivated you, Old San Juan is the perfect spot for you. Dive into the country’s colonial past as you take a walk along the cobblestone streets. It is also an awesome place to stay while visiting Puerto Rico for its multiple hotels and restaurants.
You can find great hotels near Calle Fortaleza, the center of Puerto Rican history and culture.
A gorgeous rainforest that is home to unique animal species that you will see nowhere else in the world! Be sure you book your guided tour of this one-of-a-kind corner of the island!
Camuy River Cave Park
Are you a fan of beautiful rivers? This cave park is just for you! As you explore this subterranean site, boating along the river, you will be in awe at the stalagmites and stalactites that make this cave park a destination you must see!
Did you know that it is the third largest cave network in the world?
Vacation Is Better on an Island
While both English and Spanish are official languages on this gorgeous island, Spanish is the one you will need the most whenever you visit! Be sure you are ready for this unforgettable adventure by learning Spanish! Become a proficient speaker in no time by joining our community. Sign up for a free one-on-one class with a native Spanish speaker and see how great it is to speak this rich language!
Want to learn more about Latin American culture? Check out our latest posts!
- Guatemala’s Biggest, Most Colorful Market: Chichicastenango
- The History and Tradition of Las Cabañuelas
- 10 Festive Ways to Spend Christmas in Argentina
- 12 Coolest Hispanic Holidays You Never Heard Of
- A Brief, Intriguing History of the Spanish Royal Family
- The ‘Vulgar’ History and Origin of the Spanish Language
- The Tantalizing Guide to Spanish (and Latin American) Cheeses
- What’s the Difference Between Hispanic and Latino?
- Christmas Songs and Vocabulary for Kids in Spanish - December 13, 2022
- 100 Sentences With the Spanish Verb Ser - September 1, 2022
- Learn the Shapes (Free Spanish Lessons for Kids) - January 13, 2022