Puerto Rico occupies a crucial juncture in the geographical and political history of the Americas. The most defining event in its annals was the nearly 400-year rule of the Spanish, whose checkered history of colonization, genocide, military triumph and defeat are seen everywhere, especially at El Morro fort in Old San Juan. Then there's the dramatic arc of the Commonwealth's struggle to define itself after the US occupation in the late 1800s. Protests, terrorism and passion have fueled the debate.
It’s unfortunate that, similar to so many other indigenous peoples of the Americas, the best record of Taíno culture is written by those who would annihilate it. Through the journals of Ramón Pané, a Catalonian friar who was traveling with the second Columbus expedition, we are given a vivid firsthand account of the Taíno lifestyle, customs and religious beliefs. Although told with an unintentionally comic cultural and religious bias, it’s precious information and often more accurate than other similar histories in the Americas. In his 1505 Account of the Antiquities – or Customs – of the Indians, Pané gives a breathless report of Puerto Rico’s native residents, describing cities with wide, straight roads, elaborate religious rituals and small communities of ‘artfully made’ homes behind walls of woven cane. Their diet was derived from tropical fruit grown in orchards that grew oranges and citron that reminded Pané of the ones in Valencia or Barcelona. The beauty of the Taíno culture only exists as an echo today, but it made an indelible influence on contemporary Puerto Rico.
Taíno Life on Puerto Rico
We know now that the Taíno were an Arawakan group with societies that were well established on Puerto Rico and the other Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica) when Columbus first turned up in the area in 1493. Arawaks first settled the island around AD 700, following a migration north from the Orinoco River delta in present-day Venezuela. By AD 1000 a distinctive Taíno culture had emerged based on agriculture, fishing, hunting and the production of cassava bread.
Pané speaks in depth about the complex religious cosmology of the Taíno, a system that had creation stories that often surprised Pané with their Christian parallels. They believed in a single, eternal god who was omnipresent and invisible, and often also worshiped the mother of this god, who was known by a number of names. Each home held a stone or wood idol, usually about 3ft tall, called a cemí, which would receive their prayers. The practice of making these statues translated seamlessly into Christianity. Today santos (carved figurines representing saints), of the same height, are available across the island.
The native Taíno belief in the afterlife was quite different from the Christian dogma though, and in it there are some basic elements that would survive in other hybrid religions in the islands. Take for instance the Taíno belief in the walking dead, which bears a certain resemblance to famous tenants of Haitian Vodou. According to Taíno, the dead can return from the afterlife, a place called Coaybay, and walk among the living. In Taíno belief the dead walked through the villages and forests at night so they could eat tropical guanábana fruit. They also believed that women from Coaybay could have sexual communions with living men. The only way to tell the living from the dead was to touch someone on the belly, as they believed that the dead had no navel.
The small, round wooden huts of the Taíno people were called bohios, where they smoked cohibas (cigars) and slept in hamacas (hammocks). They called their newly adopted island Borinquen (Land of the Noble Lord) and made pottery, wove baskets and carved wood. The native society was relatively democratic and organized around a system of caciques (Taíno chiefs) who oversaw a rank of medicine men, subchiefs and, below them, workers.
For leisure, the Taíno built ceremonial ball parks where they played a soccer-like game with a rubber ball between teams of 10 to 30 people. At Tibes near Ponce in the south, and at Caguana near Utuadu in the north, archaeologists discovered impressive courts, marked by rows of massive stone blocks. Drums, maracas and güiros provided the game’s percussive accompaniment – instruments that resound in Puerto Rican traditional and popular music today.
Colonization of the Taíno
Columbus first saw Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493 – a date simultaneously celebrated and mourned today. Columbus’ 17 ships landed on the island’s west coast for water, somewhere in the area near Rincón. But the visit was extremely brief, as Columbus’ main base in the region was on Hispaniola (known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There was a period of relative quiet between his ‘discovery’ of Puerto Rico and the arrival of Ponce de León, who landed on the island in the August of 1508. León was here for good; he was sent by the Spanish crown to set up a colonial base for the Caribbean in Puerto Rico and look for gold. At first, León’s expedition was amicably received by the chief of all chiefs, a cacique called Agüeybana.
But the good relationship didn’t last long. Approximately 100 years before the Spanish arrived, Taíno culture was challenged by the Caribs, a warlike tribe from South America who raided Taíno villages for slaves and fodder for cannibalistic rites. When Ponce de León took possession of the island, the simmering tensions between the Taíno and Caribs were still evident and sometimes misinterpreted by the Spanish as Taíno aggression. In reality the Taíno were a friendly, sedentary people who put up little resistance to the new colonizers. Although León’s letters to the crown describe this as a period of relative peace, he had difficulty making the Taíno understand that he was now in charge, and indigenous people were understandably resistant to their newfound roles as subservient laborers.
When León was unable to get the Taíno to fall in line with the arduous tasks of mining and farming for the Spanish, Queen Isabella issued an edict in simple terms: ‘You will force the said Indians to associate with the Christians of the island.’ Though the Spanish crown issued paltry monetary payments for the labor, it was tantamount to slavery.
By 1511 the forced labor and religious conversion of the Taíno had destroyed any shred of initial goodwill that may have existed between tribal leaders and the Spanish. When Agüeybana died, his nephew, called Agüeybana II, took over and tensions came to a head. Though accounts differ about the lead-up to the first Taíno uprising, the most colorful version goes like this: in an effort to test the Spaniards’ suggestion of religious protection and life beyond death, Agüeybana II lured a Spanish soldier to a lake where he was promised a number of women would be bathing. Instead, a Taíno warrior drowned him while tribal leaders watched. Soon greater aggression was planned.
A few small raids on new Spanish settlements in the south went in favor of the Taíno, but as soon as León learned of the incidents, he unleashed his technologically advanced soldiers on the Taíno warriors. The battle that quelled the uprising was shocking in its brutality. An estimated 11,000 Taíno were killed in military campaigns by a Spanish force numbering only 100.
Testimonies vary as to how many Taíno inhabited Borinquen at the time of the Spanish invasion, though most anthropologists place the number between 20,000 and 60,000. In 1515 – after nearly a decade of maltreatment, a failed rebellion, disease and virtual slavery – only 4000 remained. Thirty years later a Spanish bishop put the number at 60.
While Taíno blood may have all but disappeared in modern Puerto Rico, native traditions live on. Puerto Rican Spanish is dotted with native words like yucca (a root vegetable), iguana, manatí (manatee – a sea mammal), maracas and ceiba (Puerto Rico’s national tree); and some terms have even found their way into modern English: think huracán for hurricane and hamaca for hammock.
It’s easy to imagine Puerto Rico’s disparate invaders scheming in the shadowy ports of the Caribbean and the gilded halls of Europe. To evade the guns of El Morro and sack the San Juan harbor would write history – for pirates and princes alike. Not long after the fort was commissioned by Spanish King Charles V in 1539, it came under siege from those seeking strategic power in the Caribbean. Everyone from daring British dandy Francis Drake to storied cutthroats like Blackbeard tried their luck against San Juan’s formidable defenses.
One of the colony’s earliest invaders, Francis Drake first arrived in Puerto Rico in 1595 pursuing a stricken Spanish galleon – holding two million gold ducats – that took shelter in San Juan harbor. While the plucky Brit may have singed the king of Spain’s beard in Cádiz a decade earlier, the Spaniards quickly got revenge in Puerto Rico when they fired a cannonball into Drake’s cabin, killing two of his men, and – allegedly – shooting the stool from underneath him. Drake left the island empty-handed and died the following year of dysentery in Panama.
San Juan was attacked by the British navy again three years later under the command of the third earl of Cumberland. Learning from Drake’s mistakes, Cumberland’s 1700-strong army landed in what is now Condado and advanced on the city via land from the east. After a short battle, the city surrendered and the British occupied it for the next 10 weeks, before a dysentery epidemic hit and forced an ignominious withdrawal.
In response to frequent British incursions, San Juan’s defensive walls were repeatedly strengthened, a measure that helped repel an ambitious attack by the Netherlands in 1625. The Dutch fired over 4000 cannonballs into the city walls before landing 2000 men at La Puntilla. Although the invaders managed to occupy the city temporarily and take the Fortaleza palace, the Spanish held El Morro fort and, after less than a month, the Dutch retreated, razing the city as they went.
San Juan’s second great fort, San Cristóbal, was inaugurated in the 1630s and the city saw no more major attacks for almost two centuries. It wasn’t until 1797 that the British, at war again with Spain, tried one last time. Still, even though they had over 60 ships and 10,000 men they eventually withdrew in bloodied and breathless exasperation.
Agüeybana (meaning ‘Big Sun’) was the most powerful cacique (Taíno chief) in Puerto Rico when Europeans first discovered the island. A trusting character who was curious about the European travelers, Agüeybana’s close relationship with Juan Ponce de León was instrumental in Spanish colonization of the Caribbean. Told in a prophecy about the coming of a ‘clothed people,’ Agüeybana warmly received the Spanish explorer in 1508; some historical accounts, notably written by the Spanish, claim that he believed the Europeans were deities. He hosted a ceremony of friendship and led León and a delegation of his men on a scouting expedition of the island, from which Puerto Rico’s first maps were drawn. But León struggled to convince Agüeybana to assist him with his two main priorities: mining Puerto Rico for gold and converting indigenous people to Christianity.
Smuggling, Sugar & Spain
Just look at a map and Puerto Rico’s strategic position – between the shores of North, Central and South America – is immediately evident. During Spain’s early settlement in the 16th century, the empire knew that Puerto Rican harbors were key to transporting the limitless wealth of the Americas. But the crown’s insistence on a centralized government was an arrogant political position that would cost Spain dearly and shape the development of Puerto Rico.
In the mid-1500s Spain insisted that all imports and exports from its growing empire be trafficked through ports in Spain. But Seville was some 2½ months away by sail and the policy was immediately inadequate for controlling the island’s many ports. A number of forces – including new Spanish colonies in gold-rich Peru and Mexico – led to the rise of an enormous, well-organized black market in Puerto Rico.
This unchecked flow of goods and money hastened the development of Puerto Rico’s other ports – Ponce and Arroyo among them – where sugarcane and goods from the Americas were moved out of sight of Spanish authorities.
The power vacuum was quickly filled by merchants operating with their own agenda. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, cities of the south grew rich from trade with Caribbean neighbors – certainly illegal, but completely unknown to the distant king.
Even after Spain gave more power to local authorities in San Juan in the 18th century, the brisk black-market exchange of sugar, ginger and slaves between Puerto Rico and its neighbors (including the young United States) continued in the south, funding many of the majestic homes and fountains tourists visit today.
Juan Ponce de León
Soldier, sailor, governor, dreamer and politician, the life story of Juan Ponce de León reads like a Who’s Who of late-15th- and early-16th-century maritime exploration. Aside from founding the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico in 1508, this daring, yet often short-sighted, Spanish adventurer partook in Columbus’ second trans-Atlantic voyage, charted large tracts of the Bahamas, discovered the existence of the Gulf Stream and was the first recorded European to set foot in what is now known as Florida.
Born in Valladolid, Spain, in 1460, de León served his military apprenticeship fighting against the Moors during the Christian reconquest of Granada in 1492. The following year he arrived in the New World on Columbus’ second expedition and settled on the island of Hispaniola, where he was proclaimed deputy governor of the province of Higüey. Following Columbus’ death in 1506, the Spanish crown asked de León to lead the colonization of Borinquen, an island first explored by Columbus in 1493.
Despite initially currying favor with the native Taíno Indians, the Spaniard’s relationship with his new neighbors quickly deteriorated. In 1512, he was replaced and given a new task: explore the region. After circumnavigating the Bahamas, de León elected to divert northwest and, in the process, inadvertently ‘discovered’ Florida.
After several forays along Florida’s coast (which de León thought was an island), the explorer returned to Puerto Rico via Cuba and Guadalupe in 1515 and stayed there for the next six years. In 1521, de León organized another trip to Florida. This time they landed on the west coast of Florida but were quickly beaten back by Calusa Native Americans. Wounded in the thigh by a poisoned arrow, de León was shipped back to Havana where he died in July 1521. His remains were returned to Puerto Rico where they are interred in the Catedral de San Juan.
As throughout the Caribbean, slavery was the engine of the Puerto Rican economy through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and has left an indelible mark on Puerto Rican culture. The two types of slaves that were brought to the island – ladinos, born and acculturated in Spain, and bozales and Yoruba people, brought from Africa – first mined meager gold and silver deposits. Once these deposits were depleted, slaves propped up the sugarcane industry and agriculture on the coastal areas of the island. While the rest of the island’s population experienced normal growth, the slave population skyrocketed throughout the late 18th century. A census figure in 1765 shows 5400 slaves in Puerto Rico; by 1830 it had increased to more than 31,000, mainly due to the introduction of new slaves directly from Africa and other parts of the Caribbean. However, despite these increases, by 1795 the majority (more than 60%) of black and mulatto people living in Puerto Rico were free. This trend, unusual for the Caribbean, is often attributed to an asylum policy that granted freedom to fugitive slaves from throughout the region.
By the late 1830s, after years of racial violence in the Caribbean and abolitionist movements, it became clear that slavery was increasingly less justifiable. Sugar barons combined their slave holdings with low-wage workers called jornaleros and continued to accrue immense wealth.
Many slave uprisings occurred and began to intertwine with a political movement for emancipation led by Julio Vizcarrondo, a Puerto Rican abolitionist living in Spain, as well as island-based political leaders such as Segundo Ruiz Belvis, Román Baldorioty de Castro and Ramón Emeterio Betances. After years of struggle the Spanish National Assembly abolished slavery on March 22, 1873.
Described by the late cultural and social writer Jose Luis González as el primer piso, or ‘the first floor’ of Puerto Rican culture, influences from the Commonwealth's history of slavery continue to shape the country today. In Puerto Rico's music, art and religious icons, African traditions are powerfully felt.
From Spanish Colony to American Commonwealth
As two Greater Antilles islands ruled by Spain for nearly four centuries, Cuba and Puerto Rico share a remarkably similar history. Both were colonized in the early 1500s, both retain vestiges of their indigenous Taíno culture, both were heavily influenced by the African slave trade and both remained Spanish colonies a good 80 years after the rest of Latin America had declared independence. The irony, of course, lies in their different paths after 1898 and the fact that today Puerto Rico is intertwined with the US. Cuba’s relationship with the US has stayed chilly since it was considered a former Soviet satellite and ‘public enemy number one.’
Two Wings of the Same Dove
While the bulk of Spain’s South American colonies rose up under the leadership of revolutionary emancipator Simón Bolívar in the 1820s, Puerto Rico and Cuba’s conservative Creole landowners elected to stay on the sidelines. But, as economic conditions worsened and slavery came to be regarded as an ailing colonial anachronism, the mood started to change.
During the 1860s links were formed between nationalists and revolutionaries on both islands, united by language and inspired by a common foe. The cultural interchange worked both ways. Great thinkers like Cuban national hero José Martí drew early inspiration from Puerto Rican surgeon and nationalist Ramón Emeterio Betances, while Mayagüez-born General Juan Rius Rivera later went on to command the Cuban Liberation Army in the 1895–98 war against the Spanish.
It was Puerto Rican nationalists who fired the first shot, proclaiming the abortive Grito de Lares in 1868. Following Puerto Rico’s lead two weeks later, Cuba’s machete-wielding mambises (19th-century Cuban independence fighters) unleashed their own independence cry. Both ultimately failed.
Cuba and Puerto Rico’s political divergence began in 1900 when the US Congress passed the Foraker Act, making Puerto Rico the first unincorporated territory of the US. Cuba, meanwhile, thanks to the so-called Teller Amendment (passed through Congress before the Spanish–American War had started), gained nominal independence with some strings attached in 1902.
Resistance to the new arrangement in Puerto Rico was spearheaded by the Partido Unión de Puerto Rico (Union Party), which for years had been demanding greater democratic rights. The Union Party was led by Luis Muñoz Rivera, one of the most important political figures in the history of Puerto Rico and a diplomat who was willing to compromise with the US on key issues. Under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson he ultimately ceded on his demand for outright independence in favor of greater autonomy via an amendment to the Foraker Act.
In 1917, just months after Muñoz Rivera’s death, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act. It granted US citizenship to all Puerto Ricans and established a bicameral legislature whose decisions could be vetoed by the US president. No Puerto Ricans were involved in the debate over citizenship.
Grito de Lares
As well as boasting the world’s largest radio telescope and its youngest-ever boxing champion, Puerto Rico also holds the dubious distinction of having created history’s shortest-lived republic. The independent republic of Puerto Rico, proclaimed during the abortive Grito de Lares (Cry of Lares) in 1868, lasted slightly less than 24 hours.
Worn down by slavery, high taxes and the asphyxiating grip of Spain’s militaristic rulers, independence advocates in the Caribbean colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba were in the ascendancy throughout the 1850s and '60s.
The main Puerto Rican attempt at armed insurrection came on September 23, 1868. Over 600 men and women marched defiantly on the small town of Lares near Mayagüez, where they were met with minimal Spanish resistance. Declaring a Puerto Rican republic from the main square, the rebels named Francisco Ramírez Medina head of a new provisional government. But the glory didn't last. Marching next on the nearby town of San Sebastián, the poorly armed liberation army walked into a Spanish military trap and were quickly defeated by superior firepower.
This failed revolution did lead to some long-term political concessions. In the years that followed, the colonial authorities passed liberal electoral reforms, granted Puerto Rico provincial status and offered Spanish citizenship to all criollos (island-born people of European descent).
Searching for Status
Questioned by many before the ink had even dried, the Jones Act failed to provide any long-term solutions. On the contrary, the debate over Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US continued to intensify, defining the political careers of two major figures who would emerge on the island in the late 1920s and early '30s: Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the pro-independence Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party); and Luis Muñoz Marín, who established the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD; Popular Democratic Party) in 1938.
As the son of the widely respected Muñoz Rivera, Luis Muñoz Marín took a conciliatory approach to challenging the colonial situation. While the US Congress sidestepped the status question, Muñoz Marín’s PPD pressed for a plebiscite to allow Puerto Ricans to choose between statehood and independence. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the majority of the PPD favored independence. However, neither President Franklin D Roosevelt nor the Congress seriously considered it as an option, and laws were enacted to criminalize independence activities.
Rather than take to the mountains to fight – as Fidel Castro in Cuba later did – Muñoz Marín adopted a strategy that incorporated the status question with other issues affecting the Puerto Rican people, such as the dire economic and social effects of the Great Depression. His deciding moment came in 1946 when he rejected independence and threw his political weight behind an effort to grant the island a new status. In 1948, with Marín’s support, Congress granted Puerto Rico the status it has today as an Estado Libre Asociado, or ELA, the Free Associated State. This intended to give the island more political autonomy, despite close ties with the US.
In 1952, this status description was approved by a referendum held on the island. Voters also approved Puerto Rico’s first constitution that was written by islanders. Muñoz Marín became the first governor of Puerto Rico to be elected by Puerto Ricans. The new status and newly granted US citizenship for Puerto Ricans led to what is commonly known as the ‘Great Migration.’ Attracted to better economic opportunities in the US, Puerto Ricans left the island by the tens of thousands. In 1953 alone an estimated 75,000 Puerto Ricans arrived in New York City. Miami and Chicago also hosted large Puerto Rican populations and the period would forever transform the face of urban communities of the United States.
Nevertheless, despite claims by the new governor and his supporters that the status question was finally resolved with ELA, for all intents and purposes, nothing changed: the US Congress still had plenary powers over Puerto Rico. Although islanders became exempt from paying federal income taxes, they still had no representation in Congress (apart from a nonvoting delegate), could not vote in US national elections, and were still being drafted into the US Armed Forces to fight alongside young Americans in foreign wars.
Over the years a number of referenda and plebiscites have been held, ostensibly to allow the Puerto Rican people to decide the future of the island’s status. Two official plebiscites, in 1967 and 1993, resulted in victories for ‘commonwealth’ status or the ELA. Other votes have been held, with the status options and the approach to self-determination defined in different ways. All of these popular votes have been shaped by the ruling party at the time of the vote: either the pro-ELA PPD, or the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP; New Progressive Party). None have been binding for the US Congress.
In 1998, as the island was getting ready to mark the 100th anniversary of US control, Congress acknowledged that the current status was no longer viable. A bill called for a plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans would vote on only two status options: either statehood or independence. It did not provide ELA or any other form of ‘enhanced commonwealth’ as an option, which angered members of the PPD. Ultimately, the legislation went nowhere.
In 2012, a non-binding vote on the island's political status was held on Puerto Rico and drew an impressive turnout of 78% of eligible voters. A majority favored statehood, which sends the issue squarely back to the US government for resolution. Current US President Donald Trump's relationship with Puerto Rico is nuanced. The new Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricky Roselló, is pro-statehood.