Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles Islands. It is bordered on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the south by the Caribbean Sea on the east by the Virgin Passage (which separates it from the Virgin Islands and on the west by the Mona Passage (which separates it from the Dominican Republic). Puerto Rico is composed of the main island and a number of smaller islands. It has a land area of 9104 sq km.
The original inhabitants of Puerto Rico are the indigenous Taino who are known to have settled on the island from at least 2000 BCE. Between 120 and 400 AD, Arawak speaking migrants (Igneri) had also canoed up from the Orinoco and joined the original groups all contributing to form the Arawak speaking Taino culture, which was also dominant on nearby Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica and most of the islands of the Caribbean. The original indigenous name for the island was Borikén’ (Spanish ‘Borinquen’)
The island was visited by Columbus during his second voyage (1493). Puerto Rico was first settled by the Spanish in 1509 under the Governorship of Ponce de León. Following initial amicable contact the Spanish established gold mining operations using enslaved indigenous Taino workers. This eventually led to a Taino revolt in 1511 after which many Taino sought refuge off the island or fled into the remote areas and avoided further contact.
It was the abuse of the indigenous Taino labour under Ponce de León in Puerto Rico that would directly set the stage for the later enormous growth of the enslavement of Africans throughout the New World.
Bartholomew de las Casas who had travelled to the New World as an advisor to the governor reported the abuses to the Spanish Court in 1515 and warned of the unsustainability of indigenous enslavement.
Spanish colonists faced increasing difficulties in maintaining an indigenous labour force. They either quickly died or escaped, and with the shortage of labour looming, they argued in favor of the continued need for some form of forced labour to work the mines, build fortifications, and develop the sugar industry.
Bartolomé de las Casas citing potential Christianizing opportunities suggested the importation and enslavement of Africans thereby leading the Spanish Crown in 1517 to permit Spanish colonists to begin importing twelve slaves each.
Between 1530 and 1555 the number of enslaved Africans on Puerto Rico rose from 1,500 to 15,000. After being branded on the forehead with a hot iron to indicate their legally purchased status and to prevent theft, they were taken to provide forced labour in the gold mines or on the fledgling ginger and sugar plantations.
However by 1570, the gold mines on Puerto Rico were considered to be exhausted. Spanish attention turned to much more lucrative precious metal mining areas in Mexico and South America. This left the island to continue being just a garrison for the Spanish merchant ships and gunboats on their way to and from the richer colonies.
In order to populate the island and contribute to the functioning of the garrison and forts an official Spanish edict of 1664 offered freedom and land to free Africans (maroons) wishing to migrate from non-Spanish colonies, such as Jamaica and St Dominique (Haiti).
These individuals with non-Spanish last names moved to Puerto Rico and settled on the western and southern parts of the island. They joined the local militia and fought to defend to territory against attacks from rival British colonizing attempts. Today some of their descendants still have non-Spanish last names.
The majority of the European and African soldiers, settlers, farmers and enslaved labourers who settled during the early years of the colony arrived without women. Most of these intermarried with the remaining indigenous Taíno creating a mixture of ethnicities that become known as the ‘mestizo’s’ or ‘mulattos’.
With the French colony of Saint Domingue on nearby Hispaniola having become one of the wealthiest in the world through use of slave labour and with Spain trying to hang onto its few remaining Caribbean territories, Spanish attention once more turned to Puerto Rico as a potentially viable commercial proposition.
However after more than 150 years of abandonment it had acquired a largely mixed population with a significant free Afro-descendant element. With the aim of cashing in on the booming slave trade and turning Puerto Rico into a profitable forced labour agricultural colony, the Spanish Crown issued the ‘Royal Decree of Graces of 1789′.
This document set new rules regarding the buying and selling of slaves and added restrictions to the granting of freeman status. It also granted Spanish subjects the right to purchase slaves and to participate in the flourishing business of slave trading and transportation in the Caribbean.
Hundreds of Spanish refugees moved from Hispaniola to Puerto Rico after Spain ceded the western part that island to France (1694), Additionally hundreds more migrated from Spain’ s colony on the Eastern side following the triumph of the Haitian revolution in 1804 and Haiti’s subsequent attempts to annex Santo Domingo (1822-1844). (See Haiti)
These migrants included not only European land owners, and the Africans they had enslaved but also people of mixed European / African ancestry. Some of these refugees would contribute to the development of the Puerto Rican sugar industry.
Royal Decree of Graces
As part of the regional efforts by European colonial governments to halt the spread of rebellions and to bolster European control of the region in 1815 the Spanish government issued the Royal Decree of Graces. This legal order encouraged Spaniards and later Europeans from non-Spanish countries to populate the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The decree provided free land and encouraged the use of slave labour to revive agriculture and to attract new settlers. The new agricultural class that emigrated from Europe sought to acquire slave labour in large numbers to grow labour-intensive agricultural crops.
Hundreds of additional Corsican, Portuguese, French, Lebanese, and Chinese immigrants also arrived during this period. There were also large numbers of immigrants from the Canary Islands and numerous Spanish loyalists from Spain’s former colonies in South America. Other settlers included Irish, Scots, Germans, and other Europeans who were granted land from Spain.
Puerto Rico was one of the last territories to continue importing large numbers of enslaved Africans. In the 19th century Puerto Rico along with Cuba were the Spanish Crown’s leading producers of sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco.
The Spanish government imposed draconian racist laws, such as ‘El Bando contra La Raza Africana’, to control the behavior of all Puerto Ricans of African origin whether slave or free. Local conditions led to a number of uprisings from the early 1820s until 1868 including what is known as El Grito de Lares. All were quickly suppressed but they helped to contribute to the eventual 1873abolition of slavery on Puerto Rico.
The majority of the freed slaves continued working on the same plantations however they did get paid for their labour This arrangement was made considerably easier by the fact that former owners were financially compensated for the loss of their enslaved workforce.
Puerto Rico was granted autonomy in 1897 and following the Spanish-American War the island was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. The United States established military rule including installing a governor, appointed by the US president and limiting local political activity. In 1917 the US Congress granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship.
Most of Puerto Rico’s agricultural enterprises were taken over by US conglomerates especially sugar. Puerto Ricans provided the needed cheap labour being almost wholly dependent on agriculture as the only source of national and personal income.
Local political leaders demanded change. Some like Pedro Albizu Campos, would later initiate the nationalist movement in favour of independence. Campos an Afro-Puerto Rican who was accused of conspiring to overthrow the US Government in Puerto Rico, created The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party motivated by the racism he experienced as an officer in an all black unit of the United States Army.
Likewise another Afro-Puerto Rican politician José Celso Barbosa (1857-1921) who is known as the ‘Father of the Statehood for Puerto Rico’ in 1899 founded the pro-statehood Puerto Rican Republican Party.
The emigration of Puerto Ricans off the island began even before citizenship was granted. Unemployed Puerto Rican agricultural workers were sent to work on the sugar plantations of Hawaii in 1899 thereby helping to create the Puerto-Rican Hawaii descendants of today.
The great stimulus to emigration came with the conferring of US citizenship, which enabled Puerto Ricans to travel back and forth without a passport.
Emigration became the preferred option as natural disasters and the Great Depression impoverished the island. Although efforts such as Operation Bootstrap resulted in the increase in manufacturing and a large rise in the general living standard Puerto Ricans continued to opt for migration to the mainland. This mushroomed with the advent of air travel.
In June 1951, Puerto Ricans approved a referendum granting them the right to draft their own constitution. In March 1952 voters approved the new constitution, and on July 25 Governor Muñoz officially proclaimed the island to be the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a free and associated state.
Main languages: Spanish (official), English.
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic).
Main minority group: Afro-Puerto Ricans 800,000-2.4 million (8%, CIA 2007), Dominicans 100,000 (est., 1.69).
Minority groups include Afro-Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. From 1950, censuses have not included ethnic classification. Moreover, as in other Hispanic Caribbean societies, ethnicity is closely interlinked with income, education and social status.
The majority of Puerto Rican’s regard themselves as being of mixed Spanish-European descent. Recent DNA sample studies have concluded that the three largest components of the Puerto Rican genetic profile are in fact indigenous Taino, European, and African with an estimated 62 per cent of the population having a indigenous female ancestor.
Afro-Puerto Ricans constitute the largest minority group. The country has experienced several waves of migrants. Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans have been among the recent immigrants and people from the Dominican Republic now represent a significant foreign minority. There is also a small Asian minority.
Large numbers of Chinese began arriving in Puerto Rico during the 19th century after the United States Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This placed a ten-year moratorium on Chinese immigration to the mainland United States.
Many Chinese came to Puerto Rico to work in constructing the island’s railway system. They remained at the end of their contracts and settled primarily in ‘El Barrio Chino’ (Chinatown) in San Juan.
The Chinese-Puerto Rican minority s is an identifiable segment of Puerto Rican society that has blended Chinese and Hispanic elements into their lives. Many are involved in the restaurant and catering industry or other commercial and professional activities.
Chinese have intermarried with Puerto Ricans from the early years of their presence and many of today’s Chinese-Puerto Ricans have Hispanic last names and are of mixed Chinese and Puerto Rican descent.
Approximately 100,000 Dominicans now live in Puerto Rico, of whom about 30,000 are thought to be illegal immigrants. After New York, Puerto Rico now has the second greatest concentration of Dominicans living outside of the Republic. Dominicans have developed a three-country existence, using Puerto Rico as a staging point for moving on to the USA or back and forth between their homeland. Many have remained in Puerto Rico forming a distinct enclave population. No other sector of Puerto Rico’s population has grown as quickly and Dominicans are now the largest and most visible ethnic minority on the iland.
Since achieving Commonwealth status the debate over the island’s status has continued as best exemplified by the three main political parties. The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) seeks to maintain or improve the current status, the New Progressive Party (PNP) seeks to fully incorporate Puerto Rico as a US state, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) seeks national independence.
As inhabitants of a ‘free and associated state’ of the USA, Puerto Ricans have US citizenship and are free to travel and work in the USA. Since the 1950s Puerto Rico has developed as an offshore manufacturing enclave for US companies, and while wages are lower than in the USA the standard of living is high in comparison to other Caribbean territories.
According to the Bill of Rights, discrimination on grounds of race or colour is illegal. The ‘official’ national ideology of mestizaje stresses the Spanish indigenous heritage, and there is ‘little, if any, ‘national’ emphasis on the African component of Puerto Rican heritage’.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Tel: + 1 787 763 8318
Proyecto Caribeño de Justicia y Paz
Tel: + 1 787 751 4617
Email: caribdoc.igc.apc.org; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Centro De Investigación Económica Para El Caribe (DOMINICAN REPUBLIC)
Tel: + 1 809 563 9838
Sources and further reading
Across the Mona Strait: Dominican Boat Women in Puerto Rico. In Daughters of Caliban: Caribbean Women in the Twentieth Century, ed. Consuelo López Springfield, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Iturrondo, Milagros. 1993-1994.
Duany Jorge Dominican migration to Puerto Rico: A transnational perspective Centro Journal7Volume xv1i Number 1 spring 2005
Meléndez, E. and Edgardo, D. (eds), Colonial Dilemma: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico, Boston, MA, South End Press, 1993.
Scott, Rebecca J. , Palmer Colin A. Pérotin-Dumon Anne, Silvestrini Blanca G., Universidad de Puerto Rico, The Caribbean, The Guianas And The Spanish Borderlands.
The impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic world. Edited by David Patrick Geggus. Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina, 2001.
The white minority in the Caribbean. Edited by Howard Johnson and Karl S. Watson. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers; Oxford, England: J. Currey Publishers; Princeton, N.J.: M. Wiener Publishers, 1998
Yola and Gender: Dominican Women’s Unregulated Migration. In Dominican Studies: Resources and Research Questions, eds. LuisAlvarez-López et al. New York: CUNY Dominican Studies Institute., Francisco Rivera-Batiz, and Roberto Agodini. 1995.
Alvárez, L.M., La tercera raíz: presencia africana en Puerto Rico, San Juan, Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Puertoriqueña, 1992.
Santiago-Valles, K.A., ‘Puerto Rico’, in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, Minority Rights Publications, 1995.
Sanjek, Roger Caribbean Asians : Chinese, Indian, and Japanese experiences in Trinidad and the Dominican Republic [Flushing, N.Y.]: Asian/American Center at Queens College, CUNY, 1990.