Save Puerto Rico Before It Goes Broke


Puerto Rico’s government is on the verge of running out of money. A messy default is in nobody’s interest, which is why Congress ought to move swiftly to provide the American territory with a way to restructure its huge debt and revive its economy.

The Obama administration last week offered the outline of a rescue plan to help the island and the 3.5 million American citizens who live there. The plan would impose new oversight on the island’s finances and expand access to government programs like Medicaid and the earned-income tax credit. Crucially, it asks Congress to change the law so that Puerto Rico’s territorial government and its municipalities can seek bankruptcy protection.

Political leaders in Puerto Rico and many financial and legal experts have been saying for months that the territory cannot repay the approximately $72 billion it owes to hedge funds, mutual funds and other investors. Its economy is not growing, and tens of thousands of residents are leaving every year for the mainland to look for work. More than 300,000 have left in the last 10 years.

The Obama administration last week offered the outline of a rescue plan to help the island and the 3.5 million American citizens who live there. The plan would impose new oversight on the island’s finances and expand access to government programs like Medicaid and the earned-income tax credit. Crucially, it asks Congress to change the law so that Puerto Rico’s territorial government and its municipalities can seek bankruptcy protection.

Political leaders in Puerto Rico and many financial and legal experts have been saying for months that the territory cannot repay the approximately $72 billion it owes to hedge funds, mutual funds and other investors. Its economy is not growing, and tens of thousands of residents are leaving every year for the mainland to look for work. More than 300,000 have left in the last 10 years.

Its public pension plans need a cash infusion of about $44 billion. Puerto Rico has cut spending and raised taxes in the hope of saving itself, but that hasn’t worked, and it won’t work in the foreseeable future given the sorry state of the island’s economy.

Bankruptcy seems inevitable. But under federal law, Puerto Rico’s government, its municipalities and its government-owned utilities cannot go to bankruptcy court — hence the administration’s request for a new bankruptcy process for territorial governments and a change in the law to allow Puerto Rican cities and public utilities to seek Chapter 9 protection, much as local governments like Detroit and Orange County, Calif., have done.

Many investors who have lent money to Puerto Rico and stand to lose under any debt restructuring are bitterly opposed to the Obama plan. They say Puerto Rico can repay all of its debt if it tightens its belt and privatizes utilities and other government-owned businesses. Changing the law now, they argue, is deeply unfair. But the record of what has happened in troubled countries like Greece is clear: Austerity policies have only worsened the crisis. As for the fairness argument, legislators change laws all the time to meet new circumstances.

What investors must realize is that an orderly restructuring is a far better alternative than the long and complex legal battles that would inevitably follow a sudden default. American bankruptcy courts have a good track record of resolving complicated debt cases. And if, in addition to reworking the bankruptcy law, Congress also created an oversight board, as the Obama administration recommends, investors could have some confidence that Puerto Rico’s politicians would make needed policy changes.

There is no doubt that Puerto Rican leaders have mismanaged the island’s finances and economy. What’s at issue now, though, is not Puerto Rico’s past but its future and that of its inhabitants. If Congress doesn’t like the administration’s ideas, it needs to come up with its own.


Obama’s proposal for Puerto Rico’s debt


Puerto Rico’s debt crisis exploded into view at the end of June, when Governor Alejandro García Padilla revealed that the island’s fiscal situation was so bad it wouldn’t be able to repay the $73 billion it owed to bondholders.

The unexpected statement sent Congress scrambling for a solution, and since then, the debate has centered on whether Puerto Rico’s public corporations, like utilities—which hold a significant amount of its debtshould be allowed to declare chapter 9 bankruptcy, an option available in all 50 U.S. states, but not in Puerto Rico. Both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have expressed support for the idea. In July Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a chapter 9 law for Puerto Rico, and the Senate Finance Committee held a contentious hearing on the island’s finances in September.

This week the Obama administration weighed in with its own plan, and it’s considerably more radical.

In a 10-page document issued Wednesday night, it proposed allowing Puerto Rico itself to go through bankruptcy and restructure its bonds. This is an option no U.S. state enjoys.

“It would be unprecedented in the American context,” said Robert Shapiro, the former undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs. “We don’t have a provision for states going bankrupt.”

There’s one big argument for doing this: Puerto Rico’s economic malaise makes its debt unpayable. Puerto Rico’s economy has been contracting for nearly a decade straight and its population has been fleeing to mainland United States, eroding its tax base. That makes it all but impossible for the government to provide adequate services to its residents and pay its creditors in full—and may require an extreme measure to help it get out from under.

The White House’s proposal immediately drew fire, and not just from the bondholders who would lose money under the deal. “I think it makes no sense,” Luis Fortuño, the former governor of Puerto Rico, said in an interview.

Fortuño has been a strong voice in favor of giving chapter 9 protection to the island, but worries that this new proposal—so-called “super chapter 9”—goes too far. “It could be viewed as a precedent,” he said. “And the question a number of people would ask [is] if the territories can have a super chapter 9, why not Illinois or California?”

Financially, the bankruptcy debate really boils down to borrowing costs. Because states legally can’t go bankrupt, they can issue bonds more cheaply, since it’s less risky to underwrite them. If there were some kind of precedent—just a hint—that state bankruptcy might be possible, borrowing costs could go up for everyone.

The White House tried to preempt that problem by noting that “this framework should be reserved exclusively for U.S. territories.” So, theoretically, Guam or American Samoa could go bankrupt, but not Ohio or Virginia. But there’s nothing binding about such a statement; spooked bondholders could well demand higher borrowing costs anyway.

Legally, experts say that whole idea is so novel that it’s impossible to know the implications. Law professors say it may well be unconstitutional for states to go through bankruptcy, but it’s uncharted territory.

“States have residual sovereignty in our system, distinct from the federal government, and it’s not clear how that works in a federal bankruptcy proceeding,” said Stephen Lubben, a law professor at Seton Hall focusing on corporate restructuring and financial distress.

For capital-watchers, the proposal came with one more intriguing twist: its architect is Antonio Weiss, the former Wall Street banker whose nomination for the number three position at Treasury was publicly torpedoed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Since then, Obama appointed him as a Treasury counselor, effectively giving him the same role without the need for Senate confirmation. On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Puerto Rico’s finances, and Warren took the chance to harangue Weiss over her concerns that Treasury was not doing enough to help Puerto Rico.

Let me assure this committee that Treasury and the broader administration will apply all of its efforts and all of our creativity and all our resources to the resolution of this financial crisis,” Weiss responded, “just as we have in past crises, and we will leave no stone unturned.”

As for Puerto Rico itself, “super chapter 9” would likely raise its borrowing costs, although it’s unclear how much. Critics suggest that restructuring constitutionally guaranteed debt—officially called general obligation bonds—could cause investors to flee the island and set back its growth prospects.

“If they can sweep away that kind of constitutional guarantee and do it retrospectively, why would any foreign investor want to go to Puerto Rico?” said Shapiro, who supports normal chapter 9 for Puerto Rico. But legal experts aren’t convinced, suggesting the island’s borrowing costs may rise in the short-term but could be fine over the long-term, especially since the administration’s proposal also asks Congress to provide independent fiscal oversight over the government’s finances.

Also at Thursday’s hearing was Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s one non-voting representative in Congress, who made an impassioned statement that the true root of Puerto Rico’s problems lies with its second-hand status, governed by Congress’s laws without any say in them. And that speaks to the ultimate irony of “super chapter 9”: Puerto Rico may be eligible for it precisely because of its second-hand status.

“This is obviously a bit of a setback [for getting statehood] for them if they go this route,” said Lubben. “The ability to do this for me hinges on that they’re not a state.”


Senator Warren: Treasury should step up to help families in Puerto Rico

Treasury should step up to help families in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has been hit hard by 10 years of recession, and the 3.5 million American citizens who live there are at the mercy of the vulture funds who hold much of their debt. Today at a committee hearing, I urged the Treasury Department to work just as hard to help the people of Puerto Rico as they do for Wall Street banks.

Posted by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on Thursday, October 22, 2015

Puerto Rico has been hit hard by 10 years of recession, and the 3.5 million American citizens who live there are at the mercy of the vulture funds who hold much of their debt. Today at a committee hearing, I urged the Treasury Department to work just as hard to help the people of Puerto Rico as they do for Wall Street banks.


Obama Administration Draws Up Plan to Help Puerto Rico With Debt


Looking for a way to help debt-ridden Puerto Rico, administration officials on Wednesday proposed an ambitious — if politically perilous — plan that stops short of a direct federal bailout but that its backers hope is sweeping enough to keep the island from becoming America’s Greece.

The plan would create a new territorial bankruptcy regime and impose new fiscal oversight on Puerto Rico, which is mired in the depths of a decade-long recession, running out of cash and struggling to make payments on $72 billion of debt. It represents an urgent bid by President Obama to offer a way forward. But it requires cooperation from a Republican-led Congress bent on imposing spending restraint.

In describing the package on Wednesday, administration officials emphasized that they had exhausted the limits of their own authority to help Puerto Rico, and needed quick action by Congress to avoid a catastrophe.

“Administrative actions cannot solve the crisis,” Jacob J. Lew, the Treasury secretary, said in a joint statement with Jeffrey D. Zients, the National Economic Council director, and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the health and human services secretary.

“Only Congress has the authority to provide Puerto Rico with the necessary tools to address its near-term challenges and promote long-term growth,” the statement said.

The situation in Puerto Rico “risks turning into a humanitarian crisis as early as this winter,” one senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. Antonio Weiss, Mr. Lew’s counselor, will explain the administration’s plan in Capitol Hill testimony on Thursday.

The Puerto Rican government has already “done a lot” to restore fiscal order, the official added, but “Puerto Rico cannot do it on its own, and the United States government has a responsibility to 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico” to step in with additional help.

The plan was shared late Wednesday with The New York Times and Agencia EFE, a news organization in Puerto Rico. On the same day, the island’s Government Development Bank said it had ended weeks of fruitless negotiations with certain creditors, aimed at persuading them to voluntarily accept lower bond payments. The bank has a bond payment of about $300 million coming due on Dec. 1.

Virtually all of the administration’s proposed plan would have to be refined and approved by Congress. It would create a special territorial bankruptcy regime — something that does not now exist — to give Puerto Rico a place to restructure all of its $72 billion in debt, which it says it cannot hope to repay.

The new regime could ultimately be a new chapter of the bankruptcy code, available only to Puerto Rico and other American territories. A senior administration official said the specifics would be left up to Congress.

In a nod to Republicans in Congress, who have resisted even limited bankruptcy access for Puerto Rico, the administration also proposes to establish an independent body to monitor the island’s fiscal affairs. Its role would be to improve Puerto Rico’s credibility by policing the imposition of structural economic reforms; it would also demand better financial disclosures.

Officials said the oversight body might resemble one that Congress established for the District of Columbia in the 1990s.

At the same time, the package would seek to bring Puerto Rico, where unemployment tops 12 percent and 46 percent of citizens qualify for Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, into parity with the federal health programs and tax credits available in the states.

The proposal calls for a Medicaid overhaul in Puerto Rico that would expand coverage and access to important services in the short term, and eventually remove a cap that currently applies to the island’s Medicaid program. The effect would be more federal dollars for the Medicaid program in Puerto Rico. Administration officials also said they believed Puerto Rico’s health care facilities needed to be brought up to standards on the mainland.

The administration is also proposing to extend the earned-income tax credit, a refundable credit for the working poor that is payable even to people who earn too little to owe income tax. It is not currently available in Puerto Rico.

Officials said that extending that type of tax credit would help increase the labor participation rate on the island, now a paltry 40 percent, the lowest in the United States and its territories. A fact sheet compiled by the administration said it would provide an “added incentive for formal participation in Puerto Rico’s economy.”

The tax credit, invented by conservative economists, already enjoys some degree of bipartisan backing. Administration officials who detailed the proposal offered no estimate of the cost of extending it to Puerto Rico, nor did they have a cost projection for the Medicaid expansion.

The legislative proposal will be presented on Thursday to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over all of America’s territories. It is led by Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, which was itself a territory until 1959, when it became the 49th state.

Puerto Rico is now barred from seeking any form of relief under Chapter 9, the type of bankruptcy that municipal governments use. The administration’s proposal for a territorial bankruptcy regime represents a bolder approach than the bankruptcy bills that Congress has considered since the island’s debt crisis began.

Federal law allows for cities, counties, special districts and the like to seek bankruptcy protection if their states agree, but the states themselves are excluded. There are concerns that if Puerto Rico gains access to bankruptcy, fiscally troubled states like Illinois might try to follow suit.

Puerto Rico’s creditors have been arguing that the island’s government has been portraying its financial situation as beyond repair, hoping to force the administration and Congress to give it access to Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The recent bankruptcies of distressed cities like Detroit showed them that bondholders can emerge with just pennies on the dollar, and they believe the same thing will happen if Puerto Rico is allowed to declare bankruptcy.

The legislation introduced so far would make bankruptcy relief available only to Puerto Rico’s municipalities and its government enterprises, not to the government itself. Even those limited bills have failed to gain support from Republican lawmakers.

There is some willingness, particularly among top Senate Republicans, to work out a compromise on the bankruptcy issue, according to a person briefed on the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. But the Republican leadership appears willing only to grant Puerto Rico limited access to the bankruptcy courts and only with strings attached, like a federal “control board” to oversee the island’s finances.

Control boards have been used in cases of severe municipal distress to take the power to spend public money out of the hands of elected officials. They do not generally have the powers that bankruptcy judges do to abrogate contracts, such as labor contracts and promises to repay debt.

Both Democrats and Republicans are under pressure to respond to the Puerto Rico crisis. Largely because of the island’s economic problems, Puerto Ricans are flooding the mainland United States, particularly central Florida, and are becoming an increasingly important voting bloc in the 2016 presidential race.

In the hearing, Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, will offer his first congressional testimony since his announcement in June that Puerto Rico’s debt had become “unpayable” and he would seek a “negotiated moratorium” with its creditors. His most recent appearance was in 2013, when he accused advocates of statehood of skewing a 2011 plebiscite to make it appear that a majority wanted Puerto Rico to become a state.

“That is a great example of how you can lie with numbers,” he told the same Senate panel at the time.

Another scheduled witness is Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress and the statehood advocate who designed the 2011 voting process that the governor disputed. Mr. Pierluisi introduced the House bill to to give very limited bankruptcy access to Puerto Rico. In September, he testified before the Senate Finance Committee, challenging the governor’s handling of the debt crisis and saying that general-obligation bonds “must be paid — period.” The third witness is to be Mr. Weiss, the special adviser to the Treasury Secretary.

Mr. Weiss was initially President Obama’s nominee to be the under secretary for domestic finance — a hot-seat job as the Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates and Republicans fight to enforce the current debt ceiling.

Correction: October 21, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified a news organization with which the administration shared the plan. It was Agencia EFE, not the newspaper El Nuevo Día.


Mapping 22 Different Latino Populations Across the U.S.A.

1393665_448970858545634_31820082_nWhere do America’s Latino and Hispanic populations live? Let’s start with where they’re not living: in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and a whopping chunk of the Midwest that probably hears a sí as often as the cry of an Amazonian toucan.

That’s the picture painted by this absorbing visualization from the U.S. Census, showing where people with ties to south-of-the-border countries reside in the United States. Using people’s self-reported “specific origins” from the 2010 census, the nation’s top head-counters have assembled population maps for 22 ethnic groups from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. If you want to chat with someone of Mexican descent, you’d be wise to head to Los Angeles and multiple cities in Texas, for instance. The main population center for Cubans is Miami, Puerto Ricans mass around New York City and the East Coast, and Bolivians cluster in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Census released these revealing maps on September 30, but as its website went offline the next day due to the government shutdown, they haven’t gotten much attention. They’re quite noteworthy for the demographic patterns they contain, though: Flip through a half dozen or so maps, and you’ll notice that while these groups are spread throughout the country, their numbers are concentrated in just a few major cities, including L.A., New York, Chicago, Miami, and Houston. Here are examples showing that distribution (the size of the circles correlates to the largeness “proportion of the group that lives in a given county,” according to the census):

Folks of Mexican descent tend to live in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California, around Chicago and Phoenix, and in western Texas. Smaller populations have made homes in Denver, New York City, Seattle, and elsewhere.

People with Puerto Rican bloodlines bunch heavily around New York and the I-95 corridor, in Florida cities like Orlando, Tampa, and Miami, and in Chicago and on all the islands of Hawaii.

The county’s Cubans are exactly where you’d expect them to be, in southern Florida.

There’s a big Little Guatemala in Los Angeles, and lesser ones around the San Francisco Bay, Houston, Chicago, New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C.

Bolivia represents in a major way in the D.C. metro area:

Ecuador has outposts in all the usual Latino population centers, with outliers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis (which might explain why local Ecuadorean eatery Chimborazo has an amazing 96 percent positive rating on Urban Spoon).

The Census Bureau has also mapped the populations of “other Hispanic or Latino,” such as Spaniards, who are all over the place, including New Mexico, the mountains of Colorado and Portland, Oregon.


African History in Puerto Rico

The history of Puerto Ricans of African descent begins with the immigration of African free men called libertos, who accompanied the invading Spanish Conquistadors. The Spaniards enslaved the Taínos (the native inhabitants of the island), and many of them died as a result of Spaniards’ oppressive colonization efforts. This presented a problem for Spain’s royal government, which relied on slavery to staff their mining and fort-building operations. Spain’s ‘solution’ was to import enslaved West Africans. As a result, the majority of the African peoples who entered Puerto Rico did so as a result of the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade, coming from many different societies of the African continent.

When the gold mines in Puerto Rico were declared depleted, the Spanish Crown no longer held Puerto Rico as a high colonial priority. It was used as a garrison to support naval vessels. Africans from British and French possessions in the Caribbean were encouraged to emigrate to Puerto Rico, thereby providing a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison. The Spanish decree of 1789 allowed the slaves to earn or buy their freedom, however this did little to help their situation. The expansion of sugar cane plantations drove up demand for slaves and their population increased dramatically. Throughout the years, there were many slave revolts in the island. Slaves who were promised their freedom joined the 1868 uprising against Spanish colonial rule in what is known as the “Grito de Lares“. On March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. The contributions of ethnic Africans to the music, art, language, and heritage have been instrumental to Puerto Rican culture.

The history of Puerto Ricans of African descent begins with the immigration of African free men called libertos, who accompanied the invading Spanish Conquistadors. The Spaniards enslaved the Taínos (the native inhabitants of the island), and many of them died as a result of Spaniards’ oppressive colonization efforts. This presented a problem for Spain’s royal government, which relied on slavery to staff their mining and fort-building operations. Spain’s ‘solution’ was to import enslaved West Africans. As a result, the majority of the African peoples who entered Puerto Rico did so as a result of the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade, coming from many different societies of the African continent.

Juan Evangelista Venegas

Juan Evangelista Venegas

When the gold mines in Puerto Rico were declared depleted, the Spanish Crown no longer held Puerto Rico as a high colonial priority. It was used as a garrison to support naval vessels. Africans from British and French possessions in the Caribbean were encouraged to emigrate to Puerto Rico, thereby providing a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison. The Spanish decree of 1789 allowed the slaves to earn or buy their freedom, however this did little to help their situation. The expansion of sugar cane plantations drove up demand for slaves and their population increased dramatically. Throughout the years, there were many slave revolts in the island. Slaves who were promised their freedom joined the 1868 uprising against Spanish colonial rule in what is known as the “Grito de Lares“. On March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. The contributions of ethnic Africans to the music, art, language, and heritage have been instrumental to Puerto Rican culture.

First Africans in Puerto Rico

When Ponce de León and the Spaniards arrived on the island of “Borinken” (Puerto Rico), they were greeted by the Cacique Agüeybaná, the supreme leader of the peaceful Taíno tribes on the island. Agüeybaná helped to maintain the peace between the Taíno and the Spaniards. According to historian Ricardo Alegria, the first free black man to set foot on the island in 1509 was Juan Garrido, a conquistador who was part of Juan Ponce de León‘s entourage. Garrido was born on the West African coast, the son of an African king. In 1508, he joined Juan Ponce de León to explore Puerto Rico and prospect for gold. In 1511, he fought under Ponce de León to repress the Carib and the Taíno, who had joined forces in Puerto Rico in a great revolt against the Spaniards. Garrido went on to join Hernán Cortés in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Another free black man who accompanied de León was Pedro Mejías. Mejías married a Taíno woman chief (a cacica), by the name of Yuisa. Yuisa was baptized Luisa (hence the name of the town of Loíza), so that she could marry Mejías.

The peace between the Spanish and the Taíno was short-lived. The Spanish took advantage of the Taínos’ good faith and enslaved them, forcing them to work in the gold mines and in the construction of forts. Many Taíno died, particularly due to epidemics of smallpox, to which they had no immunity. Other Taínos committed suicide or left the island after the failed Taíno revolt of 1511.

Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who had accompanied Ponce de León, was outraged at the Spanish treatment of the Taíno. In 1512 he protested at the council of Burgos at the Spanish Court. He fought for the freedom of the natives and was able to secure their rights. The Spanish colonists, fearing the loss of their labor force, also protested before the courts. They complained that they needed manpower to work in the mines, build forts, and supply labor for the thriving sugar cane plantations. As an alternative, Las Casas suggested the importation and use of African slaves. In 1517, the Spanish Crown permitted its subjects to import twelve slaves each, thereby beginning the slave trade in their colonies.

According to historian Luis M. Diaz, the largest contingent of African slaves came from the areas of the present-day Gold CoastNigeria, and Dahomey, and the region known as the area of Guineas, together known as the Slave Coast. The vast majority were Yorubas and Igbos, ethnic groups from Nigeria, and Bantus from the Guineas. The number of slaves in Puerto Rico rose from 1,500 in 1530 to 15,000 by 1555. The slaves were stamped with a hot iron on the forehead, a branding which meant that they were brought to the country legally and prevented their kidnapping.

African slaves were sent to work in the gold mines to replace the Taíno, or to work in the fields in the island’s ginger and sugar industry. They were allowed to live with their families in a bohio(hut) on the master’s land, and were given a patch of land where they could plant and grow vegetables and fruits. Blacks had little or no opportunity for advancement and faced discrimination from the Spaniards. Slaves were educated by their masters and soon learned to speak the master’s language, educating their own children in the new language. They enriched the “Puerto Rican Spanish” language by adding words of their own. The Spaniards considered the blacks superior to the Taíno, since the latter were unwilling to assimilate. The slaves, in contrast, had little choice but to adapt to their lives. Many converted (at least nominally) to Christianity; they were baptized by the Catholic Church and were given the surnames of their masters. Many slaves were subject to harsh treatment; and women were subject to sexual abuse because of the power relationships. The majority of the Conquistadors and farmers who settled the island had arrived without women; many of them intermarried with the blacks or Taínos. Their mixed-race descendants formed the first generations of the early Puerto Rican population.

In 1527, the first major slave rebellion occurred in Puerto Rico, as dozen of slaves fought against the colonist in a brief revolt. The few slaves who escaped retreated to the mountains, where they resided as maroons with surviving Taínos. By 1873, slaves had carried out more than twenty revolts, including some of great political importance, such as the Ponce and Vega Baja conspiracies.

By 1570, the colonists found that the gold mines were depleted of the precious metal. After gold mining came to an end on the island, the Spanish Crown bypassed Puerto Rico by moving the western shipping routes to the north. The island became primarily a garrison for those ships that would pass on their way to or from richer colonies. The cultivation of crops such as tobacco, cotton, cocoa, and ginger became the cornerstone of the economy. The cultivation of these crops required little manpower, such that the families did all the farming themselves. The use of slaves was reduced for these crops.

But, major planters increased their cultivation and processing of sugar cane, as demand for sugar was rising internationally. Sugar plantations supplanted mining as Puerto Rico’s main industry and kept demand high for African slavery. Spain promoted sugar cane development by granting loans and tax exemptions to the owners of the plantations. They were also given permits to participate in the African slave trade.

To attract more workers, in 1664 Spain offered freedom and land to African people from non-Spanish colonies, such as Jamaica and Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). The immigrants provided a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison and its forts. Those freedmen who settled the western and southern parts of the island soon adopted the ways and customs of the Spaniards. Some joined the local militia, which fought against the British in the many British attempts to invade the island. The escaped slaves and the freedman who emigrated from the West Indies kept their former master’s surnames, which were normally either English or French. Even today some ethnic African Puerto Ricans still carry non-Spanish surnames, proof of their descent from these immigrants.

Royal Decree of Graces of 1789

The Royal Decree of Graces of 1789 which set the rules pertaining to the Slaves in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean

After 1784, the method of hot branding the slave’s forehead was suspended.[9] They were permitted to obtain their freedom under the following circumstances:

  • A slave could be freed in a church or outside it, before a judge, by testament or letter in the presence of his master.
  • A slave could be freed against his master’s will by denouncing a forced rape, by denouncing a counterfeiter, by discovering disloyalty against the king, and by denouncing murder against his master.
  • Any slave who received part of his master’s estate in his master’s will automatically became free.
  • If a slave was made a guardian to his master’s children, he also was freed.
  • If slave parents in Hispanic America had ten children, the whole family went free.

Uniform used by the members of the Moreno Fijo Regiment

In 1789, the Spanish Crown issued the “Royal Decree of Graces of 1789”, which set new rules related to the slave trade and added restrictions to the granting of freedman status. The decree granted its subjects the right to purchase slaves and to participate in the flourishing slave trade in the Caribbean. Later that year a new slave code, also known as El Código Negro (The Black code), was introduced.

Under “El Código Negro,” a slave could buy his freedom, in the event that his master was willing to sell, by paying the price sought. Slaves were allowed to earn money during their spare time by working as shoemakers, cleaning clothes, or selling the produce they grew on their own plots of land. Slaves were able to pay for their freedom by installments. They could make payments in installments for a newborn child, not yet baptized, at a cost of half the going price for a baptized child. Many of these freedmen started settlements in the areas which became known as Cangrejos (Santurce), CarolinaCanóvanasLoíza, and Luquillo. Some became slave owners themselves.

The native-born Puerto Ricans (criollos) who wanted to serve in the regular Spanish army petitioned the Spanish Crown to this effect. In 1741, the Spanish government established the Regimiento Fijo de Puerto Rico. Many of the former slaves, now freemen, joined either the Fijo or the local civil militia. Puerto Ricans of African ancestry played an instrumental role in the defeat of Sir Ralph Abercromby in the British invasion of Puerto Rico in 1797.

From 1790 onwards, the number of slaves more than doubled in Puerto Rico as a result of the radical transformation and expansion of the sugar industry in the island.

19th century

Notable Puerto Rican Freedmen

  • Rafael Cordero (1790–1868), was a freeman born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He became known as “The Father of Public Education in Puerto Rico”. Cordero was a self-educated Puerto Rican who provided free schooling to children regardless of their race. Among the distinguished alumni who attended Cordero’s school were future abolitionists Román Baldorioty de CastroAlejandro Tapia y Rivera, and José Julián Acosta. Cordero proved that racial and economic integration could be possible and accepted in Puerto Rico. In 2004, the Roman Catholic Church, upon the request of San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, began the process of Cordero’s beatification. He was not the only one in his family to become an educator. In 1820, his older sister, Celestina Cordero, established the first school for girls in San Juan.
  • José Campeche (1751–1809), born free, contributed to the island’s culture. Campeche’s father, Tomás Campeche, was a freed slave born in Puerto Rico, and his mother María Jordán Marqués came from the Canary Islands. Because of this mixed descent, he was classified as a mulatto, a common term during his time meaning of African-European descent. Campeche is the first-known Puerto Rican artist and is considered by many as one of its best. He painted religious themes as well as portraits of governors and other figures.
  • Capt. Miguel Henriquez (c. 1680–17??), was a former pirate who became Puerto Rico’s first black military hero by organizing an expeditionary force that defeated the British in the island of Vieques. Capt. Henriques was received as a national hero when he returned the island of Vieques back to the Spanish Empire and Puerto Rico. He was awarded “La Medalla de Oro de la Real Efigie”; and the Spanish Crown named him “Captain of the Seas,” awarding him a letter of marque and reprisal which granted him the privileges of a privateer.

Royal Decree of Graces of 1815

“Puerto Rican population in thousands according to Spanish Royal Census”
Free Blacks

The Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 was a legal order approved by the Spanish Crown in the early half of the 19th century to encourage Spaniards and later Europeans of non-Spanish origin to settle and populate the colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The decree encouraged the use of slave labor to revive agriculture and attract new settlers. The new agricultural class immigrating from other countries of Europe used slave labor in large numbers, and cruelty became the order of the day. A series of slave uprisings occurred on the island from the early 1820s until 1868; the last was known as the Grito de Lares.[25]

In July 1821, for instance, the slave Marcos Xiorro, planned and conspired to lead a slave revolt against the sugar plantation owners and the Spanish Colonial government. Although the conspiracy was suppressed, Xiorro achieved legendary status among the slaves, and is part of Puerto Rico’s heroic folklore.

The 1834 Royal census of Puerto Rico established that 11% of the population were slaves, 35% were colored freemen (also known as free people of color in French colonies), and 54% were white. In the following decade, the number of the slave population increased more than tenfold to 258,000, the result mostly of increased importation to meet the demand for labor on sugar plantations.

Planters became nervous because of so many slaves and ordered restrictions, particularly on their movements off a plantation. Rose Clemente, a black Puerto Rican columnist, wrote, “Until 1846, Blacks on the island had to carry a notebook (Libreta system) to move around the island, like the passbook system in apartheid South Africa.”

By 1850, most of the former Spanish possessions in the Americans had achieved independence. After the successful slave rebellion against the French in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1803, the Spanish Crown became fearful that the “Criollos” (native born) of Puerto Rico and Cuba, her last two remaining possessions, might follow suit. The Spanish government issued the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 to attract European immigrants from non-Spanish countries to populate the island, believing that these new immigrants would be more loyal to Spain than the mixed-race Criollos. However, they did not expect the new immigrants to racially intermarry, as they did, and to identify completely with their new homeland.

On May 31, 1848, the Governor of Puerto Rico Juan Prim, in fear of an independence or slavery revolt, imposed draconian laws, “El Bando contra La Raza Africana”, to control the behavior of all Black Puerto Ricans, slave or free. On September 23, 1868, slaves, who were promised their freedom, participated in the short failed revolt against Spain which became known as “El Grito de Lares” or “The Cry of Lares”. Many of the participants were imprisoned or executed.

During this period, Puerto Rico provided a means for people to leave some of the racial restrictions behind: under such laws as Regla del Sacar or Gracias al Sacar, a person of African ancestry could be considered legally white if able to prove they also had ancestors with at least one person per generation in the last four generations who had been legally white. Therefore, people of black ancestry with known white lineage became classified as white. This was the opposite of the later “one-drop rule” in the United States. This was imposed in the South after the American Civil War and in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, however, many states had looser constructions of race; in early 19th-century Virginia, for instance, if a person was 7/8 white and free, the individual was considered legally white. Children born to slave mothers were considered slaves, no matter what their ancestry, and many were of mixed heritage.


Former slaves in Puerto Rico, 1898

During the mid-19th century, a committee of abolitionists was formed in Puerto Rico that included many prominent Puerto Ricans. Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances (1827–1898), whose parents were wealthy landowners, believed in the abolition of slavery, and together with fellow Puerto Rican abolitionist Segundo Ruiz Belvis (1829–1867) founded a clandestine organization called “The Secret Abolitionist Society”. The objective of the society was to free slave children by the sacrament of baptism. The event, which was also known as “aguas de libertad” (waters of liberty), was carried out at the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria Cathedral in Mayagüez. When the child was baptized, Betances would give money to the parents, which they used to buy the child’s freedom from the master.

José Julián Acosta (1827–1891) was a member of a Puerto Rican commission, which included Ramón Emeterio Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis, and Francisco Mariano Quiñones (1830–1908). The commission participated in the “Overseas Information Committee” which met in Madrid, Spain. There, Acosta presented the argument for the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico. On November 19, 1872, Román Baldorioty de Castro (1822–1889) together with Luis Padial (1832–1879), Julio Vizcarrondo (1830–1889) and the Spanish Minister of Overseas Affairs, Segismundo Moret (1833–1913), presented a proposal for the abolition of slavery.

On March 22, 1873, the Spanish government approved what became known as the Moret Law, which provided for gradual abolition. This edict granted freedom to slaves over 60 years of age, those belonging to the state, and children born to slaves after September 17, 1868. The Moret Law established the Central Slave Registrar; in 1872 it began gathering the following data on the island’s slave population: name, country of origin, present residence, names of parents, sex, marital status, trade, age, physical description, and master’s name. This has been an invaluable resource for historians and genealogists.

Abolition of slavery

Indemnity bond paid as compensation to former owners of freed slaves

On March 22, 1873, slavery was “abolished” in Puerto Rico, but with one significant caveat. The slaves were not emancipated; they had to buy their own freedom, at whatever price was set by their previous owners. The law required that the former slaves work for another three years for their former masters, other people interested in their services, or for the “state” in order to pay for some compensation.

The former slaves earned money in a variety of ways: some by trades, for instance as shoemakers, or laundering clothes, or by selling the produce they were allowed to grow, in the small patches of land allotted to them by their former masters. In a sense, they resembled the black sharecroppers of the southern U.S. after the American Civil War, but the latter did not own their land. They simply farmed another’s land, for a share of the crops raised. The government created the Protectors Office which was in charge of overseeing the transition. The Protectors Office would pay any difference owed to the former master once the initial contract expired.

The majority of the freed slaves continued to work for their former masters, but as free people, receiving wages for their labor. If the former slave decided not to work for his former master, the Protectors Office would pay the former master 23% of the former slave’s estimated value, as a form of compensation.

The freed slaves integrated into Puerto Rico’s society. Racism has existed in Puerto Rico, but it is not considered to be as severe as other places in the New World, possibly because of the following factors:

  • In the 8th century, nearly all of Spain was conquered (711–718), by the Muslim Moors who had crossed over from North Africa. The first blacks were brought to Spain during Arab domination by North African merchants. By the middle of the 13th century, Christians had reconquered all of the Iberian peninsula. A section of Seville, which once was a Moorish stronghold, was inhabited by thousands of blacks. Blacks became freemen after converting to Christianity and they lived integrated in Spanish society. Black women were highly sought after by Spanish males. Spain’s exposure to people of color over the centuries accounted for the positive racial attitudes that prevailed in the New World. Historian Robert Martinez thought it was unsurprising that the first conquistadors intermarried with the native Taíno and later with the African immigrants.
  • The Catholic Church played an instrumental role in preserving the human dignity and working for the social integration of the black man in Puerto Rico. The church insisted that every slave be baptized and converted to the Catholic faith. Church doctrine held that master and slave were equal before the eyes of God, and therefore brothers in Christ with a common moral and religious character. Cruel and unusual punishment of slaves was considered a violation of the fifth commandment.
  • When the gold mines were declared depleted in 1570 and mining came to an end in Puerto Rico, the majority of the white Spanish settlers left the island to seek their fortunes in the richer colonies such as Mexico; the island became a Spanish garrison. The majority of those who stayed behind were either black or mulattoes (of mixed race). By the time Spain reestablished commercial ties with Puerto Rico, the island had a large multiracial population. After the Spanish Crown issued the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815, it attracted many European immigrants, in effect “whitening” the island into the 1850s. But, the new arrivals also intermarried with native islanders, and added to the multiracial population. They also became identified with the island, rather than simply with the rulers.

Two Puerto Rican writers have written about racism; Abelardo Diaz Alfaro (1916–1999) and Luis Palés Matos (1898–1959), who was credited with creating the poetry genre known as Afro-Antillano.

Spanish–American War

After the Spanish–American War of 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by way of the Treaty of Paris of 1898. The United States took over control of the island’s institutions and political participation by the natives was restricted. One Puerto Rican politician of African descent who distinguished himself during this period was the physician and politician José Celso Barbosa (1857–1921). On July 4, 1899, he founded the pro-statehood Puerto Rican Republican Party and became known as the “Father of the Statehood for Puerto Rico” movement. Another distinguished Puerto Rican of African descent, who in this case was an advocate of Puerto Rico’s independence, was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874–1938). He is considered by some to be the “Father of Black History” in the United States, as he amassed an extensive collection in preserving manuscripts and other materials of black Americans. A major study center and collection of the New York Public Library is named for him. He coined the phrase “Afroborincano,” meaning African-Puerto Rican.


Lieutenant Pedro Albizu Campos (U.S. Army)

After the United States Congress approved the Jones Act of 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship. As citizens Puerto Ricans were eligible for the military draft and many were drafted into the armed forces of the United States during World War I, which at that time was segregated. Puerto Ricans of African descent were subject to the discrimination which was rampant in the military and the U.S.

Black Puerto Ricans residing in the mainland United States were assigned to all-black units. Rafael Hernández (1892–1965) and his brother Jesus along with 16 more Puerto Ricans were recruited by Jazz bandleader James Reese Europe to join the United States Army‘s Orchestra Europe. They were assigned to the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American regiment; it gained fame during World War I and was nicknamed “The Harlem Hell Fighters” by the Germans.

The United States also segregated military units in Puerto Rico. Pedro Albizu Campos (1891–1965), who later became the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, held the rank of lieutenant. He founded the “Home Guard” unit of Ponce and was later assigned to the 375th Infantry Regiment, an all-black Puerto Ricanregiment, which was stationed in Puerto Rico and never saw combat. Campos later said that the discrimination which he witnessed in the Armed Forces, influenced his political beliefs.

Puerto Ricans of African descent were also discriminated against in sports. Puerto Ricans who were dark-skinned and wanted to play Major League Baseball in the United States, were not allowed to do so. In 1892 organized baseball had codified a color line, barring African-American players, and any player who was dark-skinned, from any country. This, however did not keep ethnic African-Puerto Ricans from playing baseball. In 1928, Emilio “Millito” Navarro traveled to New York City and became the first Puerto Rican to play baseball in the Negro Leagues when he joined the Cuban Stars. He was later followed by others such as Francisco Coimbre, who also played for the Cuban Stars.

The persistence of these men paved the way for the likes of Baseball Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, who played in the Major Leagues after the colorline was broken by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; they were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for their achievements. Cepeda’s father Pedro Cepeda, was denied a shot at the major leagues because of his color. Pedro Cepeda, was one of the greatest players of his generation, the dominant hitter in the Professional Baseball League of Puerto Rico after its founding in 1938. He refused to play in the Negro Leagues due to his abhorrence of the racism endemic to the segregated United States.

Black Puerto Ricans also participated in other sports as international contestants. In 1917, Nero Chen became the first Puerto Rican boxer to gain international recognition when he fought against (Panama) Joe Gan at the “Palace Casino” in New York. In the 1948 Summer Olympics (the XIV Olympics), celebrated in London, boxer Juan Evangelista Venegas made sports history by becoming Puerto Rico’s first Olympic medal winner when he beat Belgium’s representative, Callenboat, on points for a unanimous decision. He won the bronze medal in boxing in the Bantamweight division. The event was also historical because it was the first time that the island participated as a nation in an international sporting event. It was common for impoverished Puerto Rican to seek boxing as a way to earn an income.

On March 30, 1965, José “Chegui” Torres defeated Willie Pastrano by technical knockout and won the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association light heavyweight championships. He became the third Puerto Rican and the first one of African descent to win a professional world championship.

Among those who exposed the racism and discrimination in the US which Puerto Ricans, especially Black Puerto Ricans were subject to, was Jesús Colón. Colón is considered by many as the “Father of the Nuyorican movement”; he told about his experiences in New York as a Black Puerto Rican in his book Lo que el pueblo me dice–: crónicas de la colonia puertorriqueña en Nueva York (What the people tell me—: Chronicles of the Puerto Rican colony in New York).

These critics say that a majority of Puerto Ricans are racially mixed, but that they do not feel the need to identify as such. They argue that Puerto Ricans tend to assume that they are of Black African, American Indian, and European ancestry and only identify themselves as “mixed” if having parents “appearing” to be of separate “races”. Puerto Rico underwent a “whitening” process while under U.S. rule. There was a dramatic change in the numbers of people who were classified as “black” and “white” Puerto Ricans in the 1920 census, as compared to that in 1910. The numbers classified as “Black” declined sharply from one census to another (within 10 years’ time). Historians suggest that more Puerto Ricans classified others as white because it was advantageous to do so at that time. In those years, census takers were generally the ones to enter the racial classification; self-identification began to occur in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It may have been that it was popularly thought it would be easier to advance economically and socially with the US if one were “white”.

African influence in Puerto Rican culture

The descendants of the former African slaves became instrumental in the development of Puerto Rico’s political, economic and cultural structure. They overcame many obstacles and have made their presence felt with their contributions to the island’s entertainment, sports, literature and scientific institutions. Their contributions and heritage can still be felt today in Puerto Rico’s art, music, cuisine, and religious beliefs in everyday life. In Puerto Rico, March 22 is known as “Abolition Day” and it is a holiday celebrated by those who live in the island.


Many African slaves imported to Cuba and Puerto Rico spoke “Bozal” Spanish, a Creole language that was Spanish-based, with Congolese and Portuguese influence. Although Bozal Spanish became extinct in the nineteenth century, the African influence in the Spanish spoken in the island is still evidence in the many Kongo words that have become a permanent part of Puerto Rican Spanish.


Afro-Puerto Rican women in Bomba dance wear

Puerto Rican musical instruments such barriles, drums with stretched animal skin, and Puerto Rican music-dance forms such as Bomba or Plena are likewise rooted in Africa. Bomba represents the strong African influence in Puerto Rico. Bomba is a music, rhythm and dance that was brought by West African slaves to the island of Puerto Rico.

Plena is another form of folkloric music of Puerto Rico of African origin. Plena was brought to Ponce by blacks who immigrated north from the English-speaking islands south of Puerto Rico. Plena is a rhythm that is clearly African and very similar to Calypso, Soca and Dance hall music from Trinidad and Jamaica.

Bomba and Plena were played during the festival of Santiago (St. James), since slaves were not allowed to worship their own gods. Bomba and Plena evolved into countless styles based on the kind of dance intended to be used. These included leró, yubá, cunyá, babú and belén. The slaves celebrated baptisms, weddings, and births with the “bailes de bomba”. Slaveowners, for fear of a rebellion, allowed the dances on Sundays. The women dancers would mimic and poke fun at the slave owners. Masks were and still are worn to ward off evil spirits and pirates. One of the most popular masked characters is the “Vejigante” (vey-hee-GANT-eh). The Vejigante is a mischievous character and the main character in the Carnivals of Puerto Rico.

Until 1953, Bomba and Plena were virtually unknown outside Puerto Rico until Puerto Rican musicians Rafael Cortijo (1928–1982), Ismael Rivera (1931–1987) and the El Conjunto Monterrey orchestra introduced Bomba and Plena to the rest of the world. What Rafael Cortijo did with his orchestra was to modernize the Puerto Rican folkloric rhythms with the use of piano, bass, saxophones, trumpets, and other percussion instruments such as timbales, bongos, and replacing the typical barriles (skin covered barrels) with congas.

External audio
 You may listen to the “Bomba Puertorriqueña” as performed at the Nuyorican Cafe in Puerto Rico here
 and to a “Potpourri of Plenas” interpreted by Rene Ramos here.

Rafael Cepeda (1910–1996), also known as “The Patriarch of Bomba and Plena”, was the patriarch of the Cepeda Family. The family is one of the most famous exponents of Puerto Rican folk music, with generations of musicians working to preserve the African heritage in Puerto Rican music. The family is well known for their performances of the bomba and plena folkloric music and are considered by many to be the keepers of those traditional genres.

Sylvia del Villard (1928–1990), was a member of the Afro-Borcua Ballet and participated in the following Afro-Puerto Rican productions, Palesiana y Aquelarre and Palesianisima. In 1968, she founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater, which was recognized by the Panamerican Association of the New World Festival as the most important authority of Black Puerto Rican culture. The Theater group were given a contract which permitted them to present their act in other countries and in various universities in the United States. In 1981, she became the first and only director of the office of the Afro-Puerto Rican affairs of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. She was known to be an outspoken activist who fought for the equal rights of the Black Puerto Rican artist.


Nydia Rios de Colon, a contributor to the Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook who also offers culinary seminars through the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute, writes about Puerto Rican cuisine:

“Puerto Rican cuisine also has a strong African influence. The melange of flavors that make up the typical Puerto Rican cuisine counts with the African touch. Pasteles, small bundles of meat stuffed into a dough made of grated green banana (sometimes combined with pumpkin, potatoes, plantains, or yautía) and wrapped in plantain leaves, were devised by African women on the island and based upon food products that originated in Africa.”—Nydia Rios de Colon, Arts Publications

“The salmorejo, a local land crab creation, resembles Southern cooking in the United States with its spicing. The mofongo, one of the island’s best-known dishes, is a ball of fried mashed plantain stuffed with pork crackling, crab, lobster, shrimp, or a combination of all of them. Puerto Rico’s cuisine embraces its African roots, weaving them into its Indian and Spanish influences.”


In 1478, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, established an ecclesiastical tribunal known as the Spanish Inquisition. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms.

The Inquisition maintained no rota or religious court in Puerto Rico. However, heretics were written up and if necessary remanded to regional Inquisitional tribunals in Spain or elsewhere in the western hemisphere. Africans were not allowed to practice non-Christian, native religious beliefs. No single organized ethnic African religion survived intact from the times of slavery to the present in Puerto Rico. But, many elements of African spiritual beliefs have been incorporated into syncretic ideas and practices. Santería, a Yoruba-Catholic syncretic mix, and Palo Mayombe, Kongolese traditions, are also practiced in Puerto Rico, the latter having arrived there at a much earlier time. A smaller number of people practice Vudú, which is derived from Dahomey mythology.

Palo Mayombe, or Congolese traditions, existed for several centuries before Santería developed during the 19th century. Guayama became nicknamed “the city of witches”, because the religion was widely practiced in this town. Santeria is believed to have been organized in Cuba among its slaves. The Yoruba were brought to many places in the Caribbean and Latin America. They carried their traditions with them, and in some places, they held onto more of them. In Puerto Rico and Trinidad Christianity was dominant. Although converted to Christianity, the captured Africans did not abandon their traditional religious practices altogether. Santería is a syncretic religion created between the diverse images drawn from the Catholic Church and the representational deities of the African Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria. Santería is widely practiced in the town of Loíza. Sister traditions emerged in their own particular ways on many of the smaller islands. Similarly, throughout Europe, early Christianity absorbed influences from differing practices among the peoples, which varied considerably according to region, language and ethnicity.

Santería has many deities said to be the “top” or “head” God. These deities, which are said to have descended from heaven to help and console their followers, are known as “Orishas.” According to Santería, the Orishas are the ones who choose the person each will watch over.

Unlike other religions where a worshiper is closely identified with a sect (such as Christianity), the worshiper is not always a “Santero”. Santeros are the priests and the only official practitioners. (These “Santeros” are not to be confused with the Puerto Rico’s craftsmen who carve and create religious statues from wood, which are also called Santeros). A person becomes a Santero if he passes certain tests and has been chosen by the Orishas.

Current demographics

As of the 2010 Census, 75.8% of Puerto Ricans identify as white, 12.4% identify as black, 0.5% as Amerindian, 0.2% as Asian, and 11.1% as “mixed or other.” Though estimates vary, most sources estimate that about 46% of Puerto Ricans have significant African ancestry. The vast majority of blacks in Puerto Rico are Afro-Puerto Rican, meaning they have been in Puerto Rico for generations, usually since the slave trade, forming an important part of Puerto Rican culture and society. Recent black immigrants have come to Puerto Rico, mainly from the Dominican RepublicHaiti, and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, and to a lesser extant directly from Africa as well. Many black migrants from the United States and the Virgin Islands have moved and settled in Puerto Rico. Also, many Afro-Puerto Ricans have migrated out of Puerto Rico, namely to the United States. There and in the US Virgin Islands, they make up the bulk of the U.S. Afro-Latino population.

Under Spanish and American rule, Puerto Rico underwent a whitening process. Puerto Rico went from being two-thirds black and mulatto in the beginning of the 19th century, to being nearly 80% white by the middle of the 20th century. Under Spanish rule, Puerto Rico had laws such as Regla del Sacar or Gracias al Sacar, which made persons of mixed African-European ancestry to be classified as white, which was the opposite of “one-drop rule” in US society after the American Civil War. During the 1800s, the Spanish government made law the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815, which encouraged immigration from other European countries. Heavy European immigation swelled Puerto Rico’s population to about one million by the end of the century, decreasing the proportion Africans made of Puerto Rico. In the early decades under US rule, census takers began to shift from classifying people as black to “white” and the society underwent what was called a “whitening” process from the 1910 to the 1920 census, in particular. During the mid 20th century, the US government forcefully sterilized Puerto Rican women, especially non-white Puerto Rican women.

Most, but not all Puerto Ricans are of multi-ethnic ancestry. Those who are, generally only identify as of “mixed race” if their parents “appear” to be of different “races”. Afro-Puerto Ricans have not had the same political situation to cope with, which led to African Americans identifying as black, in part to collect their political power when trying to gain enforcement of their civil rights and protection of voting. However, in the 21st century, Puerto Rico is having a resurgence in black affiliation, mainly due to famous Afro-Puerto Ricans promoting black pride among the Puerto Rican community. In addition, Afro-Puerto Rican youth are learning more of their peoples’ history from textbooks that encompass more Afro-Puerto Rican history.

The 2010 US census recorded the first drop of the percentage whites made up of Puerto Rico, and the first rise in the black percentage, in over a century. Many of the factors that may possibly perpetuate this trend include: more Puerto Ricans may start to identify as black, due to increasing black pride and African cultural awareness throughout the island, as well as an increasing number of black immigrants, especially from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and increasing emigration of white Puerto Ricans to the mainland US. 

The following lists only include only the number of people who identify as black and do not attempt to estimate everyone with African ancestry. As noted in the earlier discussion, several of these cities were places where freedmen gathered after gaining freedom, establishing communities. The municipalities with the largest black populations, as of the 2010 census, were:[2][99]

The municipalities with the highest percentages of residents who identify as black, as of 2010, were:[100][100]



More about Puerto Rico



Puerto Rican Family

Labor Migration and U.S. Policies:

The invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-Cuban-American War bound the island within a U.S. political-economic orbit and promoted in turn the continental emigration of countless workers to American cities and possessions. U.S. occupation accelerated a foreign-controlled capitalist agrarian system. It ushered in decades of neglect and chronic underemployment connected with a metropolis-owned and protected sugar plantation monopoly.  Virtual eradication of coffee, tobacco and other agrarian sectors became the norm. Almost immediately, emigration loomed large as an escape valve for an increased population, viewed by U.S. government officials as excess and, therefore, fodder for relocation as a cheap source of labor. Recruitment of contract laborers by Caribbean plantation owners had drawn some Puerto Rican workers to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador in the waning years of the nineteenth century, but this worker exodus paled in comparison to what transpired in the twentieth century.

Charles Herbert Allen (April 15, 1848 – April 20, 1934) was an American politician and businessman. After serving in state and federal elected positions, he was appointed as the first United States-appointed civilian governor of Puerto Rico when the U.S. acquired it after the Spanish–American War. He previously had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley.

Charles Herbert Allen (April 15, 1848 – April 20, 1934) was an American politician and businessman. After serving in state and federal elected positions, he was appointed as the first United States-appointed civilian governor of Puerto Rico when the U.S. acquired it after the Spanish–American War. He previously had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley.

Within the first decade of American control, Governor Charles Allen lent full support to emigration as he surmised, “… the emigration of these people can do no harm to the island. Out of a population of nearly a million, not more than 5,000 or 6,000 have emigrated—scarcely one half of one percent. They will never be missed in making up the census returns of the next decade. Porto Rico has plenty of laborers and poor people generally“.[1] Recruitment centers opened in the coastal cities of San Juan, Ponce, Aguadilla, Arecibo, Mayaguez and in the western mountain areas of Adjuntas.  Between 1900 and 1901 eleven expeditions consisting of over 5,000 men, women and children were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to work alongside Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the pineapple and sugar fields of those Pacific islands.  Contractual accords stipulated incentives—credit for transportation expenses, the availability of public education, opportunities to worship in Catholic Churches, decent wages and standard living accommodations.

[2]  However, contractual abuses abounded. The voyage to the Hawaiian Islands proved cumbersome, inflicting undue hardship and distress on the contracted workers. The trip originated in one of several ports, including the Capital City of San Juan, Ponce or Mayaguez, the island’s second and third largest cities. From there, the ships steamed to New Orleans, where the workers boarded trains bound for Los Angeles or San Francisco. The last leg of the journey was from San Francisco to Hawaii, where the workers’ contingents were parceled out in small crafts to plantations on several of the islands.

Families were particularly attractive to recruiters as they were known to provide stability and greater length of service. Women, therefore, were as important for a successful recruitment effort as were the men. Salary differentials as stipulated in the labor contracts placed women and girls at a distinct disadvantage, but this was not an uncommon situation, as female labor had been traditionally undervalued in Puerto Rico. Women were conditioned to work for considerably lower wages. Their primary function, after all, was perceived in conventional terms: the reproduction of children, integration of the family unit, transmission of cultural values and traditions and, by extension, reproduction of the workforce. Nevertheless, the contracted workforce found great distinctions between the agricultural system as practiced in Hawaii and what they were used to in Puerto Rico. Many of the workers came from the island’s depressed coffee sector, characterized by paternalistic relations between landowner and worker. In Hawaii, the Borinkis, as they were called, were used to temper the organizing efforts of the Japanese. Puerto Ricans were segregated in work camps surrounded by groups who spoke different languages, conducted different lifestyles, utilized different modes of transacting trade and worshipped different gods.

Type of steamship that carried Puerto Ricans to Hawaii

Type of steamship that carried Puerto Ricans to Hawaii

As early as 1903, 539 Puerto Rican children were enrolled in Hawaiian schools. Within three years this figure rose to 650, and there are indications that Puerto Rican women were already employed as teachers as early as 1924. Puerto Ricans constituted 2.2 percent of the Hawaiian population in 1923, just over 5,000 individuals. Despite increased outmarriage, dispersal and isolation of Puerto Rican workers throughout the islands and limited involvement with the homeland, 9,551 individuals claimed a Puerto Rican identity in the 1950 census.[3]

Unrest among the worker contingents surfaced almost immediately as reports describing the migrants’ horrendous ordeals appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and newspapers in Puerto Rico.Desertion was not uncommon, and tales of individuals who refused to board Hawaii-bound vessels account for the emergence of the earliest Puerto Rican settlements in California. Men and women deposited on San Francisco wharves ultimately secured employment in Alameda and Santa Clara counties and went on to form the earliest Puerto Rican organizations in California. The Puerto Rican Club of San Francisco (1911) and the Club Puertorriqueño de California(1923) promoted progressive agendas pledged to advancement and maintenance of the island’s cultural heritage and values.[4]

Despite the fact that a small contingent of contracted workers was brought into Hawaii as late as 1926, labor recruitment virtually ends in the first decade of the century, influenced in great measure by island protestations.  Puerto Rican leaders blasted the controlled emigration, citing a weakening of the island’s social and cultural fabric.  Others, intending to justify recruitment, called into question the civil status of the workers: “If the island is an integral part of the U.S., so is Hawaii, and there is no law to check the passage of laborers from one domestic point to another; and second, if Porto Rico is not an integral part of the United States, neither is Hawaii; and therefore federal laws do not apply.” [5]

Less than a hundred Puerto Rican workers were repatriated, but others remained in Hawaii and, in time, managed to make productive lives for themselves. Some became landowners, homesteading on several of the islands. Such possessions remain in the hands of these early families to the present.

Ancestral quatro

Ancestral quatro

As would be the patterns in other stateside colonias, organizations soon emerged to structure and coalesce the small communities. Among the earliest in Hawaii, the Puerto Rican Welfare Association appeared in the 1920s, followed in 1931 by the Civic Club. The latter sought to change the situation of Puerto Ricans. Their charter pledged to promote the general welfare and prosperity of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii and to “improve by any and all lawful and honorable means their status and condition in order to attain highest order of American citizenship.”[6]  The need to promote themselves as the American citizens that they were arose on numerous occasions. Historian Norma Carr cites several attempts to deny Puerto Ricans the right to vote. Debates over the rights of citizenship, granted to all Puerto Ricans under the Jones Act of 1917, seemed to indicate the group’s intention to stay in Hawaii. Hawaii’s Puerto Ricans had all but created their own culture by the decades of the 50s and 60s, fusing elements of both their Atlantic island heritage and their Pacific island home. Although many would continue to identify with their country of origin, they spoke English, knew little about Puerto Rico, “poured Shoyo on their bacalao and sang Hawaii Pono’i” as their native anthem. Puerto Rican-Hawaiian musicians played the ukulele instead of the ancestral quatro and, in essence, became keiki hanau o Ka’aina— children of the land.

[7]  Nevertheless, a significant Caribbean presence did reemerge with the stationing of Puerto Rican military personnel in Hawaiian bases, enriching and replenishing the contemporary community.

As Puerto Rican contract workers emigrated to various countries and American states between 1900 and 1924, they set into motion a continuum of emigration and permutations that persist to the present. Justified by the premise of overpopulation, emigration was promoted as a temporary but valuable measure. Puerto Rican men and women were openly encouraged to leave their homeland, not only for Hawaii but to set the rails in Ecuador, harvest henequen in Yucatan, work in agriculture in Colombia, as industrial workers in St. Louis, Missouri, and pick cotton and fruit in Arizona and New Mexico.[8]  Viewed from another perspective, the ten women from “good families” contracted to work in the American Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn, New York, in 1920, the earliest documented couple to arrive in Meriden for work in a Connecticut ball bearing factory in 1925, and the 20 or 30 families recruited to live and work for the Arizona Cotton Growers’ Association in 1926 set the stage for a procession of migrants that would intensify with the coming years.[9]

The dynamics of migration were inextricably linked to economic considerations and fluctuated according to market cycles. During the First World War, a shortage of semiskilled and unskilled labor in the United States stimulated the migration of 13,000 contract laborers for employment in war-related industries.  American citizenship facilitated the transfer of thousands of Puerto Ricans to mainland communities, as their relocation encompassed nothing more than was required of individuals crossing state lines. Two other factors encouraged Puerto Rican migration: the decline in the U.S. labor force due to immigration restrictions accruing from the National Origins Act in 1924 and conscription into the U.S. military. Overall, some 83,000 individuals saw action in the two World Wars, and many would use their military experience as a springboard for living in the continental United States.[10]

Between 1909 and 1916, some 7,394 individuals emigrated from Puerto Rico to the United States, but in 1917 that figure rose to 10,812 migrants.  An estimated 52,000 Puerto Ricans resided in the United States between 1920 and 1930. The prosperous period following the Great War drew Puerto Rican migrants to employment in the lowest paying sectors of production—manufacturing and light factory work, hotel and restaurants, cigar making, domestic service and laundries. However, between the period of the Great Depression and the end of the Second World War, there was a marked decrease in the annual average net migration. By the decade of the 30s, Puerto Ricans already made up over 40 percent of the New York City’s Latino population—61,463 out of a total population of 134,000.[11]

For the next 30 years, this city, so important in the earlier struggles for independence, would continue to attract the major portion of the migration.



The Historical Narrative


Captain Ángel Rivero Méndez (October 2, 1856 – February 23, 1930) was a Puerto Rican soldier, writer, journalist and a businessman who is credited with inventing the “Kola Champagne” soft drink. As a soldier in the Spanish Army, Rivero fired the first shot against the United States in Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War.


To Angel Rivero, the young Puerto Rican Captain
charged with defending Fort San Cristóbal in San Juan that fateful night of August 13, 1898, the signs of peace were all but secured. Articles in praise of the American flag had appeared in La Prensa, and censorship had generally been relaxed. At one thirty in the morning he received the dreaded news that Spain renounced its sovereignty over Cuba and ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. “Such a sad night!” he writes. “I spend it, all of it, seated upon a cannon; as the sun comes out I affirm my resolution, taken before the war.  As soon as the peace is signed, I will leave the Spanish army and return to civilian life so as to share in whatever fortunes befall my country”.[1]

For close to 3 million American citizens of Puerto Rican ancestry living in the United States, and the 3.5 million who reside in Puerto Rico, 1998 commemorates the historical episode recorded so eloquently in Rivero’s Crónica de la guerra hispánoamericana. It marks the centenary of official United States–Puerto Rico sociopolitical and economically motivated connections that began one hundred years before, when the Treaty of Paris ceded the Puerto Rican Archipelago to the United States as indemnity to cover the costs of the Spanish-Cuban–American War. The second largest among the Hispanic/Latino population of the United States, Puerto Ricans have figured in the making of U.S. history since before the nineteenth century, when the colony was still a major fortification of defense for the Spanish New World Empire. Puerto Ricans reside in all fifty of the United States, with significant concentrations in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Among the earliest of crossroads in the Americas, Puerto Rico reflects the mestizaje that defines the hemisphere and encompasses historical legacies from indigenous, African, European and Anglo American peoples. American citizens by congressional fiat, Puerto Ricans enjoyed a long, well-documented history, before the passage of the Jones Act in 1917. That past incorporates over three millennia of Indigenous experience. Incorporated as well are the importation of enslaved Africans and the landmarks surrounding their struggles for liberation from the moment they set foot on the island until abolition in 1873. The fusion of these major strands molded a people who have historically struggled for political self–definition, determination, and cultural affirmation, first under Spain and in the twentieth century under the United States. In sum, while Puerto Rico was shaped by its own combination of historical forces, it shares an ineffaceable Spanish American and Anglo American heritage. That duality is aptly conceptualized in the statement coined by sociologist Clara Rodríguez when she wrote, “Since 1898, all Puerto Ricans have been born in the U.S.A.”[2]


Pioneros II:: Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1948-1998 (Bilingual Edition) (Images of America) (English, Spanish and English Edition)

To interpret a balanced history and understand the unique position of mainland Puerto Ricans without distortion requires educators to take several factors into consideration. First, the complexity of the island’s political status cannot be underestimated, for it directly impacts the creation of diasporic communities in the United States. Neither a state nor an independent nation, Puerto Rican affairs are as much a part of U.S. history as they are the history of the Puerto Rican people. Indeed, hegemonic deliberations and decisions about commonwealth, statehood or independence status ultimately rest with the Congress of the United States, albeit promoted by a steadfast patriotism on the part of the people of Puerto Rico. Second, the involvement of Puerto Ricans in the United States predates the nineteenth century and refutes popular notions that place this relationship at the moment of the groups’ post World War II arrival on U.S. soil, the first airborne migration of American citizens in the mid-century. Third, Puerto Ricans comprise diverse socio-economic mainland communities, two-thirds of which exist outside of the historically significant New York City. Each has its own unique heritage and experience, yet each is connected to the others primarily through cultural identification. Fourth, the study of U.S. Puerto Ricans increasingly incorporates the transnational nature of the Puerto Rican people. Described as a commuter nation, a people without borders, the experience is rooted in a nation with a shifting configuration of mainland settlements. In the words of sociologist David Hernández, “One must begin to take the position that Puerto Rican identity is not a local or insular matter but a transnational reality.”[3]

Their story, then, signals a complex process incorporating elements of both conventional manifestations of the immigrant experience in the United States and that of American ethnic and racial minorities. Their role in shaping continental communities and institutions begins in late eighteenth century, when Puerto Rican merchants traded in cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, Bridgeport or Boston. The urban and rural sectors in which they interacted nurtured small exile enclaves by the early nineteenth century. These grew to influence migratory patterns and destinations, socio-cultural traditions, political and economic factors, language, literary expression, attitudes and ideas both on the island of Puerto Rico and in the continental United States. American citizenship made possible unencumbered population movements from the island to the U.S. mainland. The twentieth century communities Puerto Ricans forged throughout the United States bear witness to their place in American history, particularly in the arenas of labor, community building, bilingual and higher education, politics and organization. Their struggles for justice, equality and inclusion have strengthened American democratic principles. Too often, these are dismissed, misunderstood or homogenized into the more generic Latino experience.

Migratory Roots:

Some scholars date the earliest contacts between the United States and Puerto Rico to the exploratory voyages of Juan Ponce de León, who set out in 1513 to realize mythic fables in the sixteenth century spirit of Spanish conquest, exploitation and colonization. The island’s first governor laid claim instead to the Florida peninsula. Although this historic moment hardly blossomed into reciprocal interactions between island and mainland, the associations between the thirteen original American colonies and the former Spanish colony indeed predate 1898 by several centuries. The eighteenth century revolutions that sparked American independence in the United States found support among Puerto Rican Creoles, as the island harbored American ships flying the stars and stripes and raised money for the war effort. The emergence of the hemisphere’s first African American republic, the climax of the Haitian Revolution (1792–1801) and the transfers of French Louisiana (1803) and Spanish Florida (1819) to American sovereignty launched a flow of emigrants from the United States and Hispaniola. Many of the exiles sought and received refuge in Puerto Rico. As a major presidio in the Crown’s fortification system, guardians of the Caribbean gateway to the territorial riches of the Spanish New World empire, Puerto Rican immigration was further augmented by Mexican deserters, fugitive enslaved persons, an imported labor force, expanded military personnel and European and South American immigration. By the last half of the century, Spanish colonial ports were thrown open to foreign trade in which the newly created United States of America would play a dominant role.[4]

It was, however, the emigrations of the nineteenth century that set into motion patterns of population movements within the Americas reflected in the diasporic communities of the present day. The Latin American wars for independence (1810–1824) spurred waves of immigration to the Hispanic Caribbean as loyalists and rebels alike opted to leave war-torn regions of the crumbling empire. Many with expertise in plantation economies and capital to invest relocated to Cuba and Puerto Rico, last bastions of conservative Spanish power. In the Hispanic Antilles, especially Puerto Rico, an increased military presence maintained firm control throughout the period of Latin American conflicts, despite repeated attempts to liberate the islands by Venezuelan and Mexican revolutionaries. Expeditions to free Puerto Rico came also from geographic sites in the United States financed by Cuban and Puerto Rican natives who sanctioned New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia as conspiratorial bases. As late in the conflicts as the 1820s, groups of Puerto Rican men and women joined Cuban counterparts in unsuccessful attempts to include the Hispanic Caribbean in the Latin American struggles for independence. Their covert actions formed an extensive network, with benefactors in the United States, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico and were centered in ports of call that included the principal cities of San Juan, Caracas and New Orleans.[5]

As independent nations took form throughout Latin America, Spain tightened political and economic control in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Such suppressive acts provoked further departures to the United States and other regions of the hemisphere, even as Puerto Rico witnessed unprecedented immigration from Spain, the Canary Islands and other Catholic European countries. Due in great measure to Crown concessions and grants like the 1815 Cédula de Gracias, a royal decree that encouraged immigration to Spanish possessions, such relocation continued to parallel political and commercial connections established in earlier decades.  More significant, legal and clandestine immigration marked a dramatic decline in Spanish exclusivity. When the Crown decreed permission for foreign trade with Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1824, including the establishment of official consular representation, increased commercial bonds between the United States and the islands was all but assured.


Packing sugar Snow White from sugar mill Mercedita, Ponce

Along with Western European countries, the United States supplied the islands with furniture, machinery, steel and iron parts, jute, hemp, wheat, flour and hog by-products. By the last third of the century, Puerto Rican agricultural production depended heavily on American markets, and almost half of the island’s imports consisted of U. S. products vital for human consumption. Based initially on a flourishing ultramarine exchange of Puerto Rican rum, molasses, sugar and tobacco for American foodstuffs, Puerto Rican merchants ultimately accompanied cargo across the ocean. As early as the 1830s, trade networks expanded sufficiently to warrant the establishment of commercial brokerage houses in northeastern Atlantic cities including New York, Hartford and Boston. The Cuban–Puerto Rican Benevolent Merchants’ Association dates to that period. These commercial establishments facilitated trade and advanced the well being of its merchant members.

Trade routes and their resultant regional ties continued to link Puerto Rican emigrants to New Orleans as well as key cities in the Northeast. Before and just after the Civil War, New Orleans predominated as the center for commercial and political activities, a place where Antillean annexationists and independence seekers could meet under a variety of guises. Among the earliest emigrants involved in trade and other enterprises in the Northeast during that period was the merchant family of José de Rivera, a wealthy sugar and wine trader who lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut from 1844 to 1855. The New Haven, Connecticut census for 1860 lists the names of ten Puerto Ricans, one of whom, Augustus Rodríguez, fought in the Civil War. Records indicate he became a city firefighter following the War.[6]  The Puerto Rican abolitionist, Julio Vizcarrondo (1830-1889), scion of a privileged family, found his way to Boston in the 1850s, not for purposes of trade but for political reasons. In Boston he was free to join anti-slavery movements and publish provocative political tracts read throughout Europe and the United States. Along with his Bostonian wife, he returned to continue his abolitionist mission in Puerto Rico in 1854.[7]

The last half of the century witnessed increased emigration from Puerto Rico, as individuals were ousted from the island or left of their own accord to escape tyranny and exploitation or search for economic opportunity.  Like Julio Vizcarrondo, many emigrated as political exiles. Others were artisans in search of opportunity or labor leaders disenchanted with the island’s political authoritarianism. Still others comprised contingents of contract and non-contract workers. A few left the island to enroll as students in American universities.  Who were the Puerto Rican students and what was their role in the fledgling communities?

Among those who attained university degrees in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries were well-known figures who changed the course of history through their leadership and actions and lesser-known individuals whose legacies were equally as important.  Puerto Ricans earned degrees from a number of colleges and universities, including St. Joseph’s Academy in Brooklyn, New York. A handful, among them Rafael Janer, established educational institutions directed towards fulfilling the intellectual aspirations of Caribbean or Latin American students.[8]

José Celso Barbosa (1857–1921) studied in the United States and saw political alternatives for the future of the rigidly stratified colony, particularly in the practice of democratic ideals, race relations and the treatment of American blacks in the North. Celso Barbosa was born into an extended family of free black artisans and rose to graduate first in his medical studies at the University of Michigan in 1882. Returning to Puerto Rico, he founded the Republican Party pledged to promote statehood, prosperity and civil liberties. His daughter, Pilar Barbosa de Rosario (1898–1997), the first woman to teach at the University of Puerto Rico, received master’s and doctorate degrees from Clark University. Celso Barbosa’s contemporary, Felix Córdova Dávila(1878–1938), provides another example. Córdova Dávila studied at Howard University and later at National University in Washington, D.C., earning a degree in jurisprudence. Córdova Dávila served as the fourth Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress, from 1917 until 1932.[9]


Pedro Albizu Campos (September 12, 1891 – April 21, 1965) was a Puerto Rican attorney and politician, and the leading figure in the Puerto Rican independence movement. Gifted in languages, he spoke six; graduating from Harvard Law School with the highest grade point average in his law class, an achievement that earned him the right to give the valedictorian speech at his graduation ceremony. However, animus towards his mixed racial heritage would lead to his professors delaying two of his final exams in order to keep Albizu Campos from graduating on time. During his time at Harvard University he became involved in the Irish struggle for independence.

From the early 1920s on, numerous Puerto Rican students, like the aforementioned Barbosa de Rosario and her contemporary Amelia Agostino del Río (1896–1996), who likewise earned impressive credentials from American educational institutions, opted to study in the United States.  The venerable nationalist and independentista leader, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, was a product of the University of Vermont and Harvard Law School. He completed his studies in the first decades of the twentieth century. Albizu Campos’ contemporary, Luis Muñoz Marín, the statesman whose leadership defined the epoch of Puerto Rican modernization and industrialization, was educated at Georgetown University. Similarly, the leader of the island’s Union Republican Party, Celso Barbosa’s successor, Rafael Martínez Nadal, graduated from Johns Hopkins University.

Agostino del Río is among the many interesting people excluded from the textbooks. Nonetheless, she personifies the growing numbers of young men and women whose careers directly affected continental communities. She was born in Yauco in 1918, and moved to New York after teaching in island schools. A Spanish teacher, she worked her way through Vassar College. By 1929, she had received a master’s degree from Colombia University and an appointment to the faculty of Barnard College. She is credited with writing more than 45 books of essays, plays, poetry, short stories and art history. Along with her husband, Mrs. del Río authored Antología de la Literatura Española, considered a classic in the teaching of Spanish literature.[10]

A survey of Puerto Ricans educated in the United States would undoubtedly reveal that they too comprised an important human resource for developing continental communities. Some, like Luis Muñoz Marín, a young Bohemian poet in Washington, D.C., and later in New York City, participated wholeheartedly in the affairs of U.S. enclaves; others did not. Many lived full lives in the service of advancing diasporic communities, while others chose to make their marks in the island society. Yet others emigrated because of harsh political or economic conditions beyond their control and were forced to divide their lives between island and U.S. communities. Among these were significant numbers of political exiles and workers, whose experience bridged the transfer of power from Spanish to American possession.

An émigré colony of Puerto Rican and Cuban political exiles, believed to date to the first stirrings for liberation in the late 1820s, surfaced again as the focal point for Antillean independence activities in the late 1860s and again in the 1890s. There were many reasons for political unrest in nineteenth century Puerto Rico, not the least of which was the failure of the Spanish Juntas Informativas in 1867. These representative commissions to the Córtes in Madrid assembled to draft provincial ultramarine legislation, Leyes Especiales, for governing Cuba and Puerto Rico. Rejection of the special laws’ framework fueled renewal of political activism in New York. A key figure in the liberation movement was Segundo Ruiz Belvis, emissary to the Juntas, but his arrival in New York in 1867 with the patriot, Ramón Emeterio Betances, considered the architect of Puerto Rico’s abolitionist and independence movement, signaled a rethinking of political priorities. Determined to achieve Puerto Rican independence through whatever means necessary, Betances and Ruiz Belvis believed that liberation could no longer depend on Spain’s good intentions. Two years later Eugenio María de Hostos, leading educator, philosopher and liberal reformer, and Dr. J. J. Henna, as well-known for his involvement in politics as he was for humanitarian deeds, joined the exile group in the New York colonia. The earliest political and socio-cultural organizations stem from these encounters and indicate close connections between Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican arm of the Sociedad Republicana de Cuba y Puerto Rico, headed by Cuban Juan Manuel Macías and Puerto Rican Dr. José Francisco Basora, offers a good example.[11]

Along with New York City, the Floridian cities of Tampa and Key West comprised a pivotal triangle of revolutionary action from 1892 to 1898. Support for Antillean liberation came from several sources, including some five hundred Hispanic-owned cigar factories in New York—bodegas, barbershops, restaurants and boarding houses. Associations sprang up dedicated to supporting the war effort. These provided arms and medical essentials, disseminated propaganda and raised funds. They proliferated in the cities of New York and Brooklyn, not yet incorporated into the larger metropolis. Similar groups were also found in other cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia and Hartford. Tobacco workers, tradesmen, skilled and unskilled laborers constituted the bulk of the membership.  This was of particular importance, as cigar makers and others in the tobacco industry were known to be at the vanguard of workers’ movements in the Hispanic Antilles.  Such experience would aid in the formation of stateside communities.

Key to radicalization and consciousness-raising among the workers was the practice of la lectura (the readings) in the cigar factories.  In firsthand accounts, chronicler Bernardo Vega and essayist Jesús Colón convey the significance of the lectura in island society and in the New York communities.[12]  The readings stirred a sense of camaraderie among the workers, regardless of national origin, and engendered political reformist ideologies as well as literary erudition. In New York, la lectura flourished in Hispanic-owned factories that maintained the custom of reading aloud to the workers as they engaged in the various tasks of cigar making. Readers came from among the workers themselves; they organized the readings into current events and other non-fiction material, literature or political tracts. Vega recalls:

During the readings at “El Morito” and other factories, silence reigned supreme—it was almost like being in church. Whenever we got excited about a certain passage we showed our appreciation by tapping our tobacco cutters on the tables…. At the end of each session there would be a discussion of what had been read. Conversation went from one table to another without our interrupting our work. Though nobody was formally leading the discussion, everyone took turns speaking.[13]

For Puerto Ricans and Cubans alike, New York continued to be a choice site for expatriation. The diverse community in exile found in that city included banished Latin Americans as well as individuals from the Hispanic Caribbean, with whom Puerto Ricans could form alliances. Associations connected with Antillean independence reflected diversity, cutting a wide swath across class and racial lines. They recruited recent arrivals into their midst, among them former landowners, women, seasoned political activists, skilled and unskilled laborers and professionals. A notable example is the poet, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, staunch supporter of Puerto Rican independence, who lived much of her life in exile because of her liberal political convictions. A New York resident at the height of the conflict, she enhanced the cultural dimensions of exile community groups with piano recitals, poetry readings and fiery discourses for political change.


Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, also Arthur Schomburg (January 24, 1874 – June 8, 1938), was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and activist in the United States who researched and raised awareness of the great contributions that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans have made to society. He was an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Over the years, he collected literature, art, slave narratives, and other materials of African history, which was purchased to become the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named in his honor, at the New York Public Library (NYPL) branch in Harlem.

The emigration to New York in 1891 of the young Puerto Rican, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, coincided with such political activities. The future archivist of the African diaspora devoted his life to fighting injustice against Africans and their American descendants. Schomburg proved instrumental in the development of the barrio Latino in his early years by founding associations dedicated to Antillean liberation.  Although faced with racial discrimination from the wider, non-Hispanic society and institutionalized residential segregation, black Puerto Ricans, like Schomburg, interacted in the fraternal life of the Puerto Rican community.  Along with Rosendo Rodríguez, he headed Las Dos Antillas, a racially integrated organization, and participated in the activities of numerous others. Among others, these groups formed bulwarks of the revolutionary movement.

In 1895 conflicts between Spain and Cuba erupted into open warfare. In New York, the composition of the Puerto Rican branch of the Cuban Revolutionary Party ranged from avowed independence supporters to annexationists, testimony to the growing diversity of the colonia.  Typesetter and essayist Sotero Figueroa, journalist Antoñio Vélez Alvarado, and the poet who would give his life for the cause, Francisco Gonzalo (Pachín) Marín, joined forces with annexationists Dr. José Julio Henna, Roberto H. Todd and Manuel Besosa, who favored tighter U.S. political connections.  Finally, community presses were particularly instrumental in disseminating revolutionary ideology. The first issue of Patria surfaced in March 1892. Edited by Figueroa, Patria, the newspaper of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, followed in the traditions of earlier newspapers published in the U.S., La Revoluciòn (1870s), La Voz de Puerto Rico (1874), and El Porvenir (1888).[14]

Clearly, the historical antecedents of community development are laid with the alliances and activities of U.S.-based revolutionary enclaves from 1860 to 1898.  Exile colonia aspirations firmly grounded in homeland concerns articulated an independent Antillean future for which U.S. settlements were merely stepping-stones. However, the culmination of Spanish colonialism in 1898 arrested many individual and communitarian agendas. New coalitions sprang forth prepared to broker the plight of continental communities, particularly in New York, which would garner the bulk of the migratory flow until the 1960s.  These groups would increasingly turn towards appeasing the circumstances of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Pioneer twentieth century hometown and social clubs, mutual aid societies and political, professional and social-cultural groups bridged the gap between associations that hinged on Antillean independence and those that followed in the wake of the new political order: the colonization of Puerto Rico under the United States.  Emergent and experienced leadership forged from past organizational encounters stimulated a nascent communal structure poised to cushion and mold the migration experience, ameliorating its inherent ruptures, relocation and renewals. Inasmuch as they continued to articulate Puerto Rican interests on both sides of the ocean, individuals and the organizations they spawned stabilized and advanced important communities within the North American setting.



My speech from yesterday's hearing on the GOP's latest attempt to demonize Planned Parenthood and the continuation of undermining women's health and their right to choose. I will not allow them to jeopardize women's lives by turning back the clock and sending them to have back-alley procedures. The good news is, if they can't even elect a Speaker of the House, there's no chance they can reverse Roe v. Wade, the law of the land. #iStandWithPP

Posted by Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez on Friday, October 9, 2015
Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez
My speech from yesterday’s hearing on the GOP’s latest attempt to demonize Planned Parenthood and the continuation of undermining women’s health and their right to choose. I will not allow them to jeopardize women’s lives by turning back the clock and sending them to have back-alley procedures. The good news is, if they can’t even elect a Speaker of the House, there’s no chance they can reverse Roe v. Wade, the law of the land. #iStandWithPP

Puerto Rican Women Everyone Should Know


Historical Puerto Rican Women

These are just some of the women who, historically speaking, has played a critical role in our communities. Feel free to post a comment and a link of other historical Puerto Rican women that have played a critical role in our society!

Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, J.D., 1955


A feminist, activist, and lawyer. She was the third woman and the first Puerto Rican of obvious African descent and openly gay President of Puerto Rico’s Bar Association.

Ana Roque de Duprey, 1853-1933


A teacher and feminist, she founded the first “women’s only” magazine in Puerto Rico. She also helped found the University of Puerto Rico campuses in San Juan and Mayagüez.

Dr. Antonia Pantoja, 1922-2002


An educator and organizer, Pantoja founded the educational institution ASPIRA in 1961, Boricua College in 1970, and several other organizations and institutions throughout her life. She was integral in getting bilingual education in New York City schools and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

[Photo: Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños]

Blanca Canales Torresola, 1906-1996


A member of the influential Canales family of Jayuya, Torresola was a teacher and revolutionary, playing a leading role in the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection, where she declared the Second Republic. For this she spent 17 years in prison.

Caridad de la Luz, “La Bruja,” 1977


La Bruja is a Bronx born and raised poet and actress who started performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café. She has performed and acted on film, television and web series. She also facilitates writing workshops for inner-city youth and was named in 2005 by El Diario/ La Prensa as one of the 50 most distinguished Latinas.

[Photo: Shirley Rodriguez]

Esmeralda Santiago, 1948


Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Santiago is a graduate of Harvard University and the author of When I Was Puerto Rican and other critically acclaimed novels and memoirs. She is also a spokesperson for public libraries and has advocated for women survivors of domestic violence.

Dr. Evelina López Antonetty, 1922-1984


Called the “Hell Lady of the Bronx” for her fierce advocacy on behalf of Puerto Rican, Black and other historically oppressed peoples in New York City. She fought for bilingual education, community control of public schools, the creation and survival of Hostos Community College, and founded the community institution United Bronx Parents in 1965.

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías, 1929-2001


Pediatrician, educator, and women’s rights activist, she was born in New York City and earned her M.D. at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1960, she helped establish the island’s first center of care for newborn babies and in 1970 she became the head of pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. In NYC, she brought attention to the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women and reproductive rights. She was the first Puerto Rican and Latina president of the American Public Health Association and was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal in 2001.

Julia de Burgos, 1917-1953


Poet, Teacher, Essayist, and Feminist. She was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico and died in El Barrio/ East Harlem, NY. De Burgos had her first verses published at age 19 and published several books including, Poemas en Veinte ZurcosPoemas Exactos de mí Misma and Canción de la Verdad Sencilla.

Jennifer Lopez, July 1969



Jennifer Lynn Lopez (born July 24, 1969), also known as J. Lo, is an American actress, author, fashion designer, dancer, producer, and singer. She became interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry following a minor role in the 1986 film My Little Girl, to the dismay of her Puerto Rican parents, who believed that it was an unrealistic career route for a Hispanic

Lolita Lebrón, 1919-2010


A leader in the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, New York Chapter, Lebrón led a small brigade on an attack of the U.S. Congress on March 1, 1954 to bring global attention to Puerto Rico’s colonial status. For this act she was incarcerated until 1979. She later became a voice for human rights and non-violent protest against the U.S. Navy’s presence on the island of Vieques.

Luisa Capetillo, 1879-1922


Capetillo was a labor organizer, essayist, and radical feminist born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She was a leader in the American Federation of Labor, organized tobacco workers and women for universal suffrage and helped pass the island’s minimum wage laws. She is also credited with being the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear pants in public, for which she was arrested.

Dr. Mayra Santos-Febres, 1966


A novelist, literary critic, and intellectual, her works have been translated into several languages. Her novels and poems are used by colleges and universities to engage in challenging topics, such as race, gender and sexuality in Caribbean societies. She organizes the Festival de la Palabra in Puerto Rico.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, 1969


She is the Speaker of the New York City Council – the first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold the position – and represents a district encompassing El Barrio/ East Harlem and the South Bronx. She is a graduate of Columbia University and has worked in labor and human rights issues.

Miriam Colón, 1936


A stage and film actress for over 60 years, she is the founder and director of New York’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and winner of the Obie Award’s Lifetime Achievement in the Theater category in 1993.

Nicholasa Mohr, 1938


A Nuyorican writer, her books such as Nilda and El Bronx, detail Puerto Rican life in the barrios of New York. She has won several awards including the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year and was a National Book Award finalist.

Nydia Velázquez, 1953


The first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Velázquez serves since 1993 and represents a district encompassing Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Born in Puerto Rico, she has an M.A. in political science from New York University and has been the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus since 2011.

[Photo: Queens Courier]

Pura Belpré, 1899-1982


The first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City’s public library (NYPL) system, Belpré was a writer, a collector of folktales and advocate for bilingual and children’s literature. Her work in the 115th Street library branch during the 1920s integrated Latin American and Spanish-language literature in the NYPL and validated the presence of the growing Puerto Rican community. She was awarded the New York Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture in 1982.

Rita Moreno, 1931


An actress and winner of the Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards, Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Humacao, Puerto Rico. She is known best for playing Anita in West Side Story in 1961 for which she was the first Puerto Rican and Latina to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Rosie Pérez, 1964


Pérez is a screen and stage actress, dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and activist born in Buschwick, Brooklyn. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fearless in 1993. Pérez also directed the 2006 film Yo Soy Boricua Pa’ Que Tú Lo SepasShe also participated in acts of civil disobedience against the U.S. Navy in Vieques.

Sonia Sotomayor, J.D., 1954


Born and raised in the Bronx, NY, Sotomayor went to Yale Law School and served on the U.S. Circuit Court and Court of Appeals in New York. Since 2009 she has been an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold this position.