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Puerto Rican American

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The island of Puerto Rico (formerly Porto Rico) is the most easterly of the Greater Antilles group of the West Indies island chain. Located more than a thousand miles southeast of Miami, Puerto Rico is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by the Virgin Passage (which separates it from the Virgin Islands), on the south by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Mona Passage (which separates it from the Dominican Republic). Puerto Rico is 35 miles wide (from north to south), 95 miles long (from east to west) and has 311 miles of coastline. Its land mass measures 3,423 square miles--about two-thirds the area of the state of Connecticut. Although it is considered to be part of the Torrid Zone, the climate of Puerto Rico is more temperate than tropical. The average January temperature on the island is 73 degrees, while the average July temperature is 79 degrees. The record high and low temperatures recorded in San Juan, Puerto Rico's northeastern capital city, are 94 degrees and 64 degrees, respectively.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau report, the island of Puerto Rico has a population of 3,522,037. This represents a three-fold increase since 1899--and 810,000 of those new births occurred between the years of 1970 and 1990 alone. Most Puerto Ricans are of Spanish ancestry. Approximately 70 percent of the population is white and about 30 percent is of African or mixed descent. As in many Latin American cultures, Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, but Protestant faiths of various denominations have some Puerto Rican adherents as well.

Puerto Rico is unique in that it is an autonomous Commonwealth of the United States, and its people think of the island as un estado libre asociado, or a "free associate state" of the United States--a closer relationship than the territorial possessions of Guam and the Virgin Islands have to America. Puerto Ricans have their own constitution and elect their own bicameral legislature and governor but are subject to U.S executive authority. The island is represented in the U.S House of Representatives by a resident commissioner, which for many years was a nonvoting position. After the 1992 U.S. presidential election, however, the Puerto Rican delegate was granted the right to vote on the House floor. Because of the Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans are born as natural American citizens. Therefore all Puerto Ricans, whether born on the island or the mainland, are Puerto Rican Americans.

Puerto Rico's status as a semiautonomous Commonwealth of the United States has sparked considerable political debate. Historically, the main conflict has been between the nationalists, who support full Puerto Rican independence, and the statists, who advocate U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico. In November of 1992 an island-wide referendum was held on the issue of statehood versus continued Commonwealth status. In a narrow vote of 48 percent to 46 percent, Puerto Ricans opted to remain a Commonwealth.


Fifteenth-century Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus, known in Spanish as Cristobál Colón, "discovered" Puerto Rico for Spain on November 19, 1493. The island was conquered for Spain in 1509 by Spanish nobleman Juan Ponce de León (1460-1521), who became Puerto Rico's first colonial governor. The name Puerto Rico, meaning "rich port," was given to the island by its Spanish conquistadors (or conquerors); according to tradition, the name comes from Ponce de León himself, who upon first seeing the port of San Juan is said to have exclaimed, "¡Ay que puerto rico!" ("What a rich port!").

Puerto Rico's indigenous name is Borinquen ("bo REEN ken"), a name given by its original inhabitants, members of a native Caribbean and South American people called the Arawaks. A peaceful agricultural people, the Arawaks on the island of Puerto Rico were enslaved and virtually exterminated at the hands of their Spanish colonizers. Although Spanish heritage has been a matter of pride among islander and mainlander Puerto Ricans for hundreds of years--Columbus Day is a traditional Puerto Rican holiday--recent historical revisions have placed the conquistadors in a darker light. Like many Latin American cultures, Puerto Ricans, especially younger generations living in the mainland United States, have become increasingly interested in their indigenous as well as their European ancestry. In fact, many Puerto Ricans prefer to use the terms Boricua ("bo REE qua") or Borrinqueño ("bo reen KEN yo") when referring to each other.

Because of its location, Puerto Rico was a popular target of pirates and privateers during its early colonial period. For protection, the Spanish constructed forts along the shoreline, one of which, El Morro in Old San Juan, still survives. These fortifications also proved effective in repelling the attacks of other European imperial powers, including a 1595 assault from British general Sir Francis Drake. In the mid-1700s, African slaves were brought to Puerto Rico by the Spanish in great numbers. Slaves and native Puerto Ricans mounted rebellions against Spain throughout the early and mid-1800s. The Spanish were successful, however, in resisting these rebellions.

In 1873 Spain abolished slavery on the island of Puerto Rico, freeing black African slaves once and for all. By that time, West African cultural traditions had been deeply intertwined with those of the native Puerto Ricans and the Spanish conquerors. Intermarriage had become a common practice among the three ethnic groups.


As a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States in the Treaty of Paris on December 19, 1898. In 1900 the U.S. Congress established a civil government on the island. Seventeen years later, in response to the pressure of Puerto Rican activists, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act, which granted American citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. Following this action, the U.S. government instituted measures to resolve the various economic and social problems of the island, which even then was suffering from overpopulation. Those measures included the introduction of American currency, health programs, hydroelectric power and irrigation programs, and economic policies designed to attract U.S. industry and provide more employment opportunities for native Puerto Ricans.

In the years following World War II, Puerto Rico became a critical strategic location for the U.S. military. Naval bases were built in San Juan Harbor and on the nearby island of Culebra. In 1948 Puerto Ricans elected Luis Muñoz Marín governor of the island, the first native puertorriqueño to hold such a post. Marín favored Commonwealth



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