Today more Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland than in Puerto Rico, and the island’s population is continuing to shrink as the high unemployment rate sends residents—mostly educated professionals—stateside in pursuit of work. Between April 2010 and July 2011, the population dropped 19,100 to 3.7 million. About 45 percent of the island’s residents live below the poverty level and at least 10 municipalities (primarily those in the Cordillera Central) have poverty rates greater than 60 percent. The economy is also blamed for the slide in the birth rate down from 60,000 in 2000 to 42,000 in 2012.
There is a saying on the island that Puerto Ricans are like porpoises: They can barely keep their heads above water, but they’re always smiling. It’s an apt description. In 2005, Puerto Ricans were proclaimed the happiest people on earth, according to a highly reported study by the Stockholm-based organization World Values Survey. Despite high poverty and unemployment rates, it seems nothing can put a damper on the lively, fun-loving Puerto Rican spirit. Most Puerto Ricans like to celebrate big and often. In fact, there are reportedly more than 500 festivals a year on the island, and everything is a family affair involving multiple generations of relatives. Music is usually at the heart of most gatherings, and Puerto Ricans are passionate about their opinions and love few things more than to debate politics or sports for hours.
The culture of Puerto Rican life has been significantly shaped by its history. It was originally inhabited by a society of peaceful, agriculturally based indigenous people who migrated to the island from South America. But beginning in 1508, the island became a Spanish colony, and for the next four centuries European influence reigned. Towns were developed according to Spanish custom around central plazas and churches. The church spread Catholicism, and Spanish became the official language.
Because the majority of colonists were men, the Spanish Crown officially supported marriage between Spanish men and Taíno women, leading to a population of mixed offspring. The Spanish also brought in slaves from Africa to work the island’s many coffee and sugar plantations, and they too produced offspring with the Taíno and Spanish colonists, producing what for years was called a population of mulattoes.
Perhaps because of this historic mixing of races, racial tensions are relatively minimal in Puerto Rico. There are some levels of society that proudly claim to be of pure European blood, and darker-skinned populations are sometimes discriminated against. But in general, Puerto Rico is a true melting pot of races in which skin comes in all shades of white and brown, and the general population is fairly accepting of everyone else.
When the United States took control of Puerto Rico in 1898, the island underwent another enormous cultural transformation. Suddenly U.S. customs and practices were imposed. English became a common second language, and has at times been proclaimed the official language. The U.S. dollar became the legal tender. American corporations set up shop, bringing with them an influx of American expatriates whose ways of dress, cuisine, and art were integrated into the existing culture. Much of this influence came in the form of the military, due to the many military bases that were established on the island. Some people credit that influence on the relative stability and orderliness of public life, particularly as compared to other Caribbean islands. The island’s governmental and judicial systems are organized similarly to the United States, and many U.S. social services are offered on the island.
Inroads of contemporary American culture have been made into much of island life, but Puerto Ricans are fiercely proud of their Spanish heritage. Since becoming a U.S. territory a little more than 100 years ago, Puerto Rico has undergone a seismic shift in its national identity that has divided the island politically. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and they enjoy many—but not all—the privileges that entails. The issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status has been an ongoing debate for more than 50 years, and it is as much a part of the island’s national identity as its Spanish language and customs. Roughly half the island’s population wants to remain a U.S. commonwealth, in large part because they believe that status ensures the preservation of their Spanish culture. The other half wants to become a U.S. state so they can have full privileges of citizenship, including the ability to vote for the U.S. president and have full representation in Congress.
In 2012, Congress took actions that could put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status to a popular vote on the island. Until a vote is held, the future of Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million citizens hangs in the balance between two cultures. Regardless of the outcome of Puerto Rico’s 2012 referendums on whether to maintain commonwealth status or seek non-territorial status, Puerto Rico’s political standing will probably remain in flux for the time being.
When it comes to gender roles, Puerto Ricans are fairly traditional. However, as in the rest of the industrial world, women have made inroads into the formerly male world of business and sports, particularly in urban areas. At one time it was common practice among the island’s most traditional families for young women to be accompanied by chaperones in the form of an aunt or older sister when they began dating, but that practice is quickly vanishing.
Vestiges of machismo still exist. Attractive young women may attract unwanted catcalls, usually expressed with a “s-s-s” sound, or calls of “Mira, mami!” (“Look, mama!”). But in general, Puerto Rican men can be quite chivalrous in ways American women may be unaccustomed to. Having a bus seat relinquished for their comfort and the holding of doors are courtesies commonly encountered.
Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rico’s indigenous population was composed of highly spiritual individuals who worshipped multiple gods believed to reside in nature. It was a common belief that these gods controlled everything from the success or failure of crops to one’s choice of a spouse.
All that began to change when Ponce de León arrived in 1508, bringing with him several Roman Catholic priests who ministered to the new colony and set about converting the Taíno Indians to the faith, beginning with baptisms. In 1511, Pope Julius II created a diocese in Caparra, the island’s first settlement.
Today, depending on the source, Puerto Rico’s population is between 75 and 85 percent Roman Catholic. Although weekly church attendance is far below that figure, the Catholic Church has great influence on Puerto Rican life. Each town has a Catholic church at its center and celebrates its patron saint with an annual festival. Although many patron-saint festivals have become much more secular over time, they typically include a religious procession and special Mass to mark the day. Images of saints are common items in traditional households, and you can’t enter a church without seeing clusters of women lighting candles, praying, or kissing the hem of the dress worn by a statue of Mary.
Some Puerto Ricans practice a hybrid form of religion called espiritismo, which combines elements of the Catholic religion and Indian beliefs in nature-dwelling spirits that can be called on to effect change in one’s life. Similarly, some Puerto Ricans of African descent practice Santería, introduced to the island by Yoruba slaves from West Africa. It also observes multiple gods and combines elements of Catholicism. Practitioners of both religions patronize the island’s botanicas, stores that sell roots, herbs, candles, soaps, and amulets that are employed to sway the spirits to help individuals achieve success, whether it be in business, love, or starting a family.
Once the United States arrived in Puerto Rico in 1898, Protestantism began to grow on the island, and all major sects are represented. Pentecostal fundamentalism has developed in recent decades, and there is a small Jewish community on the island as well.