Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Fast Facts

  • Became a territory of the US in 1898 following a treaty in the Spanish-American war.
  • Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Citizenship was granted in 1917 though Puerto Ricans voted against the measure. It was widely believed the US granted citizenship so they could draft Puerto Ricans for WWI.
  • Spanish is the dominant language, though an estimated 60% of Puerto Ricans speak English as well.
  • It is estimated that 3.5 million Puerto Ricans live in on the island, and 5.5 million live off the island.


The islands of Puerto Rico have been home to people since 3000-2000 BC.  Over the next several thousand years the Ortoiroid, Saladoid, Arawak and Taino people all inhabited the island.  When Columbus arrived on his second voyage a reported 40,000 to 60,000 Taino people were living in Puerto Rico.  Several words from the Taino people persist to this day: hammock, maracas, iguana, and even hurican (hurricane).

Claiming the island for Spain in the 15th century and naming the island after St. John (San Juan), Columbus’ arrival marked the beginning of European colonization.  The Taino people were soon subjugated to Spain’s interests.  Disease, displacement and oppression nearly wiped out the Taino community within 50 years of Columbus’ arrival.

Puerto Rico (“Rich Port” officially named in the 16th Century with San Juan as its major port) became an important staging ground for Spanish expansion.  Ponce de Leon began here in later explorations into Florida, and it was an important stop in connection with Cuba, Hispanola and Mexico. 

The English, Dutch, French and eventually U.S. would all seek to control Puerto Rico at different times between the 16th and 20th centuries.  Eventually, Spain would give up the island as part of the Treaty of Paris following the Spanish American War in 1898.  Puerto Rico then became a territory of the United States of America.  

This territorialism came to define Puerto Rico in the 20th century and to the present day.  Citizens were eventually granted “restricted US citizenship” meaning that had some, but not all, of the rights of American citizens on the mainland.  They could, for example, be conscripted into the military but not allowed to vote for the president (unless they were a resident on the mainland).  Shipping restrictions, the introduction of English as the taught language in schools, and new taxes on crops like sugar and coffee added to the confusing political place of Puerto Rico in the early 19th century.  Though officially made a Commonwealth in 1950 with the ability to create its own constitution by President Truman, the politics, economy and education system of Puerto Rico remain unique today.

Through the centuries, Puerto Rico has established its unique place culturally, politically and linguistically in the western hemisphere.  From playing host to raiding Caribbean pirates to uniting various music traditions from Europe, Africa and elsewhere in the Caribbean in salsa, bachata and raggaeton, Puerto Rico has a long a rich history.  Puerto Rico is home to unique foods like mofongo, pasteles and alcapurrias as well as amazing biodiversity from the rainforests of El Yanque to the beaches of Vieques.