Puerto Ricans - Orientation



Identification. The people of Puerto Rico weave their distinctive ethnic identity from three historical traditions: Spanish colonial, Afro-Caribbean, and North American. Puerto Rican cuisine, religious beliefs, and other identifying components of their expressive culture draw heavily upon Spanish and Afro-Caribbean traditions. Puerto Ricans share rituals and practices with their neighbors throughout Latin America as well as with English- and French-speaking peoples of the Caribbean; yet Puerto Rican educational, political, and economic systems have had to incorporate many North American features owing to U.S. domination since 1898. Puerto Ricans identify strongly with their homeland, their history, and their place in the Caribbean. Although Puerto Ricans have a legal claim to U.S. citizenship, they rarely refer to themselves as "Americans," even while residing on the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rican attachment to their islands has endured despite large-scale emigration to the mainland since 1917, the year they were granted citizenship status (largely because the War Department wanted legal grounds to enlist Puerto Ricans into the World War I endeavor).

One segment of the population, derogatorily referred to as "Nuyoricans," are children born to Puerto Ricans living in New York City. The often impoverished condition and ambivalent cultural status of mainland Puerto Ricans adds yet another dimension to Puerto Rican identity, with some segments of the population incorporating urban street-survival methods and outlooks into their ways of life.

Location. Lying on the eastern end of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean, between Hispaniola and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico is so well situated in the sealanes that it was a prize territory of the Spanish from the earliest years of the Conquest. The main island is around 169 kilometers long and 56 kilometers wide, although the territory includes a number of smaller outer islands, the largest of which, Vieques, rivals Saint Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) in size and serves, in part, as a base for the U.S. Navy. Puerto Rico has a land mass of 8,874.6 square kilometers, and its climate is subtropical.

Three overlapping mountain ranges—Cordillera Central, Sierra de Cayey, and Sierra de Luquillo—extend in an east-west direction along its interior. North of the chain of mountains, as with most Caribbean islands, the island is generally wetter and lusher; the southern slopes and plains tend to receive less rain and have a drier, savanna appearance. Its surrounding waters include the Mona Passage (just west of the main island) —a highly productive fishing ground and often treacherous channel for illegal immigrants crossing from the Dominican Republic—and the extremely deep Puerto Rican Trench, renowned in the tourist industry for its sportfishing.

Demography. Puerto Rico is the homeland of between 6 and 7 million people, although only slightly more than half the population actually resides on the island. The 1990 census counted 3,522,037 Puerto Ricans living on the island, and estimates of those living in the continental United States range between 2.5 and 3 million. The Puerto Rican people thus constitute a diaspora—a dispersed people —residing in areas of New York City, such as the South Bronx, as well as in the Caribbean. Migration, a common demographic feature of the population at least since 1917, has been a means to escape domestic problems, seek education and fortune, and deal with economic woes. The Puerto Rican fertility rate—perceived to be high in relation to natural and economic resources—has been a matter of much social planning and dispute, leading to spotty and largely ineffective sterilization and other family-planning programs. Population density on the island is high, with 369.9 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. Puerto Ricans speak Spanish, although it is distinctly different from the Spanish spoken in other Latin American or Caribbean regions. The ability to speak English is widespread, owing to the high rates of migration between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland and to the practice of teaching English in many of the private and public schools. At the university level, much of the instruction is in English, and the exchange of faculty and students between U.S. mainland and Puerto Rican universities is quite common.

The teaching of English in the primary and secondary public schools has been a subject of much debate in Puerto Rico, since many regard the teaching of English instruction as an infringement upon Puerto Rican cultural autonomy. Others view the lack of English instruction in school as a barrier to statehood; still others view it as a mechanism for maintaining the island's status quo.


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