Culture of Puerto Rico

The culture of Puerto Rico is the result of a number of international and indigenous influences, both past and present. Modern cultural manifestations showcase the island's rich history and help to create an identity which is a melting pot of cultures - Taíno (Aboriginal/First Nation/Indigenous), European (Spanish, Canary Island, Corsican and Irish), African (West African), Anglo American (U.S.A.), Latin American/Caribbean Asian, Hawaiian and other influences.[1][2][3]

'La escuela del Maestro Cordero' by Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller.



Statue in Old San Juan, photographed by Carol M. Highsmith

A subgroup of the Arawakan aboriginals (a group of Native Americans in northeastern South America), inhabited the Greater Antilles (comprising Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

The Taíno culture impressed both the Spanish Europeans (who observed it) and modern sociologists. The Arawakan achievements included construction of ceremonial ball parks whose boundaries were marked by upright stone dolmens, development of a universal language, and creation of a complicated religious cosmology. There was a hierarchy of deities who inhabited the sky; Yocahu was the supreme Creator. Another god, Jurakán, was perpetually angry and ruled the power of the hurricane. Other mythological figures were the gods Zemi and Maboya.

The zemis, a god of both sexes, were represented by icons in the form of human and animal figures, and collars made of wood, stone, bones, and human remains. Taíno Indians believed that being in the good graces of their zemis protected them from disease, hurricanes, or disaster in war. They therefore served cassava (manioc) bread as well as beverages and tobacco to their zemis as propitiatory offerings. Maboyas, on the other hand, was a nocturnal deity who destroyed the crops and was feared by all the natives, to the extent that elaborate sacrifices were offered to placate him.

Myths and traditions were perpetuated through ceremonial dances (areytos), drumbeats, oral traditions, and a ceremonial ball game played between opposing teams (of 10 to 30 players per team) with a rubber ball; winning this game was thought to bring a good harvest and strong, healthy children.

The Taíno aboriginals lived in theocratic kingdoms and had a hierarchically arranged chiefs, or caciques. The Taínos were divided in three social classes: the naborias (work class), the nitaínos or sub-chiefs and noblemen which includes the bohiques or priests and medicine men and the caciques or chiefs, each village or yucayeque had one.

At the time Juan Ponce de León took possession of the Island, there were about twenty villages, or yucayeque. Cacique Agüeybana was chief of the Taínos. He lived at Guánica, the largest Indian village in the island, on the Guayanilla River. The rank of each cacique was apparently established along democratic lines; his importance in the tribe was determined by the size of his clan, rather than its war-making strength. There was no aristocracy of lineage, nor were their titles other than those given to individuals to distinguish their services to the clan.

Their complexion were bronze-colored, average stature, dark, flowing, coarse hair, and large and slightly slanted dark eyes. Men generally went naked or wore a breech cloth, called nagua, while single women went naked and married women wore an nagua to cover their genitals, made of cotton or palm fibers, the length of which was a sign of rank. Both sexes painted themselves on special occasions; they wore earrings, nose rings, and necklaces, which were sometimes made of gold. Taíno crafts were few; some pottery and baskets were made, and stone, marble and wood were worked skillfully.

Skilled at agriculture and hunting, then Taínos were also good sailors, fishermen, canoe makers, and navigators. Their main crops were cassava, garlic, potatoes, yautías, mamey, guava, and anón. They had no calendar or writing system. Their personal possessions consisted of wooden stools with four legs and carved backs, hammocks made of cotton cloth or string for sleeping, clay and wooden bowls for mixing and serving food, calabashes or gourds for drinking water and bailing out boats, and their most prized possessions, large dugout canoes, for transportation, fishing, and water sports.

Caciques lived in rectangular huts, called caneyes, located in the center of the village facing the batey. The naborias lived in round huts, called bohios. The construction of both types of building was the same: wooden frames, topped by straw, with earthen floor, and scant interior furnishing. But the buildings were strong enough to resist hurricanes. It is believed that Taíno settlements ranged from single families to groups of 3,000 people.

About 100 years before the Spanish invasion, the Taínos were challenged by an invading South American tribe - the Caribs [Glos.]. Fierce, warlike, sadistic, and adept at using poison-tipped arrows, they raided Taíno settlements for slaves (especially females) and bodies for the completion of their rites of cannibalism. Some ethnologists argue that the preeminence of the Taínos, shaken by the attacks of the Caribs, was already jeopardized by the time of the Spanish occupation. In fact, it was Caribs who fought the most effectively against the Europeans, their behavior probably led the Europeans to unfairly attribute warlike tendencies to all of the island's tribes. A dynamic tension between the Taínos and the Caribs certainly existed when the Christopher Columbus landed on Puerto Rico.

When the Spanish European settlers first came in 1508, since there is no reliable documentation, anthropologists estimate their numbers to have been between 20,000 and 50,000, but maltreatment, disease, flight, and unsuccessful rebellion had diminished their number to 4,000 by 1515; in 1544 a bishop counted only 60, but these too were soon lost.

At their arrival the Spaniards expected the Taíno Indians to acknowledge the sovereignty of the king of Spain by payment of gold tribute, to work and supply provisions of food and to observe Christian ways. The Taínos rebelled most notably in 1511, when several caciques (Indian leaders) conspired to oust the Spaniards. They were joined in this uprising by their traditional enemies, the Caribs. Their weapons, however, were no match against Spanish horses and firearms and the revolt was soon ended brutally by the Spanish forces of Governor Juan Ponce de León.

As a result, Taíno culture, language, and traditions were generally decimated, and were claimed to have "vanished" 50 years after Christopher Columbus arrived. Since the early 21st century, efforts have been made to revive and rebuild Taíno culture.[4]

In order to understand Puerto Rico's prehistoric era, it is important to know that the Taínos, far more than the Caribs, contributed greatly to the everyday life and language that evolved during the Spanish occupation. Taíno place names are still used for such towns as Utuado, Mayagüez, Caguas, and Humacao, among others.

Many Taíno implements and techniques were copied directly by the Europeans, including the bohio (straw hut) and the hamaca (hammock), the musical instrument known as the maracas, and the method of making cassava bread. Many Taino words persist in the Puerto Rican vocabulary of today. Names of plants, trees and fruits includes: maní, leren, ají, yuca, mamey, pajuil, pitajaya, cupey, tabonuco and ceiba. Names of fish, animals and birds include: mucaro, guaraguao, iguana, cobo, carey, jicotea, guabina, manati, buruquena and juey. As well as other objects and instruments: güiro, bohío, batey, caney, hamaca, nasa, petate, coy, barbacoa, batea, cabuya, casabe and canoa. Other words were passed not only into Spanish, but also into English, such as huracan (hurricane) and hamaca (hammock). Also, many Taíno superstitions and legends were adopted and adapted by the Spanish and still influence the Puerto Rican imagination.[5]


The most profound European influence is that of Spain, the island's colonizer.[3] Spanish influence is the most notable of all cultural influences in Puerto Rican culture. Spanish heritage has left an indelible mark on the island, and signs of this cultural exchange can be found everywhere, from the Colonial architecture and official language to the island's literature and local culinary styles. As far back as the 16th century, the Spanish built a series of massive defense structures to protect Old San Juan and its bay from other invaders.[6] Parts of Old San Juan and La Fortaleza are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.[7]

The culture of European countries has also influenced the development of the performing arts on the island, especially in music. Many of the island's musical genres have their origins in the Spanish culture, which is responsible for such genres of music as decima, seis, danza, mambo, etc.

Rooster fighting is a blood sport that has been part of the Puerto Rican culture for centuries. In 1845, Manuel Alonso, in his book El Gíbaro, wrote that maybe a barrio could lack a church, but no barrio of Puerto Rico lacked a cockfighting venue. The sport was passed in families, from generation to generation. There are 71 official venues and hundreds of thousands of people attend events each year.[8] In Daddy Yankee's video for Barrio Fino a cockfight can be seen.


With the introduction of slavery to the colony, the island experienced an influx of Africans who brought with them the cultural influences of their own tribes. These influences are evident in the fields of dance and music, such as la bomba, la plena, and most recently in reggaeton, which is an Afro-Caribbean based Puerto Rican genre, as well as influences in Puerto Rican Spanish, and Puerto Rican cuisine.

The presence of African diasporic religions, such as Santeria, is due to African influence. More subtle ties also exist, such as those that connect Puerto Rico's literary history with the rich African tradition of oral storytelling. Also, all Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, and African American cultural influences from the United States, neighboring Caribbean islands, and Puerto Rico itself, are largely African in origin.

The Caribbean and Latin AmericaEdit

The shared African heritage of many Caribbean nations is reflected in cultural pursuits like dance, as well as in local culinary styles. Most regional influences are Latino and Afro-Caribbean. The neighboring islands that have had the most influence on Puerto Rico's dance and music are Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Panama has shared its great passion for Spanish Reggae with Puerto Rico, the Spanish language version of Jamaican Reggae. Eventually reggaeton, a Puerto Rican break-off of original Spanish reggae, became very popular throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, the US and Spain.

Puerto Rican artists helped create Salsa music with Cuban artists, and also helped Dominican artists with the development of Merengue. Recent Haitian and Dominican immigration has been producing many new cultural influences. Significant cultural exchange has been evident between Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, especially the islands of St. Croix, Vieques, and Culebra, such as Puerto Rican style Patois mixed with Spanish.

A number of Latin American countries have also exerted influence on Puerto Rico's cultural identity. In the filmmaking community, co-productions between Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries have created an exchange of ideas and influenced their film conventions. For instance, the Latin sense of humor and fantastical elements are evident in Puerto Rican films.

United StatesEdit

"El desastre es la colonia" (the disaster is the colony), words seen on light meter six months after Hurricane Maria
US and Puerto Rico flags on a building in Puerto Rico

Culturally, Puerto Rican sentiment for the U.S. tends to vary between emulation and opposition, a result of the complicated socio-political relationship between the two. Since establishment as a United States Commonwealth in 1898, traditional economics, social structure, nationalism, and culture has been affected in Puerto Rico.[9]

Hacienda La Fortuna. A sugar mill complex in Puerto Rico painted by Francisco Oller in 1885. Brooklyn Museum.

Before the United States captured Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, the colony was agriculture based. Most worked on sugar cane, tobacco, or coffee plantations.[10] Through the beginning of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans remained agricultural. Operation Bootstrap, an operation of the United States and the Puerto Rico Economic Development Administration, began in 1942 and was put in place to transform Puerto Rico into an industrial colony. Government owned factories were built to shift development to industrial factory work and, eventually, education of the factory work force.[11] The growth of Puerto Rican industry changed the outlook on familial social structure.

Traditionally, the Puerto Rican family was a large, three generation family living in the same home or as neighbors. The family was built around a set of parents or a single mother, and the family was sustained through multiple wage earning jobs. As the industrial revolution progressed, women found factory jobs more easily than men, becoming the bread winners. The Puerto Rican family structure changed to a small, nuclear matriarchy consisting of only immediate family members.[12]

The United States ideal of small, patriarchal families also impacted the contemporary Puerto Rican family structure in policy. In an attempt to demolish poverty in shantytowns, the Puerto Rico Housing Authority established public housing by example of United States policy.[13] The public housing further disenfranchised the large multi-generation family by dividing nuclear families into public, single-family dwellings. Links to extended family are still an important aspect to the culture of Puerto Rican family structure, however they have been significantly weakened.[14]

The relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico makes national identity complicated. Puerto Ricans maintain United States citizenship while aligning with a uniquely Puerto Rican heritage. Although the island's culture is not heterogeneous, Puerto Rico establishes several binary oppositions to the United States: American identity versus Puerto Rican identity, English language versus Spanish language, Protestant versus Catholic, and Anglo-Saxon heritage versus Hispanic heritage.[15]

Another issue splitting national identity is political ideals on Puerto Rico's national status. There are three primary positions: pro-Commonwealth, pro-statehood, and pro-independence. Basically, Puerto Rican identity has been developed in rejection to American cultural identity.[16] Since United States citizenship was instated, about half of the pre-Commonwealth population of Puerto Rico has relocated to the continental United States.[17] Those who have relocated to the United States are considered by some not to be a part of the Puerto Rican nation.[18]

American influences such as jazz can be found in the development of the island's unique musical style, but there is also evidence of cultural antagonism, particularly in areas such as literature. This dichotomy also exists in cinema, which has been greatly influenced by the U.S.

With its commonwealth status, Puerto Rico has always attracted U.S. studios to shoot in the commonwealth, and film genres popular in the States during specific periods were often mirrored in contemporary Puerto Rican productions. However, other films delve into issues springing from the complex relationship between the two countries. Much film produced in Puerto Rico focuses on the complicated national identity of Puerto Ricans.[19] For example, in the film La Guague Aerea directed by Luis Molina Casanova, Puerto Rican identity is expressed as "one that expands beyond the islands geo-political boundaries...portrayed in a state of constant transit between island and mainland political, social and cultural sites." [20] Aside from producing film for political commentary, Puerto Rico also is a large market for film landscape. The Puerto Rico film commission has instated incentives for film production on the island.[21] Some major motion pictures filmed in Puerto Rico include The Men Who Stare at Goats and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.


See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Puerto Rico Convention Center. "Puerto Rico: Culture". About Puerto Rico.
  2. ^ ""Puerto Rico: Culture", Puerto Rico Convention Center". Archived from the original on January 2, 2007. Retrieved January 4, 2007.
  3. ^ a b Morales Carrión, Arturo (1983). Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History. New York: Norton & Co. Cite has empty unknown parameter: |coauthors= (help)
  4. ^ "Taino Tribal Census Registration: A Record of Hope and Survival". La Salita Cafe. Retrieved 28 November 2014.
  5. ^ •The Indigenous People of the Caribbean •In Defense of the Indians : The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolome de las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapas •The Tainos: Rise & Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus Other resources •Arawaks •Cacicazgos del Siglo 16 •Caciques, Nobles, and their Regalia •Indigenous Puerto Rico: DNA evidence upsets established history •The Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation •The New Old World - Antilles: Living Beyond the Myth. •Tainos
  6. ^ "unesco heritage site in puerto rico Archives". Puerto Rico By GPS. Retrieved 2020-10-06.
  7. ^ a b Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 2020-10-06.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Ayala, Cesar J. and Bernabe, Rafael. Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History Since 1898. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007, p. 14.
  10. ^ Mintz, Sidney W. "The People of Puerto Rico Half a Century Later: One Author's Recollections" in The Journal of Latin American Anthropology. Vol. 6, Issue 2, p. 76.
  11. ^ Cook, James. "Operation Bootstrap" in Forbes. Vol. 150, Issue 4, p. 50.
  12. ^ Safa, Helen. "The Transformation of Puerto Rico: The Impact of Modernization Ideology" in Transforming Anthropology. Vol. 19, Number 1, p. 47.
  13. ^ Safa, Helen. "The Transformation of Puerto Rico: The Impact of Modernization Ideology" in Transforming Anthropology. Vol. 19, Number 1, p. 46.
  14. ^ Safa, Helen. "The Transformation of Puerto Rico: The Impact of Modernization Ideology" in Transforming Anthropology. Vol. 19, Number 1, p. 48.
  15. ^ Dunay, Jorge. "Nation on the Move: The Construction of Cultural Identities in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora" in American Ethnologist. Vol. 27, Issue 1, p. 10.
  16. ^ Dunay, Jorge. "Nation on the Move: The Construction of Cultural Identities in Puerto Rico and the Disapora" in American Ethnologist. Vo. 27, Issue 1, p. 12.
  17. ^ Falcon, Angelo. "The Diaspora Factor: Stateside Boricuas and the Future of Puerto Rico" in NACLA Report on the Americas. Vol. 40, Issue 6, p. 40.
  18. ^ Dunay, Jorge. "Nation on the Move: The Construction of Cultural Identities in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora" in American Ethnologist. Vol. 27, Issue 1, p. 22.
  19. ^ Maldonado-DeOliveria, Debora. "Problematic Ideas of Puerto Rico in Puerto Rican Cinema: Luis Molina Casanova's La Guagua Aerea" in Centro Journal. Vol. 23, Issue 1, p. 163.
  20. ^ Maldonado-DeOliveria, Debora. "Problematic Ideas of Puerto Rico in Puerto Rican Cinema: Luis Molina Casanova's La Guagua Aerea" in Centro Journal. Vol. 23, Issue 1, p. 164.
  21. ^ "Menu." Puerto Rico Film Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
  22. ^ "Overlooked No More: Julia de Burgos, a Poet Who Helped Shape Puerto Rico's Identity (Published 2018)". The New York Times. 2018-05-02. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-10-06.
  23. ^ Stavans, Ilan (2020). Poets, philosophers, lovers: on the writings of Giannina Braschi. Aldama, Frederick Luis; O'Dwyer, Tess,. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Pittsburgh. ISBN 978-0-8229-4618-2. OCLC 1143649021.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)

External linksEdit