World War I

The Puerto Rican Experience In The U.S. Military: A Century Of Unheralded Service

written by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera; Senior Digital Aide, Monique Aviles


Officers of the Porto Rico Regiment, 1917




July 28, 1914
World War I begins

March 2, 1917
The U.S. Congress enacts the Jones-Shafroth Act (aka the Jones Act)

April 6, 1917
The United States enters the conflict on the side of the Allies.

April 9, 1917
Chamber of Delegates offers President Wilson the complete loyalty and support of the Puerto Ricans.

May 18, 1917
Congress passes the Selective Service Act calling for all males between the ages of 18 and 32 to fill out registration excluding the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

May 20 – 21, 1917

Puerto Rican Legislature asks Congress to extend the draft to the island (House of Representatives 3309, 1947, 35 – 36)

Puerto Rico's Veterans for WW1 - 1947

Click image to view
Center for Puerto Rican Studies


Citizenship and the Great War

"That Puerto Ricans became American citizens in 1917 have been attributed by many to the need for soldiers as the U.S. entered World War I. Such belief has been enshrined in Puerto Rican popular national mythology. While there is a rich body of literature surrounding the decision to extend U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico and its effect on the Puerto Ricans, few, if any, challenge the assumption that the need for manpower for the armies of the metropolis influenced that decision. Reducing the issue of citizenship to a need for manpower for the military only obscures complex imperial-colonial relations based upon racial structures of power."

- Franqui-Rivera, H.


Franqui-Rivera, H. (Sept./Dec. 2013). National Mythologies: U.S. Citizenship for the People of Puerto Rico and Military Service. Memorias: Revista Digital de Historia y Arqueología desde el Caribe, Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla Colombia, No.21 (2013).


Was U.S. Citizenship extended to Puerto Ricans in order to draft them into the military? Short answer, NO.

Citizenship was extended to Puerto Ricans in 1917 because:

  • Fear of growing discontent among Puerto Rico’s population.
  • The U.S. War Department considered that stability on the island was essential to secure U.S. hegemony in the Circum-Caribbean
  • Powerful lobbies in the metropolis argued that citizenship would quench unrest in Puerto Rico leading to socio-political stability.
  • The Woodrow Wilson administration also believed that it would gain diplomatic clout from granting citizenship and some measures of self-government to the Puerto Ricans. Citizenship for the Puerto Ricans would help Wilson’s envisioned peace-part of which was based on the self-determination of nations.
  • On December 7, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson had made clear to Congress that as part of obtaining international credibility, both for his policy of bettering relationships with Latin America, and for his New Diplomacy policies, the United States had to approve the Jones Act expanding the civilian government in Puerto Rico and extending U.S. citizenship to its inhabitants.
  • But Puerto Ricans were not wanted by a racist military that deemed non-White men as inferior.
  • Because citizenship had been touted as an act of decolonization once the draft law passed and was eventually extended to the island, whether the Puerto Ricans embraced the draft became in itself a referendum on the acceptance of citizenship, and of American rule.


Selective Service Regulations

1917 Draft - (PDF)


Opposition to Citizenship and Services

  • The weak opposition to military service stemming from pro-independence leaders was marked more by their silence than by outspoken opposition.
  • Even separatist leaders of the stature of Nemesio Canales, José de Diego, and Luis Lloréns Torres supported joining the war effort (Paralitici, 1998, 65-66).

The Metropolis and the local elites’ plans for mobilizing the Puerto Rican peasantry were not of a military nature. The War Department thought that the peasantry could be modernized and made into better men through military training. Many among the colonial elites agreed.

Chamber of Delegates reject the 1914 Jones Act
Chamber of Delegates reject the 1914 Jones Act


A new day has dawned for Puerto Rico’s Jíbaro

Downtrodden, unthought [sic] for as he has been, he is now in the limelight. The testing and refining process will be hard for him. But he and his brother will become the nucleus of a new Porto Rico. The anemic disease warped man will be a thing of the past. And the domain of the jíbaro will at last come into its proper place in the great Economic and Social scheme of this island.[1]

Private Rodriguez
Private Rodriguez
Author's collection

“After the War, these soldiers will be our greatest leaders, teachers, and champions of freedom and democracy.”

- El Buscapié (January 14, 1918).


Franqui-Rivera, H. (June 2015). “So a new day has dawned for Porto Rico’s Jíbaro”: Military service, manhood and self-government during World War I. Latino Studies, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp. 185 – 206.

Continue to The Porto Rican Division


[1] The Porto Rico Progress, July 12th, 1918. The Porto Rico Progress was published in English between December 8th, 1910 and the early 1960s. Its tone was adamantly pro-American.

Photo caption: Officers of the Porto Rico Regiment, 1917