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History of Puerto Ricans In the US - PART ONE

Virginia Sanchez Korrol

The Historical Narrative establishes the cultural roots of the Puerto Rican people, beginning with the development of Taíno indigenous culture followed by the inflow of enslaved Africans brought by the Spanish.

Part 1: Resources


  Diasporas in the History of the Puerto Rican People: A Cartography I poster

  Teaching Guide

The Historical Narrative


To Angel Rivero, the young Puerto Rican Captain charged with defending Fort San Cristóbal in San Juan that fateful night of August 13, 1898, the signs of peace were all but secured. Articles in praise of the American flag had appeared in La Prensa, and censorship had generally been relaxed. At one thirty in the morning he received the dreaded news that Spain renounced its sovereignty over Cuba and ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. “Such a sad night!” he writes. “I spend it, all of it, seated upon a cannon; as the sun comes out I affirm my resolution, taken before the war.  As soon as the peace is signed, I will leave the Spanish army and return to civilian life so as to share in whatever fortunes befall my country”.[1]  

For close to 3 million American citizens of Puerto Rican ancestry living in the United States, and the 3.5 million who reside in Puerto Rico, 1898 commemorates the historical episode recorded so eloquently in Rivero’s Crónica de la Guerra Hispánoamericana. It marks the centenary of official United States–Puerto Rico sociopolitical and economically motivated connections that began one hundred years before, when the Treaty of Paris ceded the Puerto Rican Archipelago to the United States as indemnity to cover the costs of the Spanish-Cuban–American War. The second largest among the Hispanic/Latino population of the United States, Puerto Ricans have figured in the making of U.S. history since before the nineteenth century, when the colony was still a major fortification of defense for the Spanish New World Empire. Puerto Ricans reside in all fifty of the United States, with significant concentrations in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

Among the earliest of crossroads in the Americas, Puerto Rico reflects the mestizaje that defines the hemisphere and encompasses historical legacies from indigenous, African, European and Anglo American peoples. American citizens by congressional fiat, Puerto Ricans enjoyed a long, well-documented history, before the passage of the Jones Act in 1917. That past incorporates over three millennia of Indigenous experience. Incorporated as well are the importation of enslaved Africans and the landmarks surrounding their struggles for liberation from the moment they set foot on the island until abolition in 1873. The fusion of these major strands molded a people who have historically struggled for political self–definition, determination, and cultural affirmation, first under Spain and in the twentieth century under the United States. In sum, while Puerto Rico was shaped by its own combination of historical forces, it shares an ineffaceable Spanish American and Anglo American heritage. That duality is aptly conceptualized in the statement coined by sociologist Clara Rodríguez when she wrote, “Since 1898, all Puerto Ricans have been born in the U.S.A.”[2]

To interpret a balanced history and understand the unique position of mainland Puerto Ricans without distortion requires educators to take several factors into consideration. First, the complexity of the island's political status cannot be underestimated, for it directly impacts the creation of diasporic communities in the United States. Neither a state nor an independent nation, Puerto Rican affairs are as much a part of U.S. history as they are the history of the Puerto Rican people. Indeed, hegemonic deliberations and decisions about commonwealth, statehood or independence status ultimately rest with the Congress of the United States, albeit promoted by a steadfast patriotism on the part of the people of Puerto Rico. Second, the involvement of Puerto Ricans in the United States predates the nineteenth century and refutes popular notions that place this relationship at the moment of the groups’ post World War II arrival on U.S. soil, the first airborne migration of American citizens in the mid-century. Third, Puerto Ricans comprise diverse socio-economic mainland communities, two-thirds of which exist outside of the historically significant New York City. Each has its own unique heritage and experience, yet each is connected to the others primarily through cultural identification. Fourth, the study of U.S. Puerto Ricans increasingly incorporates the transnational nature of the Puerto Rican people. Described as a commuter nation, a people without borders, the experience is rooted in a nation with a shifting configuration of mainland settlements. In the words of sociologist David Hernández, “One must begin to take the position that Puerto Rican identity is not a local or insular matter but a transnational reality.”[3]   

Their story, then, signals a complex process incorporating elements of both conventional manifestations of the immigrant experience in the United States and that of American ethnic and racial minorities. Their role in shaping continental communities and institutions begins in late eighteenth century, when Puerto Rican merchants traded in cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, Bridgeport or Boston. The urban and rural sectors in which they interacted nurtured small exile enclaves by the early nineteenth century. These grew to influence migratory patterns and destinations, socio-cultural traditions, political and economic factors, language, literary expression, attitudes and ideas both on the island of Puerto Rico and in the continental United States. American citizenship made possible unencumbered population movements from the island to the U.S. mainland. The twentieth century communities Puerto Ricans forged throughout the United States bear witness to their place in American history, particularly in the arenas of labor, community building, bilingual and higher education, politics and organization. Their struggles for justice, equality and inclusion have strengthened American democratic principles. Too often, these are dismissed, misunderstood or homogenized into the more generic Latino experience.

Migratory Roots:

Some scholars date the earliest contacts between the United States and Puerto Rico to the exploratory voyages of Juan Ponce de León, who set out in 1513 to realize mythic fables in the sixteenth century spirit of Spanish conquest, exploitation and colonization. The island’s first governor laid claim instead to the Florida peninsula. Although this historic moment hardly blossomed into reciprocal interactions between island and mainland, the associations between the thirteen original American colonies and the former Spanish colony indeed predate 1898 by several centuries. The eighteenth century revolutions that sparked American independence in the United States found support among Puerto Rican Creoles, as the island harbored American ships flying the stars and stripes and raised money for the war effort. The emergence of the hemisphere's first African American republic, the climax of the Haitian Revolution (1792–1801) and the transfers of French Louisiana (1803) and Spanish Florida (1819) to American sovereignty launched a flow of emigrants from the United States and Hispaniola. Many of the exiles sought and received refuge in Puerto Rico. As a major presidio in the Crown's fortification system, guardians of the Caribbean gateway to the territorial riches of the Spanish New World empire, Puerto Rican immigration was further augmented by Mexican deserters, fugitive enslaved persons, an imported labor force, expanded military personnel and European and South American immigration. By the last half of the century, Spanish colonial ports were thrown open to foreign trade in which the newly created United States of America would play a dominant role.[4]

It was, however, the emigrations of the nineteenth century that set into motion patterns of population movements within the Americas reflected in the diasporic communities of the present day. The Latin American wars for independence (1810–1824) spurred waves of immigration to the Hispanic Caribbean as loyalists and rebels alike opted to leave war-torn regions of the crumbling empire. Many with expertise in plantation economies and capital to invest relocated to Cuba and Puerto Rico, last bastions of conservative Spanish power. In the Hispanic Antilles, especially Puerto Rico, an increased military presence maintained firm control throughout the period of Latin American conflicts, despite repeated attempts to liberate the islands by Venezuelan and Mexican revolutionaries. Expeditions to free Puerto Rico came also from geographic sites in the United States financed by Cuban and Puerto Rican natives who sanctioned New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia as conspiratorial bases. As late in the conflicts as the 1820s, groups of Puerto Rican men and women joined Cuban counterparts in unsuccessful attempts to include the Hispanic Caribbean in the Latin American struggles for independence. Their covert actions formed an extensive network, with benefactors in the United States, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico and were centered in ports of call that included the principal cities of San Juan, Caracas and New Orleans.[5]

As independent nations took form throughout Latin America, Spain tightened political and economic control in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Such suppressive acts provoked further departures to the United States and other regions of the hemisphere, even as Puerto Rico witnessed unprecedented immigration from Spain, the Canary Islands and other Catholic European countries. Due in great measure to Crown concessions and grants like the 1815 Cédula de Gracias, a royal decree that encouraged immigration to Spanish possessions, such relocation continued to parallel political and commercial connections established in earlier decades.  More significant, legal and clandestine immigration marked a dramatic decline in Spanish exclusivity. When the Crown decreed permission for foreign trade with Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1824, including the establishment of official consular representation, increased commercial bonds between the United States and the islands was all but assured. 

Along with Western European countries, the United States supplied the islands with furniture, machinery, steel and iron parts, jute, hemp, wheat, flour and hog by-products. By the last third of the century, Puerto Rican agricultural production depended heavily on American markets, and almost half of the island’s imports consisted of U. S. products vital for human consumption. Based initially on a flourishing ultramarine exchange of Puerto Rican rum, molasses, sugar and tobacco for American foodstuffs, Puerto Rican merchants ultimately accompanied cargo across the ocean. As early as the 1830s, trade networks expanded sufficiently to warrant the establishment of commercial brokerage houses in northeastern Atlantic cities including New York, Hartford and Boston. The Cuban–Puerto Rican Benevolent Merchants' Association dates to that period. These commercial establishments facilitated trade and advanced the well being of its merchant members. 

Trade routes and their resultant regional ties continued to link Puerto Rican emigrants to New Orleans as well as key cities in the Northeast. Before and just after the Civil War, New Orleans predominated as the center for commercial and political activities, a place where Antillean annexationists and independence seekers could meet under a variety of guises. Among the earliest emigrants involved in trade and other enterprises in the Northeast during that period was the merchant family of José de Rivera, a wealthy sugar and wine trader who lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut from 1844 to 1855. The New Haven, Connecticut census for 1860 lists the names of ten Puerto Ricans, one of whom, Augustus Rodríguez, fought in the Civil War. Records indicate he became a city firefighter following the War.[6]  The Puerto Rican abolitionist, Julio Vizcarrondo (1830-1889), scion of a privileged family, found his way to Boston in the 1850s, not for purposes of trade but for political reasons. In Boston he was free to join anti-slavery movements and publish provocative political tracts read throughout Europe and the United States. Along with his Bostonian wife, he returned to continue his abolitionist mission in Puerto Rico in 1854.[7]

The last half of the century witnessed increased emigration from Puerto Rico, as individuals were ousted from the island or left of their own accord to escape tyranny and exploitation or search for economic opportunity.  Like Julio Vizcarrondo, many emigrated as political exiles. Others were artisans in search of opportunity or labor leaders disenchanted with the island’s political authoritarianism. Still others comprised contingents of contract and non-contract workers. A few left the island to enroll as students in American universities.  Who were the Puerto Rican students and what was their role in the fledgling communities?

Among those who attained university degrees in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries were well-known figures who changed the course of history through their leadership and actions and lesser-known individuals whose legacies were equally as important.  Puerto Ricans earned degrees from a number of colleges and universities, including St. Joseph’s Academy in Brooklyn, New York. A handful, among them Rafael Janer, established educational institutions directed towards fulfilling the intellectual aspirations of Caribbean or Latin American students.[8]

José Celso Barbosa (1857–1921) studied in the United States and saw political alternatives for the future of the rigidly stratified colony, particularly in the practice of democratic ideals, race relations and the treatment of American blacks in the North. Celso Barbosa was born into an extended family of free black artisans and rose to graduate first in his medical studies at the University of Michigan in 1882. Returning to Puerto Rico, he founded the Republican Party pledged to promote statehood, prosperity and civil liberties. His daughter, Pilar Barbosa de Rosario (1898–1997), the first woman to teach at the University of Puerto Rico, received master’s and doctorate degrees from Clark University. Celso Barbosa’s contemporary, Felix Córdova Dávila(1878–1938), provides another example. Córdova Dávila studied at Howard University and later at National University in Washington, D.C., earning a degree in jurisprudence. Córdova Dávila served as the fourth Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress, from 1917 until 1932.[9]

From the early 1920s on, numerous Puerto Rican students, like the aforementioned Barbosa de Rosario and her contemporary Amelia Agostino del Río (1896–1996), who likewise earned impressive credentials from American educational institutions, opted to study in the United States.  The venerable nationalist and independentista leader, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, was a product of the University of Vermont and Harvard Law School. He completed his studies in the first decades of the twentieth century. Albizu Campos’ contemporary, Luis Muñoz Marín, the statesman whose leadership defined the epoch of Puerto Rican modernization and industrialization, was educated at Georgetown University. Similarly, the leader of the island’s Union Republican Party, Celso Barbosa’s successor, Rafael Martínez Nadal, graduated from Johns Hopkins University. 

Agostino del Río is among the many interesting people excluded from the textbooks. Nonetheless, she personifies the growing numbers of young men and women whose careers directly affected continental communities. She was born in Yauco in 1918, and moved to New York after teaching in island schools. A Spanish teacher, she worked her way through Vassar College. By 1929, she had received a master’s degree from Colombia University and an appointment to the faculty of Barnard College. She is credited with writing more than 45 books of essays, plays, poetry, short stories and art history. Along with her husband, Mrs. del Río authored Antología de la Literatura Española, considered a classic in the teaching of Spanish literature.[10]

A survey of Puerto Ricans educated in the United States would undoubtedly reveal that they too comprised an important human resource for developing continental communities. Some, like Luis Muñoz Marín, a young Bohemian poet in Washington, D.C., and later in New York City, participated wholeheartedly in the affairs of U.S. enclaves; others did not. Many lived full lives in the service of advancing diasporic communities, while others chose to make their marks in the island society. Yet others emigrated because of harsh political or economic conditions beyond their control and were forced to divide their lives between island and U.S. communities. Among these were significant numbers of political exiles and workers, whose experience bridged the transfer of power from Spanish to American possession.

An émigré colony of Puerto Rican and Cuban political exiles, believed to date to the first stirrings for liberation in the late 1820s, surfaced again as the focal point for Antillean independence activities in the late 1860s and again in the 1890s. There were many reasons for political unrest in nineteenth century Puerto Rico, not the least of which was the failure of the Spanish Juntas Informativas in 1867. These representative commissions to the Córtes in Madrid assembled to draft provincial ultramarine legislation, Leyes Especiales, for governing Cuba and Puerto Rico. Rejection of the special laws’ framework fueled renewal of political activism in New York. A key figure in the liberation movement was Segundo Ruiz Belvis, emissary to the Juntas, but his arrival in New York in 1867 with the patriot, Ramón Emeterio Betances, considered the architect of Puerto Rico’s abolitionist and independence movement, signaled a rethinking of political priorities. Determined to achieve Puerto Rican independence through whatever means necessary, Betances and Ruiz Belvis believed that liberation could no longer depend on Spain’s good intentions. Two years later Eugenio María de Hostos, leading educator, philosopher and liberal reformer, and Dr. J. J. Henna, as well-known for his involvement in politics as he was for humanitarian deeds, joined the exile group in the New York colonia. The earliest political and socio-cultural organizations stem from these encounters and indicate close connections between Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican arm of the Sociedad Republicana de Cuba y Puerto Rico, headed by Cuban Juan Manuel Macías and Puerto Rican Dr. José Francisco Basora, offers a good example.[11]

Along with New York City, the Floridian cities of Tampa and Key West comprised a pivotal triangle of revolutionary action from 1892 to 1898. Support for Antillean liberation came from several sources, including some five hundred Hispanic-owned cigar factories in New York—bodegas, barbershops, restaurants and boarding houses. Associations sprang up dedicated to supporting the war effort. These provided arms and medical essentials, disseminated propaganda and raised funds. They proliferated in the cities of New York and Brooklyn, not yet incorporated into the larger metropolis. Similar groups were also found in other cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia and Hartford. Tobacco workers, tradesmen, skilled and unskilled laborers constituted the bulk of the membership.  This was of particular importance, as cigar makers and others in the tobacco industry were known to be at the vanguard of workers’ movements in the Hispanic Antilles.  Such experience would aid in the formation of stateside communities.

Key to radicalization and consciousness-raising among the workers was the practice of la lectura (the readings) in the cigar factories.  In firsthand accounts, chronicler Bernardo Vega and essayist Jesús Colón convey the significance of the lectura in island society and in the New York communities.[12]  The readings stirred a sense of camaraderie among the workers, regardless of national origin, and engendered political reformist ideologies as well as literary erudition. In New York, la lectura flourished in Hispanic-owned factories that maintained the custom of reading aloud to the workers as they engaged in the various tasks of cigar making. Readers came from among the workers themselves; they organized the readings into current events and other non-fiction material, literature or political tracts. Vega recalls:

During the readings at “El Morito” and other factories, silence reigned supreme—it was almost like being in church. Whenever we got excited about a certain passage we showed our appreciation by tapping our tobacco cutters on the tables.... At the end of each session there would be a discussion of what had been read. Conversation went from one table to another without our interrupting our work. Though nobody was formally leading the discussion, everyone took turns speaking.[13]

For Puerto Ricans and Cubans alike, New York continued to be a choice site for expatriation. The diverse community in exile found in that city included banished Latin Americans as well as individuals from the Hispanic Caribbean, with whom Puerto Ricans could form alliances. Associations connected with Antillean independence reflected diversity, cutting a wide swath across class and racial lines. They recruited recent arrivals into their midst, among them former landowners, women, seasoned political activists, skilled and unskilled laborers and professionals. A notable example is the poet, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, staunch supporter of Puerto Rican independence, who lived much of her life in exile because of her liberal political convictions. A New York resident at the height of the conflict, she enhanced the cultural dimensions of exile community groups with piano recitals, poetry readings and fiery discourses for political change.       

The emigration to New York in 1891 of the young Puerto Rican, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, coincided with such political activities. The future archivist of the African diaspora devoted his life to fighting injustice against Africans and their American descendants. Schomburg proved instrumental in the development of the barrio Latino in his early years by founding associations dedicated to Antillean liberation.  Although faced with racial discrimination from the wider, non-Hispanic society and institutionalized residential segregation, black Puerto Ricans, like Schomburg, interacted in the fraternal life of the Puerto Rican community.  Along with Rosendo Rodríguez, he headed Las Dos Antillas, a racially integrated organization, and participated in the activities of numerous others. Among others, these groups formed bulwarks of the revolutionary movement.

In 1895 conflicts between Spain and Cuba erupted into open warfare. In New York, the composition of the Puerto Rican branch of the Cuban Revolutionary Party ranged from avowed independence supporters to annexationists, testimony to the growing diversity of the colonia.  Typesetter and essayist Sotero Figueroa, journalist Antoñio Vélez Alvarado, and the poet who would give his life for the cause, Francisco Gonzalo (Pachín) Marín, joined forces with annexationists Dr. José Julio Henna, Roberto H. Todd and Manuel Besosa, who favored tighter U.S. political connections.  Finally, community presses were particularly instrumental in disseminating revolutionary ideology. The first issue of Patria surfaced in March 1892. Edited by Figueroa, Patria, the newspaper of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, followed in the traditions of earlier newspapers published in the U.S., La Revoluciòn (1870s), La Voz de Puerto Rico (1874), and El Porvenir (1888).[14]

Clearly, the historical antecedents of community development are laid with the alliances and activities of U.S.-based revolutionary enclaves from 1860 to 1898.  Exile colonia aspirations firmly grounded in homeland concerns articulated an independent Antillean future for which U.S. settlements were merely stepping-stones. However, the culmination of Spanish colonialism in 1898 arrested many individual and communitarian agendas. New coalitions sprang forth prepared to broker the plight of continental communities, particularly in New York, which would garner the bulk of the migratory flow until the 1960s.  These groups would increasingly turn towards appeasing the circumstances of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Pioneer twentieth century hometown and social clubs, mutual aid societies and political, professional and social-cultural groups bridged the gap between associations that hinged on Antillean independence and those that followed in the wake of the new political order: the colonization of Puerto Rico under the United States.  Emergent and experienced leadership forged from past organizational encounters stimulated a nascent communal structure poised to cushion and mold the migration experience, ameliorating its inherent ruptures, relocation and renewals. Inasmuch as they continued to articulate Puerto Rican interests on both sides of the ocean, individuals and the organizations they spawned stabilized and advanced important communities within the North American setting.



The Foraker Act, 1900–1917.

The Jones Act, 1917–1952.

Iglesias, C.A. Memoirs of Bernardo Vega (N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1984).

Capetillo, Luisa. A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks Out. Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, ed. (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2004).

Wagenheim, Kal and Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim, eds. The Puerto Rican: A Documentary History (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1996).


Secondary Sources: 

Scarano, Francisco A. Puerto Rico: Cinco Siglos de Historia (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1993).

Morales Carrion, Arturo. Puerto Rico and the Non-Hispanic Caribbean: A Study in the Decline of Spanish Exclusivism (Rio Piedras, P.R.: University of Puerto Rico Press, 1952).


La Escuela Electronica

Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY


Latinas in History


Continue to Part 2

[1]   Kal Wagenheim and Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, eds., The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History (Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1996), 100.

[2]  Clara E. Rodríguez, Puerto Ricans: Born in the U.S.A. (Boston, Massachusetts: Unwin Hyman,

1989), 1.

[3]   David Hernández, “Puerto Rican Geographic Mobility: The Making of a Deterritorialized Nationality,” in  The Latino Review of Books (University at Albany, SUNY, Vol. II, No. 3, 1996 – 97), 5.

[4]   For excellent histories of Puerto Rico detailing 16th through 19th centuries see Francisco A., Scarano, Puerto Rico: Cinco Siglos de Historia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993) and Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico and the Non Hispanic Caribbean: A Study in the Decline of Spanish Exclusivism (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: University of Puerto Rico Press, 1952).

[5]   Scarano, Cinco Siglos de Historia, 388 – 9.

[6]   Ruth Glasser, Aqui Me Quedo: Puerto Ricans in Connecticut (Connecticut Humanities Council, July 1992), 2.

[7]   Scarano, Cinco Siglos de Historia, 446.

[8]   C. A. Iglesias, Memoirs of Bernardo Vega (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), 90. Vega lists Augustín Fernández, Miguel Angel Muñoz and Gustavo Amil as students during this early period. Rafael Janer founded a college in Baltimore, Maryland, patterned after the Cuban leader, Tomás Estrada Palma’s in Central Valley. For a reference to Janer see also Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994), 244.

[9]   For more about Celso Barbosa see Loretta Phelps de Córdova, Five Centuries in Puerto Rico: Portraits and Eras (San Germán, Puerto Rico: Interamerican University Press, 1988), 66–68. See also Scarano, Cinco Siglos de Historia, 526–7; See Phelps de Córdova, 99–102 for more about Córdova Dávila.

[10]   The New York Times, Obituaries, January 24, 1997, B6.

[11] C. A. Iglesias, Memoirs of Bernardo Vega, 48.

[12]   Ibid., 19–26. Jesús Colón’s “A Voice Through the Window” in A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches (New York: International Publishers, 1982), describes the political and educational value of the practice, especially in raising the consciousness of workers who could barely read or write. See also Edna Acosta Belén and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, eds., The Way It Was and Other Writings (Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press, 1993).

[13]   C. A. Iglesias, Memoirs of Bernardo Vega, 22.

[14]   Edna Acosta Belén, “The Building of a Community: Puerto Rican Writers and Activists in New York City, 1890s–1960s,” in Ramón Gutiérrez and Genaro Padilla, eds., Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage (Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press, 1993), 179–195. See also Nicolás Kanellos, “A Socio–Historic Study of Hispanic Newspapers in the United States,” in Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, 107–128.