LaGuardia Community College 2002-03 Common Reading
Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican

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As you read this history, please keep in mind that it is intended to provide a very brief historical context for the events leading up to Santiago's memoir of Puerto Rico in the 1950s and 1960s. In the same way that all cultures and countries have radically changed and modernized in the past 50 years, so too, has the island of Puerto Rico. The vibrant, modern-day accomplishments of Puerto Rico are not reflected in this historical summary.

The island of Puerto Rico, officially named the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (in English) or Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (in Spanish), located in the northeast of the Caribbean Sea, has a long and rich history complicated by serial colonization.

Puerto Rico's history dates back to several indigenous cultures: the Arcaico Indians (40 A.D.), the Igneri Indians (120 A.D.), and the Taíno Indians (1000 A.D.). The Taíno Indians called the island "Borinqua," a name used popularly today within the Puerto Rican community (Welcome to Puerto Rico).

Puerto Rico's first interaction with western culture dates back to the Taíno Indians in the 15th century. The Taíno Indians, like many indigenous groups who were colonized, enjoyed a rich culture stemming from a long and uninterrupted history. This period of relative isolation (with respect to interacting with western cultures) ended when Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1493. Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista for St. John the Baptist (Welcome to Puerto Rico).

In the 1500s, Puerto Rico's history was radically altered by three events: the presence of Spanish colonial rule, the arrival of the first African slaves, brought by the Spaniards to search for gold (1500), and a smallpox epidemic which killed 1/3 of the Indian population (1518) (Welcome to Puerto Rico). From the 1500s through the 1800s, Puerto Rico's history was dominated by the relationships between the Spaniards and the indigenous peoples. The population of the island, along with the economy, history, culture and language, changed as the indigenous peoples and the Spaniards mixed. This history was sometimes calm, but was more often punctuated by tension and fighting between the Spaniards and those seeking independent political rule (Welcome to Puerto Rico).

Spain maintained ownership of the island as a colony until 1898. Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain surrendered the island to the United States of America in the Treaty of Paris. The history of the island under the rule of the United States has shared some to the same history as the previous colonial period. Those seeking independent political rule on the island have clashed with the government of the United States, most recently and most visibly over the island of Vieques and its use by the United States military as a practice bombing site (Puerto Rico in 1898).

In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act granted American citizenship to the residents of Puerto Rico. Part of this act also recognized Puerto Rico officially as a territory of the United States (Jones Act). In 1947, the citizens of Puerto Rico were granted partial self-rule with the ability to elect their own governor. In 1951, the island wrote its own constitution. In 1952, the Puerto Rican flag was adopted.

Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican focuses on island life in the 1950s. In the immediate period leading up to the 1950s, Puerto Rico experienced a rapid change in the economic situation of the island. The island began to change from a primarily agricultural economy to one dominated by industry and commerce. Sugar plantations (owned by the wealthy and worked by the poor), cattle ranching, and subsistence-level agriculture gave way to a more urban style of living. In the 1930s, many people still lived in bohios, or small huts. During the 1940s, however, people on the island began to populate shanty towns, particularly in urban areas as the rural poor fled to the city seeking work (Puerto Rican Emigration).

When Santiago moves from the island to New York, the narrative shifts focus to New York City in the early 1960s. An underlying theme in the book, Santiago comments on the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico by the characters in the book and the way they view each culture.


Brás, Marisabel. "The Changing of the Guard: Puerto Rico in 1898." Library of Congress site. Accessed on 7 September 2002.

"The Jones Act." Library of Congress site. Accessed on 7 September 2002.

"Puerto Rican Emigration." Lehman College Site. Accessed on 7 September 2002.

Rivera, Magaly. "Welcome to Puerto Rico." Accessed on 7 September 2002.



Carrion, Arturo Morales. Puerto Rico, a Political and Cultural History. New York: Norton, 1983.

Cuesta, Jose Enamorado. Puerto Rico, Past and Present: The Island After Thirty Years of American Rule. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993.

Korrol, Virginia E. Sanchez. From Colonia to Community: The history of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Maldonado, Rita M. "Why Puerto Ricans Migrated to the United States in 1947-1973," Monthly Labor Review 99.9(1976): 7-18.

Rivera-Batiz, Francisco L. and Carlos Santiago. Puerto Ricans in the U.S.: A Changing Society. National Puerto Rican Coalition, Inc., 1994.

Safa, Helen Icken. The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico: A Study in Development and Inequality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974.

Tovar, Frederico Ribes. A Chronological History of Puerto Rico. New York: Plus Ultra Educational Publishers, 1973.

White, Trumbull. Puerto Rico and Its People. New York: Arno Press, 1975.


The official site for the CIA World Factbook, you can use this site to find statistics about the island, maps, and general information. Access the site at:

Spanish speakers will find the official site of the Government of Puerto Rico very informative. This site can be accessed at:

The website "Welcome to Puerto Rico," maintained by Magaly Rivera, offers a nice overview of the history of Puerto Rico and the geography. You can access this site at The site also features beautiful pictures of Puerto Rico and some sounds from the island.

**A Special Thanks to Max Rodriguez for consulting with us on the contents of this page.

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