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Home > About > History
History of Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s history is a fascinating chronicle of the Old World and the New. Our story is written into the very walls of our colonial cities, told in the blend of indigenous and Spanish words that make up our language, and enjoyed by every visitor who walks along our 500-year-old, blue-tinged cobblestone street. On this island, history has been made time and again.
When Christopher Columbus reached Puerto Rico in 1493, the island was inhabited by an Arawak Indian tribe known as the Taíno. The Taíno were the most recent of numerous indigenous tribes to settle the island, which they Borikén. (Today, we often say boricua to describe a native Puerto Rican.) Evidence of life in Puerto Rico dates back to 2,000 B.C. and the Ortoroid tribe, who were followed by the Igneri in 120 A.D.
Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain and named it San Juan Bautista, but the Spanish would not settle the island until 1508, when Juan Ponce de León landed on its shores and established the town of Caparra in the north of the island. A year later, he moved east and founded a new city that boasted a deep harbor; he called it Puerto Rico, or “Rich Port.” This would soon become the name of the island, while the town would come to be known as San Juan.
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors nearly wiped out the native Taíno population; their remaining descendants gradually merged with the Spanish settlers and the African slaves that the conquistadors brought to the island.
The earliest Spanish buildings in San Juan included fortresses and churches. In 1512, Alonso Manso became the first bishop to reach the Americas. He established a diocese in Puerto Rico and, in 1521, began construction of the Catedral de San Juan, one of the oldest churches in the New World. In the 1530s, the Spanish began building two forts—the Santa Catalina Palace (today’s La Fortaleza), and Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, which helped establish Puerto Rico as a military outpost.
For almost three centuries, San Juan would face attack by French, Dutch and British forces as well as pirates. The city strengthened its defenses by encircling its borders with a thick wall and building an additional fortress in 1634 called Castillo de San Cristóbal, which would become the largest Spanish fortification in the New World.
Puerto Rico and the Jíbaros
In the 1700s, Puerto Rico’s fortunes began to change, thanks to an agricultural boom. Sugar, tobacco and coffee became lucrative exports that gave rise to a wealthy class of landowners and a labor class of country folk called the jíbaros. The jíbaro have come to be a cherished part of our social fabric, and their music, culture and hardworking spirit have helped define modern Puerto Rico.
In the 1800s, Puerto Ricans began to chafe under Spanish rule. On September 23, 1868, a physician named Ramón E. Betances led an uprising in the small town of Lares. The rebellion came to be known as the Grito de Lares, or “Cry of Lares,” and became a symbol of popular unrest on the island.
From Spain to the United States
In 1870, Puerto Rico saw the establishment of its first political parties: The Liberal Conservative Party was traditionalist, while the Liberal Reformist Party favored autonomy. Leading the Autonomy movement was Luis Muñoz Rivera, the “George Washington of Puerto Rico.” It was Rivera’s determined efforts that gave Puerto Rico its first taste of freedom in 1897. But the Spanish-American War in 1898 brought the island under U.S. control.
In the 1940s, Luis Muñoz Rivera’s son, Luis Muñoz Marín, continued the push for reform and autonomy that his father began. He became the first Puerto Rican governor to be elected by Puerto Ricans, and is known today as “The Father of Modern Puerto Rico.”
In 1952, Puerto Rico ratified its own constitution and officially became a commonwealth, or “free associated state” of the United States. It was a time of rapid modernization on the island. In 1947, Puerto Rico embarked on an industrial advancement program called “Operación Manos a la Obra,” or “Operation Bootstrap,” which introduced growth through external capital and tax exemptions. Coupled with US laws that allowed for exemption from federal taxes for businesses operating in Puerto Rico, Operation Bootstrap ushered in an unprecedented era of prosperity. The island’s agricultural backbone gave way to a new industrial economy, and it became a highly desirable destination for U.S. corporate interests. In particular, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals companies planted deep roots on the island, so much so that Puerto Rico became the source for nearly all drugs that carried the label “Made in America.”
This economic golden age brought an additional industry to the island: tourism. The influx of capital and businesses also introduced a relatively new concept: the Caribbean resort. In 1949, Hilton Hotels opened the Caribe Hilton, its first hotel outside the U.S.
The question of Puerto Rico’s political status was put to the vote in 1967, and again in 1993 and 1998. Today, the island remains a commonwealth, but the debate over statehood, independence or commonwealth continues.