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Puerto Rico

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Map of Puerto Rico. (Photo: Jim McMahon/Scholastic, Inc.)
Map of Puerto Rico. (Photo: Jim McMahon/Scholastic, Inc.)

From Grolier Online   
The New Book of Knowledge

Puerto Rico has long been known as one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Its rugged mountains, colorful tropical plant life, and scenic coastlines have impressed visitors since the explorer Christopher Columbus first visited the island in 1493.

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth associated with the United States. It lies about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) southeast of Florida. The island was once chiefly a farming area. It is now crisscrossed by modern highways, with factories, shopping centers, and fine hotels. Although Puerto Rico means "rich port" in Spanish, the island has many poor people. But great social and economic progress has been made in the past century. Puerto Rico now has one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean and in Latin America.


Two-thirds of Puerto Rico is mountainous or dry. Most of the people are concentrated in the remaining third of the island. Almost half live in the greater San Juan metropolitan district on the northern coast.

The original inhabitants of Puerto Rico were Taínos, a branch of the Arawak Indian civilization. Perhaps as many as 40,000 Taínos lived on the island when Spanish explorers and settlers first arrived about 500 years ago. Most Taínos soon died of disease or from slave conditions imposed by the Spanish settlers. For centuries, there have been no pure-blooded Taínos on the island. But many Puerto Ricans have some Taíno ancestors.

From the 1500's through the 1700's, African slaves were brought to Puerto Rico. They worked on sugar and, later, coffee plantations. In the 1800's, many displaced French and Spanish people arrived. Revolutions in Haiti, in Latin America, and even in Europe caused them to immigrate to Puerto Rico. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States. Since then Americans have also become part of the island's melting pot. But regardless of national or racial backgrounds, the language and traditions of Puerto Ricans are mainly Spanish.


Spanish remains the traditional language of the island. But English is taught in the schools. Many Puerto Ricans speak it.


Puerto Rico's constitution guarantees religious freedom for all faiths. Roman Catholicism remains the dominant religion. It was brought by the Spanish colonists. During the 1900's, Protestant groups gained many converts. Today Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, and other houses of worship can also be found on the island.


Children are required to attend school between the ages of 6 and 16. Most students attend Spanish-language public schools. There are also many parochial and private schools. Some of these conduct classes in English.

The University of Puerto Rico is the commonwealth's oldest and largest university system. It was established in 1903. Today it has campuses in San Juan and throughout the island. There are also several private colleges and universities. The best known is InterAmerican University. Schools in Puerto Rico are held to the same official standards as schools in the United States.


Puerto Ricans enjoy a wide variety of sports and games. Baseball, basketball, boxing, horse racing, and cockfighting are popular. Baseball is particularly enjoyed. Puerto Ricans have helped to popularize the game throughout the Caribbean. Many Puerto Ricans have played in the major leagues. Among them is Roberto Clemente, the first Puerto Rican to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Food and Drink

Traditional food in Puerto Rico is a mix of Spanish, African, Taíno Indian, and creole influences. From the Taínos came local ingredients. Among them are fruits such as pineapple and soursop, tubers such as yucca and sweet potatoes, and corn. Spanish settlers brought pigs, chickens, and other livestock as well as rice, olive oil, and various spices. The ships that brought slaves to Puerto Rico also brought African foods. These include plantains (a starchy banana-like fruit), bananas, coconuts, and pigeon peas. Islanders also enjoy many other ethnic foods, including Mexican, Italian, and American.


Puerto Rico is the smallest island in a group of Caribbean islands called the Greater Antilles. It is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) long and 35 miles (56 kilometers) wide. The interior of the island is mountainous. Its tallest peak, Cerro de Punta, stands 4,389 feet (1,338 meters) above sea level. The central mountain range is bounded on the north and south by flat coastal plains. The plains have been irrigated to become Puerto Rico's best farmlands.Rivers and Coastal Waters.

Puerto Rico has more than 2,000 rivers and streams. The longest, Río de la Plata, is 46 miles (74 kilometers) in length. Along the coast, saltwater lagoons provide a rich shelter for young sea animals and coastal bird communities. The Atlantic Ocean rolls into Puerto Rico along the northern coast. Waters there are rough, especially during winter months. Calmer Caribbean waters are found along the remaining coastlines.


Puerto Rico lies in the tropics. The climate is warm all year. Average temperatures along the coast range between 79 and 84°F (26 and 29°C). The climate is cooler in the mountains.

The island lies in the belt of the northeast trade winds. These winds bring heavy rains to the mountains and northern coast. Especially in summer, sudden, brief showers are common. The southern coastal plain is dry. There, the high mountains block rain clouds.

Like other islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is subject to hurricanes during the late summer and early fall. These destructive storms can occasionally cause great damage to crops and buildings. In 1928 the San Felipe hurricane destroyed most of the island's coffee plantations and citrus groves. Another violent storm, Hurricane Georges, did serious damage in 1998.

Natural Resources

Puerto Rico's climate, beaches, lush vegetation, and farmlands are among its greatest natural assets. The chief minerals include limestone, marble, clay, and sand and gravel. There are copper deposits that have not been mined. The island also has small amounts of gold, silver, platinum, and iron ore.


Until the 1940's, Puerto Rico's economy was based largely on farming. Then the island government took an active role in modernization and industrialization. Public utilities were expanded to supply water, electricity, sanitation, and transportation. Under a program called Operation Bootstrap, the government of Puerto Rico encouraged investors from the United States and other countries to open factories on the island. This provided jobs.

But the island's economy has not been able to generate enough jobs for its people. Since the 1950's many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States. They have settled especially in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New England. There are now about 2.7 million Puerto Ricans in the United States. Half were born there. In recent years, however, some Puerto Ricans have returned to the island, seeking economic opportunities.


Since the 1950's tourism has increased in Puerto Rico. This has been one of the most important developments in the island's economy. The tropical climate, sandy beaches, and sparkling sea attract year-round visitors. Other attractions include historic monuments and the colorful local culture.


Manufacturing is the largest contributor to Puerto Rico's economy. It accounts for about 40 percent of all goods and services produced. Some of the most important products manufactured in Puerto Rico include pharmaceuticals, clothing, shoes, processed foods, electronic equipment, plastics, chemicals, and petrochemicals.

A number of Puerto Rican industries are based on the processing of agricultural products. Some sugar is made into rum, which is a very profitable export. Locally grown tobacco is used to make cigars. There is also a small tropical juice industry.


Until the 1940's, sugarcane was the main crop. It accounted for over half the value of all agricultural products. More than half the people were employed in harvesting sugarcane or in processing and shipping the crop. Sugarcane plantations were modernized mainly with money from the United States. The sugar industry thrived because Puerto Rico was included within the United States tariff (import tax) system. Tobacco and coffee were the second and third leading crops.

In recent years, animal food products have grown in importance. These products include meat, dairy products, and poultry. They have replaced sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee as the most important agricultural products. Sugarcane is still grown on the flat lands, which are irrigated in some areas. Coffee is grown in the central and western highlands. Pineapples are grown and canned on the island. Efforts have been made to produce more melons, citrus fruits, mangoes, avocados, vegetables, green peppers, and cherries. Bananas and plantains remain important crops.


Fossil fuels, such as oil, are burned to supply most of the power for industry and electricity for homes. Hydroelectric power sites have also been developed. New thermal plants based on natural hot springs have been built in an attempt to meet growing demands for electricity.


Puerto Rico's chief exports are pharmaceuticals, electronics, clothing, canned tuna, rum, coffee, beverage concentrates, and medical and high-technology equipment. Major imports include chemicals, foodstuffs, machinery and automobiles, clothing and footwear, and fuel and petroleum products.


More than 8,000 miles (12,880 kilometers) of roads crisscross Puerto Rico. Most Puerto Rican families own at least one car. Cars are the major form of transportation. There are also buses and vans known as públicos. These vehicles transport people around the cities and between towns. Puerto Rico's position as a gateway to the Caribbean also supports an active shipping industry.


Three major daily newspapers reach readers across the island. They include The San Juan Star, which is published in both English and Spanish. News and other information is also broadcast on dozens of local Spanish-language radio stations and several television stations. Many homes have cable television. It enables Puerto Ricans to tune in to broadcasts from the United States. In recent years, Puerto Rico has invested billions of dollars in high-tech communications, including telephone, fax, cellular phone, and computer systems.

Major Cities

In the large cities, new jobs in industry and business have created a way of life similar to that in the cities of the United States. Many smaller cities and towns throughout the island serve as resorts and marketplaces. People bring farm products and fish and in turn buy their food, clothes, and other goods.

San Juan is the capital and largest city of Puerto Rico. It was the site of some of the first Spanish fortresses built in the New World. Most of the old city still stands, including El Morro, a fortress. The tomb of the Spanish explorer and first colonial governor, Juan Ponce de León, is in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (the patron saint of the island). La Fortaleza has been the residence of the governors since colonial times. In the old part of the city, there are narrow cobblestone streets and fine old Spanish buildings. Modern stores and many new housing developments are found in the newer parts of the city. The modern airport near San Juan is the busiest terminal in the Caribbean.

Bayamón is the second largest city. It is located within the San Juan metropolitan area. San Juan and its suburbs serve as the cultural, political, and educational center of the island.

Ponce is Puerto Rico's third largest city. It was named after Juan Ponce de León. Ponce is one of the oldest European settlements in the Western Hemisphere. The city still preserves its old Spanish atmosphere. It is a busy industrial center and an important port. Its tourist attractions include one of the finest museums in the Caribbean. Other attractions include an Indian ceremonial center, a restored coffee plantation, and the mansion of a local rum-producing family.

Caguas is the island's leading inland city. It is about 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of San Juan. Once a rich farming region, Caguas today is a center of manufacturing. Sugar milling and refining are especially important.

Mayagüez, on the western coast, serves as the port for the coffee-producing region. It also has a number of fish-processing plants. These plants process and can much of the tuna fish consumed in the United States. The Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico contains the Institute of Tropical Agriculture's large collection of tropical plants. It also has Puerto Rico's only major zoo.

Cultural Heritage

Puerto Rico has diverse cultural influences--Taíno Indian, Spanish, African, Caribbean, European, and American. These influences have mingled to produce a dynamic cultural life, rich in folk music and rhythmic dances. Since 1898, the United States has greatly influenced the island's popular culture. Nevertheless, ties to Spanish traditions remain strong.

Puerto Ricans appreciate music. They enjoy the classical music of operas and orchestras, the folk music highlighted during holiday seasons, and the contemporary music of pop idols. The dance music known as salsa has long been the music of choice in Puerto Rican nightclubs. It combines Afro-Caribbean rhythms with big-band melodies.


Puerto Rico is administered by a governor. Since 1948, the governor has been elected directly by the Puerto Rican people to a 4-year term. The governor appoints all members of the cabinet and all judges of the island's supreme court. The legislature is composed of a senate and a house of representatives. Its members are also elected directly by the people for 4-year terms.

Early History

Early inhabitants of Puerto Rico descended from a branch of the Arawak culture from northern South America. Those who settled on the island, which they called Boriquén, developed a distinct culture known as Taíno.

Spanish Colonial Period

Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. In 1508 a Spanish settlement was established by Juan Ponce de León. The Spanish colonists were not kind to the Taíno natives. Many natives died of disease or were forced into slavery. For centuries, Puerto Rico was an important military post. It linked Spain with its colonies in Central and South America.

In the 1800's, most of Spain's colonies in the Americas became independent republics. The Spanish crushed a brief revolt for Puerto Rican independence in 1868. In 1897, Puerto Rico was granted autonomy, or local self-government. But it was still controlled by Spain.

U.S. Territory

In 1898, Puerto Rico became a part of the United States as a result of a war with Spain. For more information, see the article Spanish-American War. Since then, the United States Congress has granted Puerto Rico an increasing degree of self-government. Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship in 1917. In 1948 they elected their first governor, Luis Muñoz Marín (1898-1980), founder of the Popular Democratic Party. In 1952, under Muñoz Marín's leadership, Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth "freely associated" with the United States.

Political Status

Since 1967, the Puerto Rican people have voted in a series of referendums (popular votes) on the political future of the island. The Popular Democratic Party seeks to maintain commonwealth status. The New Progressive Party favors statehood. Two smaller parties seek complete independence. In 1998, Governor Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party authorized the most recent referendum on Puerto Rico's status. Many people voted against remaining a commonwealth. But neither statehood nor independence won a majority of the votes. Thus the future relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States remains uncertain.

John F. Lounsbury
Arizona State University
Reviewed by Gonzalo F. Córdova
Department of History, University of Puerto Rico

How to cite this article:
MLA (Modern Language Association) style:

Lounsbury, John F. "Puerto Rico." Reviewed by Gonzalo F. Córdova. The New Book of Knowledge®. 2007. Grolier Online. 5 Oct. 2007 <>.
Chicago Manual of Style:

Lounsbury, John F. "Puerto Rico." Reviewed by Gonzalo F. Córdova. The New Book of Knowledge®. Grolier Online (accessed October 5, 2007).
APA (American Psychological Association) style:

Lounsbury, J. F. (2007). Puerto Rico. (G. F. Córdova, Rev.). The New Book of Knowledge®. Retrieved October 5, 2007, from Grolier Online

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