27. The Tainos, Boriquen and Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean that has a rich and complex history. The indigenous people of Puerto Rico were the Taíno, who lived on the island they called ‘Boriquen’ for thousands of years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Columbus claimed the island for Spain, and the Spanish began to colonize Puerto Rico in the early 16th century.

The Taíno people were skilled farmers, fishermen, and hunters, and they had a rich culture and sophisticated society. Their name for the island meant ‘Land of the Valiant and Noble Lord.’ They were organized into small chiefdoms, with each chiefdom having its own leader. They built circular or rectangular houses made of wood and thatch, and they used dugout canoes to navigate the island’s waterways. They also had a complex religious system, with a supreme deity known as Yucahú and a pantheon of other gods and goddesses.

One of the most notable aspects of Taíno culture was their agriculture. They practiced a form of agriculture called conuco, in which they cleared small plots of land in the forest and grew a variety of crops, including cassava, yams, corn, and beans. They also harvested fruits such as pineapple, guava, and papaya.

Unfortunately, the Taíno people were devastated by the arrival of European explorers, who brought with them diseases to which the Taíno had no immunity.  Many Taíno were enslaved or killed, and their population declined rapidly. Today, they endure as a minority on the island and elsewhere. Their legacy is preserved in the language, art, and culture of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, and efforts are underway to promote their heritage and history. In the 2010 US Census over 35,000 Puerto Ricans identified themselves as “American Indian”

During the colonial period, Puerto Rico was an important stopover point for Spanish ships traveling between Europe and the Americas. The island became an agricultural center, and sugar cane and coffee were the primary crops. With the decline of the Taino, the Spanish also brought African slaves and other Native peoples to the island to work on the plantations. Through intermarriages, the Puerto Ricans we know today came into being. In 1898, the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War and gained control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, and the people of Puerto Rico were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.

Over the years, Puerto Rico has experienced significant political and economic changes, including struggles for independence and calls for statehood. Today, Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory. Still, its semi-colonial status as a Commonwealth only gives it a degree of autonomy and self-governance, and many Puerto Ricans still strive for independence.

The Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii
and Cuba on the Menu

The independence struggle has a long history, dating back to the late 19th century when Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain and afterward when it became ‘the spoils of war’ after Spain’s defeat. The independence movement has deployed various strategies, including armed rebellion, political agitation, and diplomatic efforts. One of the most famous figures in the struggle for independence is Pedro Albizu Campos, who founded the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in 1922 and was a leading advocate for freedom until he died in 1965.

Over the years, the movement has faced significant opposition from the U.S. government, which has sought to maintain control over the island. In 1948, the University of Puerto Rico’s pro-independence student body invited Albizu Campos to the Río Piedras campus as a guest speaker. The chancellor of the university, Jaime Benítez, did not permit Albizu access to the campus. As a consequence, the students protested and went on strike. One of the young student leaders was Juan Mari Bras, who chanted anti-American slogans and marched with a Puerto Rican flag. He was expelled from the university, arrested, jailed, and let go three times in response to his revolutionary activities.

In the 1950s, for example, the U.S. government passed a law known as the “Ley de la Mordaza” (Gag Law), which made it illegal to advocate for independence or display the Puerto Rican flag. The law was eventually repealed in 1957, but it had a chilling effect on the independence movement.

Juan Mari Bras

On January 11, 1959, Mari Brás founded the Pro-Independence Movement, which grouped Puerto Rican independence followers who supported the Socialist philosophy. Along with César Andreu Iglesias he founded the political newspaper Claridad, which he directed for three decades. On November 28, 1971, at the Pro-Independence Movement’s eighth general assembly, the Pro-Independence Movement officially became the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP). A political organization with Marxist-Leninist and nationalist leanings influenced by the Cuban Revolution. In 1973, he spoke before the United Nations about Puerto Rico being a colony of the United States and demanded the island’s decolonization.

Today, Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory, but ongoing debates exist about its political status. Some Puerto Ricans advocate for independence, while others support statehood or continuing the current territorial status.

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