The Perplexing Hemisphere


Puertorriqueños and americanos in
Puerto Rico: Ethnic Conflict?

Lynn-Darrell Bender

The Spanish-American War of 1898 marked a transition for Puerto Rico from four hundred years of Spanish rule to life under U.S. sovereignty. In the ensuing century, this encounter has bonded two cultural traditions and historical experiences into what has become a fluid, dynamic and highly controversial relationship. Ethnic conflict? Perhaps so, but this takes on an entirely new dimension in the United States-Puerto Rico context. Puertorriqueños, no matter how Americanized they may have become, genuinely feel and consider themselves to be different from americanos; yet such sociological resistance to cultural absorption rarely manifests itself in overt anti-Americanism. This curious juxtaposition of values and circumstances is worthy of some analysis.

Whether the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship is viewed as good or bad, boon or bane, democratic or authoritarian, liberating or restraining, the only sure truth is that the American presence in Puerto Rico has been the dominant fact of the islands history for more than one hundred years. The history of the island and its people is intimately intertwined with the U.S. on every imaginable level. Although still lagging behind U.S. norms, Puerto Ricos social and economic indices far exceed those of neighboring islands and republics. It enjoys political stability and the trappings of modernity. The primary language is still Spanish (spoken and used more correctly today than in 1898, due to universal public education), but the thoughts, feelings and values underlying the spoken or written word reveal evidences of deep-seated American influences.

Indeed, Americanization permeates every aspect of Puerto Ricos physical and psychic environment: not only such things as life styles, employment, living/working conditions, and transportation, but also choices of entertainment, moral and ethical views, political and legal values, and aspirations for the future. From this standpoint, most Puerto Ricans would more likely feel more comfortable living in Iowa than in most localities in Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Still, Puerto Rico has not yet become truly American. Stores, malls, highways, schools, vehicles and businesses identical to those in the U.S. abound, even in the far corners of the islands rurality. Yet, nothing is quite the same. Everything becomes Puertoricanized. By far the vast majority of American companies on the island are now largely staffed and run by Puerto Ricans. And no less than 90-95 percent of those who read the local English-language newspaper and listen to the English-language radio station are Puerto Ricans whose first language is Spanish! Even the federal government workforce on the island is almost entirely made up of Puerto Ricansfrom postal workers to federal judges.

Puerto Rico is an open society that has drawn people of diverse nationalities and backgrounds. Overt xenophobia is rare. Some rancor is displayed toward the rather large Dominican and Cuban communities, but this almost never translates into open hostility. Even some of their own (people of Puerto Rican descent born and reared off island) are oftentimes treated with condescension. Racism exists in a subtle yet pungent form. Puerto Ricans are also used to all types of Americans, from transient tourists, soldiers, business people, and government employees to those who for diverse reasons decide to make the island their permanent home. The latter freely interact with Puerto Ricans at all levels as equals. Yet, seldom is an American fully accepted as a Puerto Rican -- even those who live on the island for decades, speak fluent Spanish, work in Puerto Rican employment situations or marry into an island family.

Puerto Rico is increasingly integrated into the larger scope of U.S. and even world dynamics. In areas such as the economy, the military and public administration, the distinction between americanos and puertorriqueños has become blurred over time. Notably absent, however, is any such fusion in the arena of local politics and arts, where the feeling of separateness finds its fullest expression.

Despite the common tie of U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans show little interest in the inner workings of American politics even though many of its outcomes bear directly on them and their society. Furthermore, the issues that fire public debate and political partisanship in the U.S. resonate weakly in Puerto Ricos political culture. Ideological battles of liberals versus conservatives, states rights versus federal authority, welfare versus workfare are pertinent only to the extent that they may affect Puerto Rican interests. Moreover, island politics is truly a local preserve, a place where few outsiders dwell: elective offices and appointments to key governmental positions go almost exclusively to Puerto Ricans.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the arts and cultural circles of the island. These are the bastions of puertorriqueñidad, the exaltation of a unique cultural heritage linguistically, racially, and historically separate from that of the U.S. These are the cultural elites and intellectuals who view Puerto Rico as a nation, in the sense of a distinct cultural-linguistic unit, that must be defended and preserved. This sentiment predominates in their artistic creativity. Puerto Rican literature, for instance, more often than not simply ignores the effects of the American presence on island society over the past century. This diversion from reality is quite prevalent even in the more popular culture, where Americans and U.S. institutions and policies are typically portrayed if mentioned at all in stereotypical characterizations. Eugene Mohr, a U.S.-born, former literature professor at the University of Puerto Rico and long-time island resident, provides this insightful observation:

Most americanos, even those who have spent the better part of their lives on the island, do not consider themselves Puerto Rican in an ethnocultural sense. And all but the most fervid Puerto Rican statehooders would rather vote for independence than turn into gringos. The ideal attained in U.S.-Puerto Rico relations on the island is not fusion, but mutual acceptance.

Even after more than a century, the political relationship between these two peoples with different cultures and values is far from settled and probably never will be so long as national identity retains its powerful symbolic appeal.

About the Author:

Lynn-Darrell Bender is Professor of Political Science at the Metropolitan Campus of Inter American University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. He has been responsible for The Perplexing Hemisphere articles since the Winter 1974-75 issue (Vol. IV, No. 4) of the Revista.


Volume 30 (2000), No. 1-4