Puerto Rican Culture: National Identity, Gender Roles, and Religion

National Identity

Today more Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland than in Puerto Rico. The island’s population was already shrinking due to a double-digit unemployment rate prior to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. After the storms, the population dropped to a 40-year low of 2.9 million, down from 3.6 million in 2014.

In 2005 Puerto Ricans were proclaimed the happiest people on earth, according to a highly reported study by the Stockholm-based organization World Values Survey. There does seem to be a collective, fun-loving spirit and zest for life at the heart of Puerto Rican culture, despite the challenges residents endure. Puerto Ricans tend to celebrate big and often. There are more than 500 festivals a year on the island, and everything is a family affair involving multiple generations of relatives. Music and food are at the center of most gatherings.

But don’t mistake the joie de vivre for frivolity. There are many great thinkers and artists from Puerto Rico. Many locals tend to be very passionate about their opinions and happy to debate politics or sports for hours. They are also exceedingly proud of their island and their heritage. The Puerto Rican flag is ubiquitous on the island.

The Puerto Rico flag flies over the capitol in San Juan.
Photo © Jiawangkun/Dreamstime.

The island’s culture has been significantly shaped by its history. It was originally inhabited by a society of peaceful, agriculturally based indigenous people who migrated to the island from South America. But beginning in 1508, the island became a Spanish colony, and for the next four centuries, European influence reigned. Towns were developed around central plazas and churches, according to Spanish custom. The church spread Catholicism, and Spanish became the official language.

Because the majority of colonists were men, the Spanish Crown officially supported marriage between Spanish men and Taíno women, leading to a population of mixed-race offspring. The Spanish also brought enslaved laborers to the island from Africa to work the island’s many coffee and sugar plantations. They also produced offspring with the Taíno and Spanish colonists, resulting in a further blending of races.

View of La Rogativa from the harbor in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. ©Terimiller1, Dreamstime.

Because of this historic mixing of races, Puerto Ricans often claim there is no racial disparity on the island, but recently there have been reports of racial profiling of those of African descent among law enforcement. When the United States took control of Puerto Rico in 1898, the island underwent another enormous cultural transformation. Suddenly U.S. customs and practices were imposed. English became a common second language, and has at times been proclaimed the official language. The U.S. dollar became the legal tender. American corporations set up shop, bringing with them an influx of mainland Americans, whose ways of dress, cuisine, and art were integrated into the existing culture. Much of this influence is from those in the military. Some people credit that influence on the relative stability and orderliness of public life on the island. Visitors will not be accosted by hordes of people hawking souvenirs in Puerto Rico, like in some islands. The island’s governmental and judicial systems are organized similarly to the United States, and many U.S. social services are offered on the island.

Inroads of contemporary American culture have been made into much of island life, but Puerto Ricans are fiercely proud of their Spanish heritage. Since becoming a U.S. territory a little more than 100 years ago, Puerto Rico has undergone a seismic shift in its national identity that has divided the island politically. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and they enjoy many—but not all—the privileges that entails. The issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status has been an ongoing debate for more than 50 years, and it is as much a part of the island’s national identity as its Spanish language and customs.

Gender Roles in Puerto Rico

When it comes to gender roles, Puerto Ricans are fairly traditional. However, as in the rest of the industrial world, women have made inroads into leadership positions in the formerly male worlds of business, politics and sports.

Those who identify as LGBTQ enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual individuals. Transgender persons are permitted to change the gender on their birth certificates, and third gender is legally recognized.

Religion in Puerto Rico

Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rico’s indigenous population was composed of highly spiritual individuals who worshipped multiple gods believed to reside in nature. It was a common belief that these gods controlled everything from the success or failure of crops to one’s choice of a spouse.

All that began to change when Ponce de León arrived in 1508, bringing with him several Roman Catholic priests who ministered to the new colony and set about converting the Taíno Indians to the faith, beginning with baptisms. In 1511, Pope Julius II created a diocese in Caparra, the island’s first settlement.

Celebration of the Holy Mass at Catholic parish “Virgen de la Monserrate” (Virgin of Monserrate), located at Moca, Puerto Rico. ©Héctor Hernández, Dreamstime

Today, depending on the source, Puerto Rico’s population is between 75 and 85 percent Roman Catholic. Although weekly church attendance is far below that figure, the Catholic Church has great influence on Puerto Rican life. Each town has a Catholic church at its center and celebrates its patron saint with an annual festival. Although many patron-saint festivals have become much more secular over time, they typically include a religious procession and special Mass to mark the day. Images of saints are common items in traditional households, and you can’t enter a church without seeing clusters of women lighting candles, praying, or kissing the hem of the dress worn by a statue of Mary.

Some Puerto Ricans practice a hybrid form of religion called espiritismo, which combines elements of the Catholic religion and Indian beliefs in nature-dwelling spirits that can be called on to effect change in one’s life. Similarly, some Puerto Ricans of African descent practice Santería, introduced to the island by Yoruba slaves from West Africa. It also observes multiple gods and combines elements of Catholicism. Practitioners of both religions patronize the island’s botanicas, stores that sell roots, herbs, candles, soaps, and amulets that are employed to sway the spirits to help individuals achieve success, whether it be in business, love, or starting a family.

Once the United States arrived in Puerto Rico in 1898, Protestantism began to grow on the island, and all major sects are represented. Pentecostal fundamentalism has developed in recent decades, and there is a small Jewish community on the island as well.

Suzanne Van Atten

About the Author

Suzanne Van Atten has written about destinations throughout the United States, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean, and Europe. She has barhopped in Barcelona, slept in a Jesuit monastery on the Amalfi coast, crewed a hot air balloon in New Mexico, gone white-water rafting in Tennessee, and gotten lost too many times to count.

Amidst all these travels, she always returns to Puerto Rico, a place she fell in love with when she lived there as a teenager. The country’s rich culture, postcard-perfect beaches, lush tropical jungle, cobblestone streets, pastel colors, lively music, and the joie de vivre of its people colluded to seduce her. No matter how many times she returns, she always discovers something new and delightful.

Suzanne is a creative writing instructor, an editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist who’s been published in the Gettysburg Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Full Grown People.

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