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Puerto Rico's Divided Passions
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By Andrew CockburnPhotographs by Amy Toensing

As citizens they love their country; they also love their island home. Fifty years after becoming residents of a de facto U.S. colony, Puerto Ricans are rethinking the commonwealth's future.

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The rum bottle in front of him almost empty, Jacobo Morales is approaching the end of a rambling stage monologue on what it means to be Puerto Rican. Earlier he had toasted "the great American nation, of which I'm proud to be a citizen." But with this most recent toast his mood has turned militantly nationalistic: "What I am is Ameri . . . Puerto Rican!" And then another turnabout. "Puerto Rican and Ameri. . . . What I am is a realist, because one thing is what I feel, another is what's convenient. What I feel is Puerto Rican first and Puerto Rican always—but what about the welfare checks?" Finally, polishing off the last of the bottle, Morales makes up his mind, shouting: "Viva Puerto Rico libre!—Long live free Puerto Rico!"

In reality, Jacobo Morales is not a boozy barroom philosopher, but Puerto Rico's leading film director as well as a member of Los Rayos Gamma, the Gamma Rays—a group of old friends who have turned themselves into a political satire group. "The last line always brings the house down," he says happily. "I am speaking as Juan del Pueblo [the local equivalent of Joe Sixpack] but even a middle-class audience in San Juan will cheer the idea of independence. Inside, all Puerto Ricans feel very nationalistic about their island, even if they don't vote that way."

"That's why we close the bars on election day," a government official in the capital of San Juan noted cynically as we discussed Morales's performance. "Otherwise the whole country would vote for independence." As it is, with sobriety enforced, Puerto Rico is, and has been since the birth of its constitution in 1952, a commonwealth, meaning, in effect, it is a semicolony of the United States.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, although island residents do not vote for President or pay federal income taxes; they have only nonvoting representation in Congress. The U.S. government takes care of defense and foreign affairs and foots the bill for welfare (for which almost 60 percent of Puerto Ricans qualify). Otherwise, Puerto Rico exercises self-government in local affairs.

Despite 50 years of the status quo, the electorate's passionate interest in debating the issue of the island's relationship to the United States has continued undiminished. Turnout on election days remains steady at around 85 percent (although much of the fervor may come from the fact that thousands of government jobs, which account for one-third of the island's total workforce, can be at stake when one party replaces another). Currently the party favoring the present commonwealth status has a growing margin over the party demanding Puerto Rico's admission as the 51st state. Nearly 5 percent champion full independence from the United States.

The debate invades conversations in the most unlikely places, as I discovered in talking with Luis, a heroin addict who assured me earnestly that the high price of his fix compared to what he would pay in New York was "another example of the unfair trade relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S."

* * * * * *

With this rush to modernity came a corresponding tendency to jettison symbols of the island's heritage. Fifty years ago Old San Juan nearly fell victim to local developers intent on obliterating its blue cobblestone streets and pastel row houses.

"They wanted to tear the city down and create what they promised would be a mini-New York," recalls Ricardo Alegría, founder of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which played a leading role in saving the old city. "There were similar plans for Ponce," another gem of colonial architecture. "That was going to be a mini-Chicago."

Puerto Ricans appear to be withstanding all attempts at molding them into a slice of the U.S. They have resisted attempts to turn them into English-speakers; in Hawaii, there are even families whose ancestors left Puerto Rico in the 1890s that are still obdurately speaking Spanish and eating rice and beans. Nowadays Puerto Rico is spearheading the Latin invasion of American popular music, thanks to the international success of stars like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, and the group Plena Libre.

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Sights & Sounds

Explore a land where politics is called the "national sport" and pride in being Puerto Rican runs deep.


Every so often Puerto Ricans debate their island's future: Should it remain a U.S. commonwealth, become the 51st state, or should islanders seek independence? How would you vote?


Dress up your e-greeting with an image of freshly washed party dresses.

Final Edit

Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of taffeta and lace on a Puerto Rico clothesline.


In or Out?
Should Puerto Rico become the 51st U.S. state?

Yes  No

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Rodents seasoned with sweet chili peppers, fresh shellfish, yams, fish fried in corn oil, fermented corn juice, and the hallucinogenic flowers of the campana tree—do these sound like what would be featured on a menu at your favorite Puerto Rican restaurant today?

These are just a few things the Taíno Indians, people native to Puerto Rico before Spanish colonialism, would prepare at an areyto, or celebration, which often took place after victorious battles against the Caribs, a competing tribe who also lived on the island. Many of these recipes continue to thrive—with modifications—in Puerto Rican cuisine today.

Such historic foodstuffs have blended remarkably well with later culinary traditions brought by Spanish colonists and enslaved Africans. The Spaniards expanded food choices by bringing cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep to the island. The Africans created dishes that blended contrasting, yet strikingly flavorful, tastes in dishes like piñon—ripe plantains layered in seasoned ground beef. Ironically, much of the food Puerto Rico is famous for—plantains, coffee, sugarcane, coconuts, oranges—was actually imported by foreigners to the island.

A common—and false—assumption many people make about Puerto Rican cuisine is that it is spicy. The food is well-seasoned with spices but not fiery-hot spicy; a variety of condiments are used to give savory flavor. At the core of many staple dishes is sofrito, a sauce made from tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic, green bell peppers, ajíes dulces (sweet chili peppers), oregano, cilantro, and a handful of other spices. The sauce is fried in oil, and achiote (anatto seeds) are added in for color. This base is then added to rice, bean, or stewed dishes. [See the sofrito recipe below.]

—Christy Ullrich

Sofrito Básico - Basic Sofrito

Note: This sofrito recipe is prepared as the first step in many Puerto Rican bean, rice, and stewed dishes. The amount of ingredients can be adjusted according to taste. Recipe is for a 6- to 8- serving-size dish. It can be doubled or tripled to suit the amount of food being prepared.

1 yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 green bell pepper
3 to 4 sweet chili peppers (ajíes dulces)
3 cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil or corn oil
1/4 teaspoon dried whole oregano

Remove skins from onion and garlic. Remove seeds from green and sweet chili peppers. Rinse in water. Then finely chop these ingredients, including the cilantro. Place a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat; add oil and oregano. Add the chopped ingredients. Continue cooking for about 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure an even blending of the flavors. Now you are ready to continue with the rest of the dish being prepared.

Did You Know?

Related Links
USDA Forest Service
Explore the Caribbean National Forest's famed El Yunque peak and read more about the lush rain forest.

El Boricua: A Cultural Site for Puerto Ricans
A monthly bilingual cultural publication for Puerto Ricans that focuses on Puerto Rican traditions.



Balletto, Barbara, ed. Insight Guide: Puerto Rico. APA Publications, 2001.

Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Arte Público Press, 1993.

Hauptly, Denis. Puerto Rico. Maxwell Macmillan International Publishing Group, 1991.

Kennedy, Robert F. Jr. "Why Are We in Vieques?" Outside (October, 2001), 78-84, 114-17.

Peffer, Randall. Lonely Planet: Puerto Rico. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 1999.

Marino, John. Puerto Rico: Off the Beaten Path. Globe Pequot Press, 2000.

Morris, Nancy. Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity. Praeger Publishers, 1995.

Murillo, Mario. Islands of Resistance: Puerto Rico, Vieques, and U.S. Policy. Seven Stories Press, 2001.

Trías Monge, José. Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World. Yale University Press, 1997.


NGS Resources

Gómez, Linda. "ZipUSA: Adjuntas, Puerto Rico," National Geographic (October 2001), 120-26.

Wise, Jayne. "Puerto Rico Alfresco," National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1992), 126-27.

Richards, Bill. "Uncertain State of Puerto Rico," National Geographic (April 1983), 516-43.

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