For centuries, the question: “What is a Puerto Rican?” has been asked decade after decade. The answer will depend on who is asked due to colonialism but, no matter the decade or the bloodline asked: Arawak/Taino, Spaniard, or African, a Puerto Rican will proudly cheer so that the masses know: “Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu sepas” (I am Puerto Rican, so that you know). Because of Puerto Rico’s history under various rulers, and due to the lack of proper education provided in the country, now U.S. territory, many remain confused about the makings of a Puerto Rican. Learn more below.
About the Island of Puerto Rico
The island of Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory in the Caribbean; east of Florida, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. It sits between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands and includes the islands of Culebra and Vieques. Puerto Rico has over 300 miles of coastlines, 111 miles of them from east to west, and is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (San Juan on the Atlantic side, Ponce on the Caribbean Sea side).
Puerto Rico is an island with oceans, rivers, mountains, rainforests, waterfalls, and the sounds of el coqui (soy de aqui, como el coqui) the island symbol and icon.
From Boriken to Puerto Rico
Boriken, sometimes spelled Borinquen (Arawak language) means: Land of the Great Lords and is the name that the original people of the land gave the island we now know as Puerto Rico. Boricua is a term used in association with the island’s original name and why some Puerto Ricans refer to themselves as Boricua’s.
The Land of the Great Lords was invaded by Christopher Columbus and his goons, which initiated Spanish governance by Spain in the late 1400s. Columbus renamed the island: Island San Juan Bautista. But when Spain realized the land was rich with gold mines all over, so rich that gold was found in rivers, they renamed the island: Puerto Rico. In translation, Puerto Rico means ‘rich port’.
The Arawak/ Taino Puerto Rican
Many call this Puerto Rican the original. Tainos are a subgroup of the Arawak, who were the indigenous people of northeastern South America and the Caribbean which includes Florida. Before colonizers invaded the Caribbean, the Arawak/Taino/ Carib were the principal inhabitants of most of Florida, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Greater and Lesser Antilles islands.
Over time, all groups were lumped together and called ‘Taino’: Various research and editorials state that:
“Early Spanish explorers and administrators used the terms Arawak and Caribs to distinguish the peoples of the Caribbean, with Carib reserved for indigenous groups that they considered hostile and Arawak for groups that they considered friendly. In the 20th century, scholars such as Irving Rouse resumed using “Taíno” for the Caribbean group to emphasize their distinct culture and language.”
The Arawak/ Taino people were generous and loving people that invited Columbus and his group of colonizers to live and share, even fed them. Some historians say that this is what started the extinction of the Arawak/Taino people because Columbus used that invite to turn the tables and force a takeover.
The Arawaks/Tainos were murdered and made sick with diseases and infections brought over by the colonizers. The Smithsonian Magazine says:
“The Taíno impressed Columbus with their generosity, which may have contributed to their undoing. They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery; he noted upon meeting them in the Bahamas in 1492. They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces….They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.’”
They say that Arawak/Tainos are gone, but this isn’t true. It’s true, what once was three million people reduced significantly, however; their descendants are all over the world (you’re reading the words of one of them right now).
The Spanish/Spaniard Puerto Rican
The conception of Spanish/Spaniard Puerto Rican, started in 1493 when Columbus arrived. This initiated the death of the Arawak/Taino people, forced Catholicism (the original people of the island had their own religion that didn’t use the image of the colonizer or the readings of the Bible), and the change from the name Boriken to Island San Juan Bautista. Boriken was officially a colony of Spain.
When the island was under Spanish rule, an influx of immigration from Spain and many other countries under Spanish rule began to take place, increasing the population on the island significantly. Many of the original colonizers began to either rape or marry Taino women, which started the bloodline of the Spaniard/Spanish Puerto Rican.
This began the term “mixed” when referring to a Puerto Rican. Puerto Rico wasn’t a Spanish island, not a Spanish-speaking island, and not a catholic island prior to Columbus in 1493.
The African Puerto Rican
Commonly referred to as the Afro-Rican, and/or Black Puerto Rican, traces back to the first free man to arrive on the island: Pedro Mejias. Pedro is said to be the first free black man to set foot on the island; he was a conquistador that joined forces with Juan Ponce de Leon and fought under the Spaniards to take over the island. He married a Taino woman chief: Yuisa, sometimes documented as Yuiza (the town of Loiza is named after her), and this is said to be the start of the African bloodline in Puerto Rico.
Under Spanish rule, enslaved Africans, primarily from West Africa, were taken over to Puerto Rico, where the production of cattle, tobacco, sugar cane, and coffee started. The 1834 Royal Census of Puerto Rico showed:
- The island’s population was 42,000 enslaved Africans.
- 25,000 colored freemen.
- 189,000 people who identified themselves as whites
- 101,000 who were described as being of mixed ethnicity.
Puerto Ricans Become Americans
In 1898, 16,000 U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico and won the Spanish-English war. The American flag was raised and this initiated U.S. control of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a United States territory; The Council on Foreign Relations describes the relationship as:
“Puerto Rico is a political paradox: part of the United States but distinct from it, enjoying citizenship but lacking full political representation, and infused with its own brand of nationalism despite not being a sovereign state.”
Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States of America, who don’t get to vote for the United States president. Registered voters in Puerto Rico are able to vote for their governor, which is something like the President of the island but must follow most of United States federal law. The island remains an unincorporated territory and a commonwealth: a state that is free of superior authority in the management of its own local affairs (check out the hyperlink above for details and explanations), but residents have to file a U.S. tax return for worldwide income sources.
The Language of Puerto Rico
English and Spanish are the two main languages on the island; but prior to the U.S. invasion of the island, English wasn’t known on the island. It wasn’t until 1902 that English became one of the main languages alongside Spanish.
Puerto Ricans speak Puerto Rican Spanish, which can also be referred to as Caribbean Spanish, which is also known as Spanglish. Besanya Santiago wrote a piece for JP Linguistics and wrote:
“Yeeeaaa, I know. Latinos usually agree that Spanish from Puerto Rico is one of the most challenging dialects to understand. Some time ago, I met a woman from Argentina who said to me: ‘When Puerto Ricans speak Spanish, they sound like they’re rapping a Reggaeton song during the entire conversation’.”
The language of the island and much of the Caribbean is a mashup of the original Arawakan language, mixed with Spanish, mixed with African (remember, enslaved Africans had their own language), and mixed with English. The Library of Congress says:
“Despite concerted efforts to eradicate the native Taíno language during 400 years of Spanish rule, the Taíno language is still tangible in Puerto Rican Spanish; and it blends with other cultural systems of communications.”
It’s easy to see the language differences between Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, etc. when thought is given to invasions, takeovers, and enslaved Africans with their native languages being placed all along the Caribbean. Spanish and English are not the native language of these islands, they are languages forced upon the original people of these islands.
Puerto Rico Legalizes Cannabis
A little insight into cannabis on the island; Puerto Rico allows guests traveling from other parts of the United States, to use their medical cannabis cards to shop in cannabis dispensaries on the island. The condition(s) have to be on the list of conditions approved by the state/territory. Safe Access Now says:
“Puerto Rico extends reciprocity to medical cannabis patients with unexpired medical cannabis recommendations and medical cannabis ID cards from U.S. states for up to 30 days as long as those states maintain a database that allows verification of patient status and makes such information available to Puerto Rican authorities and dispensaries. Puerto Rico does not impose a residency requirement for qualifying patients, meaning that non-resident patients may obtain a Puerto Rican medical cannabis card by visiting an authorized healthcare provider, completing the application process, and paying $25.”
Medical cannabis patients can purchase edibles, oils, and topicals. Being approved to purchase cannabis flower requires an additional process and fee.
Stay tuned, I’ll be exploring more of Puerto Rico’s history: culture, soil, medicinal plants/herbs (specifically cannabis and psychedelics), tourism, and more. I am fully immersed thanks to my stay in Puerto Rico sponsor: Sky High PEO, a full-service employment organization.
I’d like to thank my article sponsor: HerBloCo., a black woman-owned cannabis dispensary licensed in multiple states, offering on–site experiences of HerBlocCo. products and fashion. HerBloCo. is dedicated to its consumers having unique experiences that form long-lasting relationships and brand loyalty. Their core values include inclusivity, education, and opportunity with a key focus on supporting those who never thought they had a chance of entering the cannabis industry. Learn more about them here.
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Veronica Castillo is known as the Traveling Cannabis Writer. Her body of work includes educational and informative insights on cannabis and various plant medicines, and she travels the country to provide insight on cannabis friendly travel. She is a collaborator, connector, content creator, and traveler that specialized in bringing to light the hidden gems in the plant space. Follow her journey: #travelingcannabiswriter.