Puerto Rico



Repeatedly devastated by multiple hurricanes in recent years, Puerto Rico continues to struggle with storm vulnerability and a fragile infrastructure. As a US Territory, Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million citizens lack direct representation in Washington to advocate for funds to address these issues. Join Active Minds as we review the history of Puerto Rico, including how U.S. policies have impacted its economy and its people over the past century. We will end with a look forward as to what the future may hold for the island as it continues to rebuild.

Key Lecture Points

  • Part of the US, but not a state: Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated, organized territory of the U.S. with commonwealth status.” Residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens, but they do not have representation in Congress and cannot vote for president. In a June 2017 non-binding referendum about Puerto Rican statehood (in which only 27% of eligible voters participated), 97% voted in favor of Puerto Rican statehood. Ultimately, the US Congress, and not Puerto Ricans, has the power to decide the question of whether Puerto Rico becomes a state.
  • Persistent national identity: Even though Puerto Ricans are American citizens, many Puerto Ricans retain a strong sense of their own Puerto Rican identity. Retaining Spanish as the most commonly spoken language is an important part of Puerto Rican heritage.
  • Migration to and from the US: Movement between Puerto Rico and the US is very much a part of Puerto Rican culture. Since the 1940s, more than 2 million Puerto Ricans have moved abroad, mostly to the US. As US citizens (but only since 1917), Puerto Ricans have the right to vote in the states where they establish residency. Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states take pride in their culture. Puerto Rico Day (Desfile Puertorriqueño) is one of America’s largest cultural celebrations.
  • Economic crisis: Puerto Rico’s economy has been in crisis since 2006. Over the past decade and a half, public debt has spiraled from $18 to $72 billion.  Puerto Rico’s status as a US commonwealth complicates its economic recovery. To many Puerto Ricans, federal efforts to address the debt crisis looks like a step backward toward the US federal government controlling the island with little input from its residents.
  • Destruction of Hurricane Maria: Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, 2017, killing more than 3,000 and creating a swath of damage costing $91 billion. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans left the island in the aftermath of the hurricane. The US federal government drew heavy criticism for its response.  And five years after Maria, Puerto Rico was struck by the less deadly, but still devastating Hurricane Fiona in 2022, which again knocked out power for much of the island.
  • Political Upheaval: Puerto Rico experienced a significant political crisis in 2019. A scandal saw the Governor and most of the cabinet resign following mass demonstrations. “Telegramgate” marked the first time a siting Puerto Rican Governor resigned from office. The current governor, Pedro Pierluisi, was a member of the deposed Governor’s cabinet.

Discussion Questions

  • How has Puerto Rico’s relationship changed over time? How has it remained the same?
  • What are the major challenges Puerto Rico faces today?
  • Have you ever been to Puerto Rico? What were your impressions?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Duany, Jorge. Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2017. 189 pages. Duany’s FAQ-style book is one of the most current, comprehensive and accessible books published about Puerto Rico.
    Click here to order
  • Kinzer, Stephen. The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Henry Holt and Co., 2017. 320 pages. While the main focus of Kinzer’s book is the Philippine-American War, The True Flag makes a compelling case for the Spanish-American war as the origin point of debates between expansionism and anti-expansionism that have persisted in the United States for more than a century.
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  • Picó, Fernando. History of Puerto Rico: Panorama of Its People. Markus Wiener, 2014. 357 pages. Picó’s work is probably the definitive text on the history of Puerto Rico and has been widely praised for including information about marginalized peoples.
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  • Sotomayor, Antonio. The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico. University of Nebraska, 2016. 302 pages. Sotomayor tells the story of the Olympic movement in Puerto Rico and how it correlates with the island’s desire for political autonomy and sense of national identity.
    Click here to order