The Curious Case of Puerto Rico: Neither a U.S. State nor an Independent Country

5 min read

| By Mark Mikula |

As we pay tribute to the many Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation this Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s reflect on commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which has, throughout its history, held a unique position in its relationship to the United States.

Puerto Rico was “discovered” in 1493 by explorer Christopher Columbus and claimed for Spain during one of his expeditions. At the time, it was inhabited by the Taino people, who spoke a variant of the Arawakan language, which developed among the indigenous populations of South America. Its first governor, appointed by Spain, named the island Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port.” For more than 400 years, it remained under Spanish control until it was ceded to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 as a condition of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict.

Two years later, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act in 1900, which established a structure for the civil government, legislature, and judiciary in Puerto Rico and put the island under the protection of the United States. One of the long-lasting provisions of the Foraker Act was to name a Puerto Rican “resident commissioner” who can address politicians and introduce legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Puerto Rican representative, however, does not have a voting privilege in the House, except in committees. This position still exists as of 2018.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship as a consequence of the Jones Act (also known as the Organic Act). One of the motivations behind passage of the act was to boost the number of eligible servicemen who could participate in World War I on the side of the United States and the Allies. Even though Puerto Rico could have been granted full independence (as ultimately happened with the Philippines) or declared a state (as ultimately happened with Hawaii and Alaska), Congress at the time determined that it would categorize Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, which offered only limited benefits and protections to Puerto Ricans.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, Puerto Rico pushed for greater autonomy. In 1947, the United States allowed the territory to elect its own governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, who led efforts to transform Puerto Rico’s economy away from a reliance on agriculture. In 1950, the United States granted Puerto Rico the right to establish a constitution, in which the territory was defined as a commonwealth with greater control over shaping its government.

Still, however, Puerto Rico has held a unique position in which its international relations are not independent from U.S policy-making and in which the U.S. federal government holds ultimate power with regard to its currency, highways, postal system, social security benefits, and mineral rights.

U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court, have attempted to more clearly define Puerto Rican autonomy in the latter half of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century. (The Puerto Rican judiciary is connected to the First Circuit Court in the federal court system.) Most legal decisions regarding matters of Puerto Rican autonomy have resulted in rights and privileges typically granted to the states.

However, Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico cannot vote for the U.S. president and they do not have direct representation in Congress. Such privileges would be extended were Puerto Rico to become a state. Puerto Ricans who reside in one of the fifty states do have the right to vote in federal and state elections.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, classified as a category 4 hurricane at the time of landfall, struck Puerto Rico, devastating the landscape, destroying power lines, and compromising the island’s infrastructure. According to a study released by the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University, 2,975 people died as a result of the storm. The death toll is a significant adjustment from the initial “official” report of 64 deaths and a revised count later issued by the Puerto Rican government of 1,400. Entertainers such as singer Jennifer Lopez and actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda have led fundraising efforts and have brought attention to the dire situation facing Puerto Rico in the wake of the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) faced challenges delivering supplies and restoring power to Puerto Rico.

Debates and initiatives regarding Puerto Rico’s status are ongoing. In referendums, residents have increasingly favored statehood for the island, but the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to carry that possibility forward, especially since Puerto Rico carries a massive amount of debt that would need to be managed appropriately if the island commonwealth were to be folded into the United States.

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th through October 15th.

For a general overview of Puerto Rico, see “Puerto Rico” from Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the States in GVRL.

For a speech on the outlook for Puerto Rico from the perspective of its first resident-appointed governor, see “The Future of Puerto Rico” from Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America in U.S. History In Context.

For information about the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island, see “Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico, September 20, 2017” from Historic U.S. Events in U.S. History In Context.


About the Author

Mark Mikula is a senior content developer for several of Gale’s history databases. In his travels, he has attended numerous film and theater festivals; the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut; and the oldest consecutively held Fourth of July celebration in Bristol, Rhode Island.


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