To understand Puerto Rico Culture, it is necessary to understand the island’s history. First occupied by Taíno Indian people, Puerto Rico was later “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, an explorer from Spain. During the colonisation of Puerto Rico by the Spanish, Taíno people were forced into slavery, although some, known as jibaros, escaped to farm in remote mountain areas. The Spanish/Catholic influence can be seen extensively through Puerto Rico Culture, as can remnants of the Taíno way of life. Other important influences on the culture of the island nation include that of African tribes, who were brought by the Spanish as slaves, and more recently, that of North America.
The official language of Puerto Rico is Spanish, with English being taught in schools as a compulsory second language. Originating from the Iberican form of Spanish, Puerto Rican Spanish includes words from African and Taíno dialects.
Taíno Puerto Rico Culture
The history and culture of the Taíno people was almost destroyed during the Spanish colonisation of Puerto Rico in the 16th Century. However, the traditions and beliefs of these people have survived through the remaining generations, and attempts are being made to preserve their heritage.
The Taíno people were farmers and hunters, whose beliefs related to natural spirits which controlled the earth, plants and weather. On ceremonial occasions, dances called Areytos would have been performed. The Taíno tribes people built a plaza called a Betey in the centre of each village, which was used as a dance ground. After creating costumes of coloured body paint, feathers and jewellery, dancers would form a line and link hands or arms. Led by the master of ceremonies, the Tekina, the people would sing in a call and response style, with lyrics which passed on history and folklore tales. The dancing and music would be accompanied by music from the flute, conch shell horns and the Mayohuacan – a skinless drum made from a hollowed out tree of around one metre in length and half a metre in width and capable of making a sound heard miles away.
Puerto Rico Culture – Dance
After the arrival of the Spanish colonists in Puerto Rico, various dance styles developed on the island. Most Puerto Rican dances were choreographed to match music, and were given the same name.
Bailes de las Montaňas are believed to originate from the jibaros, or peasants, who worked in the coffee plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. These dances traditionally took place in the afternoons and were followed by a religious ceremony. The last dance of the night would always be the Seis Chorreao, the fastest dance of this style, which is much associated with the Parrandas which take place at Christmas time. The Puerto Rican Cuatro, a type of guitar, and the guiro are both important instruments. Another notable Baile de las Montaňas is the Seis de los Pallitos, which is specific to the jibaros of the Villalba region and always includes the banging together of sticks (pallitos) in time to music.
During the 19th Century, Bailes de Salon became popular with upper class people in Puerto Rico. Landowners and government officials adopted the formal style of dance, which arrived on the island from Spain and Latin America such as the merengue, cha cha cha and decima. Costumes were lavish, with ball-gowns for women, and a Bastonero controlled the dance floor and decided how many couples would dance and in which positions.
One of the most popular Bailes de Salon is the Danza, which was influenced by the Cuban style Habaneras. Puerto Rican musicians took the Habeneras style, giving a unique twist which include Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Puerto Rica’s national anthem La Boriquena is one example of this form.
The Bomba is a Puerto Rican style which can be traced back to the 16th Century. West African people who had been brought to the island as slaves performed this dance during celebrations such as weddings. They also used the dance to plan rebellions against the slave masters who they were forced to work for. It was because of this that the Bomba could only be danced on Sundays and festivals. The dance itself is a no contact style, which follows a strong drum beat and served as an connection with the African’s cultural heritage, while allowing them to release their anger physically.
The Plena was a dance style which appeared after the end of slavery, when freed slaves were able to travel to the cities in search of employment. First developed in the neighbourhood of Ponce, the Plena became known as el periodico cantado, the sung newspaper. The fast music was danced by couples, while lyrics explained the goings on and struggles in the daily life of Puerto Rican people.
Puerto Rico’s first professional dance school was founded in 1951 by the dancers Ana Garcia and Gilda Navarra. Ballet de San Juan worked in multiple genres including classic and contemporary forms, and encouraged local artists and set designers to get involved. Navarra later continued her studies in the United States, training in pantomime, before returning to Puerto Rico and joining the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico.
Other dance companies include Andanzas, who have performed contemporary dance across the flobe and Navarra’s Tallere de Historiones performance group. Currently there is no degree level education option for dancers in Puerto Rico, although a dance certification course is available.
Puerto Rico Culture – Film
With the arrival of the North American influence during the Spain/US War in 1989, came the technology of film making. The first films of Puerto Rico were documentaries created by American soldiers, and it was not until 1912 until the first local director emerged. Rafael Colorado D’Assoy’s first attempt at cinema was Un Drama en Puerto Rico. D’Assoy joined with the pharmacist Antonio Capella Martinez in 196 to form the Film Industrial Society, whose first film was Por La Hembra y El Gallo. Some of the other companies which sprung up at this time included Puerto Rico Photoplays and the Tropical Film Company.
Notable films from Puerto Rica’s cinematic history also include the first film with sound “Romance Tropical” by Juan Viguie Cajas, and Los Peloteros, the story of a baseball coach trying to build a successful team with limited equipment. Los Peloteros is particularly well known for its appealing storyline, and cast of local children.
Puerto Rican film-makers have been entering their movies into the Academy Awards Foreign Film category since 1985, when the first entry was Marcos Zurinaga’s la Gran Fiesta. It was not until 1990 that a Puerto Rican film received a nomination. This was Lo Que Pasa a Santiago (Santiago, The Story of his New Life) by Jacobo Morales, but unfortunately did not win. As of 2011, Puerto Rico have now been excluded from entering the Foreign Filom category.
Puerto Rico Culture – Literature
As with much of the indigenous culture of Puerto Rico, early attempts by locals to express themselves were censored and banned by the Spanish colonists. Only the upper classes could afford to be educated and to access libraries, and in fact, natives were not allowed to read, facing fines or imprisonment if they did so. Instead the locals used songs such as Coplas and Decimas to pass on stories and news.
Eventually the Spanish Crown commissioned certain writers to describe the colony of Puerto Rico. The first author to fully describe Puerto Rico was Father Diego de Torres Vargas, a priest whose father had been Sergeant Major in the Spanish army. His book detailed the fruits found on the island and gave information on mines, buildings and the land itself. The Puerto Rico born Francisco Averra de Santa Maria wrote on religious themes, while Juan Ponce de Leon II, who briefly governed the island noted in detail the lifestyle and beliefs of the Taíno people.
Puerto Rico Culture changed forever with the arrival of the first printing press from Mexico in 1806. The first newspaper published was the Gaceta de Puerto Rico. In 1839, one of the main newspapers was the Boletin Mercantil which featured writings in the romantic style, and later realism and naturalism.
During the 19th Century, writers begin to use their art as a way of speaking out against the social injustices faced by the people of Puerto Rico during Spanish Colonisation. Those who made their opinions against the Spanish Crown known were often deported. One such case was that of Francisco Gonzalo Marin, a poet, who also created the original design for the Puerto Rican flag. Novels such as Manuel Alonso’s El Gibaro were an essential part of the Puerto Rican psyche.
When the United States took control of Puerto Rico, many people felt divided loyalties and feared the loss of their heritage and customs. Rene Marques play The Oxcart discussed the differing opinions over the changes on the island. Later as the Puerto Rican people began to look further afield for employment, many families immigrated to the USA mainland. One significant group which formed as a result of the experience of Puerto Rican’s living abroad was the Nuyorican movement, which included poets, writers and artists. This movement was founded by Jesus Colon, whose strong socialist beliefs were developed from reading Marx and Zola as a child.
Many contemporary Puerto Rican authors live in the USA, while frequently referencing Puerto Rico. Rosario Ferre in one such writer, poet and essayist, who was born in Ponce in 1938. From a wealthy family, Ferre’s father was Luis A. Ferre, the founder of the New Progressive Party. Another modern and successful Puerto Rican writer is Esmerelda Santiago, whose book America’s Dream, tells the story of a Puerto Rican girl working in a hotel in Costa Rica, and has been published in six languages.
Puerto Rico Culture -Theatre
There are several theatres throughout Puerto Rico and attending musical performances, dances and events is a popular pastime.
Teatro Tapia is the oldest permanent theatre in Puerto Rico and was designed by the engineer Jose Navarra y Herrero. Built in 1824, the theatre features a horseshoe shaped design in the Italian Classical architectural style, with an interior decorated by the Spanish romantic artist Jenaro Perez Villamil. Originally called the Municipal Theatre or Coliseum, the costs of the theatre were paid for by added taxes on bread and some alcohols. During the 1940s, the building fell into disrepair but was renovated and is used today, seating up to 700 spectators.
The Luis A Ferre Performing Arts Centre is a good contrast to the Teatro Tapia. Opened in 1981 and designed in a modern style, the three halls of the Centre can seat up to 3,000 people. In addition to hosting world- renown stars such as Placido Domingo, the Centre is also used for exhibitions and
Puerto Rico Culture – Art
The art of making Santos is one which plays an important part in Puerto Rico Culture. Santos are carved figures which depicting saints or religious scenes. Particularly popular themes include The Virgin, the Three Kings and the archangels Rafael and Michael.
The history of Santos folk-art dates back to the period when Spanish Catholics were attempting to convert the Puerto Rican locals. People believe that the Santos are embodied by the spirit of the Saint they depict and are able to act as messengers to God or ask for boons on the askers behalf. If a prayer or wish came true, flowers or medals called milagros would be used to decorate the figurine as a way of giving thanks. Santos were at one point a feature of almost every home, used to decorate household altars. These days it is somewhat less common for people to have altars in their homes, although Santos figures are a vital part of the Fiestas Patronales of each town and prayer rituals.
A wide array of Santos folk art can been seen at the Santos Museum in San Juan. Three distinct groups can be noted – Colonial, which are full of intricate detail with relaxed features, Native, which feature colourful decoration and island character, while Naïve style Santos are almost childlike in style without any facial expression to display emotion. The so called golden age of Santos was between 1850 – 1940, mostly in the western part of Puerto Rico, although the skills began to die out as people looked for work elsewhere. However artisans such as Carmelo Avilas, who has been carving for over 60 years, ensure the tradition lives on.
Mask-making is another typically Puerto Rican folk-art, with its own distinctive style. Puerto Rican masks have notable Spanish-Catholic and African tribal influences and always feature horns and fangs. Generally masks are made from paper-mache or coconut shells, decorated in vivid colours. Some of the best masks can be seen at the Santiago Apostle festival, which is similar to the Spanish Moors and Christians. Some historical experts feel that this festival caught on because the symbol of Santiago riding a horse was similar to the Yoruba God of War & Thunder. During the festival participants dress up as Cabellero (Knights) who defend the people from Veijantes – monstrous creatures who play tricks on people and wave an inflated bladder. Other popular mask themes include animals, the legendary Chupacabra and Momo the Carnival King.
In terms of Puerto Rico’s fine art, early artists were greatly influenced by the European Art scene. Jose Campeche is recognised as one of the greatest Puerto Rican artists. Having learnt his skills from the Spanish exile Luis Paret, Campeche went onto produce a fascinating array of work, including portraits of officials and places of interest, along with religious sculptures and became known as the Father of Puerto Rican national painting. Campeche greatly influenced the work of Franciso Oller y Cestero, who travelled to Europe and learnt skills from the masters of realism and impressionsm including Monet and Renoir. One of his most famous pieces is El Velorio, which shows Puerto Rican people at a wake. After the Spain/US war, many artists, like writers used their work to defend the national identity and the typical way of life became a popular theme.
Puerto Rico Culture – Sports
The Taíno played a group ballgame for ceremonial purposes. Two opposing teams would do battle in the plaza, sending a rubber ball flying from one side to another with the intention of direction it over the other teams line to score points. Players could use any part of their body, with the exception of their hands, to keep the ball moving, and wore padding to protect themselves from injury. Other games enjoyed by the Taíno people include races, archery and wrestling.
The American influence can been seen in baseball and basketball, which have both produced major league Puerto Rican players.
Cockfighting has played a major role in Puerto Rico culture throughout history, and is the tenth biggest industry on the island in terms of revenue. Although this bloodsport is banned in most countries, it remains popular amongst Puerto Ricans, at all levels of society.
Puerto Rico’s first cockfights took place in the 16th Century, having arrived with the Spanish. In 1770 the Governor Miguel de Muesas declared the activity as a men’s sport and despite attempts to prohibit it, the sport remains at the forefront of Puerto Rican culture. Club Gallistico is one of the biggest venues in Puerto Rico, and welcomes tourists and visitors from other nations.
Cockfights take place between two specially trained roosters, which have been bred for speed and strength. Male chickens are naturally aggressive towards each other which makes a cockfight into a true spectacle, with blood and feathers flying as they duel to death. Cockspurs called espuela are attached to the rooster’s legs before a fight and serve as a weapon. The audience bet on which cock will win the battle, with a judge making the final decision. Surprisingly, bets are made and honoured without any paperwork, as they have been for centuries, and this seems to work during the estimated 175,000 fights which take place each year.