Puerto Rico Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean with a unique history. In this lesson we'll look at how this history has impacted ethnicity and ethnic identity on the island.

Puerto Rico

Okay- pop quiz: If you are an American citizen who wants to travel to Puerto Rico, which sort of passport or travel visa do you need? The answer: none! In the very early 20th century, Puerto Rico was transferred to the United States from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War. To this day, Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, meaning it's part of the nation but not a formal state or territory. So, Puerto Ricans are legally Americans, although realistically Puerto Rican identity can get a bit more complex.

Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican, Latino, or Hispanic?

So, who are the Puerto Ricans? This question may be harder to answer than you'd think. The US Census officially recognizes 99% of Puerto Ricans as ethnically Latino. But what does this mean? The term Latino is an overarching label for people of the Spanish/Portuguese nations of Latin America. Due to Puerto Rico's historic place in the Spanish Empire and cultural/linguistic ties to other Spanish-speaking nations, Puerto Ricans are generally considered Latinos. But that term isn't very specific. Mexicans are Latinos. Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, even Brazilians are Latinos.

Many used to use the term Hispanic to more concretely describe people ancestrally related to the Spanish ethnicity. However, many people across the Western Hemisphere didn't like this term because it privileged the European side of their ancestry while ignoring indigenous ancestry. So, what do we call the people of Puerto Rico? Let's just ask them. Most Puerto Ricans simply call themselves Puertorriqueños, a term they feel accurately encompasses the island's complex history in various empires and as a home to diverse peoples of the world.

Puerto Rican describes a culture, a nationality, and of course, a food
Puerto Rican food

Ethnicities within Puerto Rico

So, 99% of Puerto Ricans fall within the Census' category of Latino, but within this we can actually break the population into more distinct ethnic units. Roughly 76% of Puerto Rican Latinos identify ethnically as being white, which means that the majority of their heritage is European. In Puerto Rico, a great number of these people claim Spanish ancestry, but British, French, and Portuguese ethnic strains play a role as well. Many Puerto Ricans may also identify with the white ethnicity simply due to their association with their American citizenship, and social values that don't really feel any need to distinguish between national and ethnic labels.

Asides from Puerto Ricans who identify as ethnically white, another roughly 12% identify as ethnically black. As with many parts of the Caribbean, people of African ancestry were first introduced as slaves. However, not all black Latinos of Puerto Rico are descendants of Puerto Ricans. Many come from continental American African American families who moved to the island across the 20th century.

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