Puerto Rican history and culture tells a very unique story of the island’s growth, both as a country and a people. The largest illustrations of the unique heritage can be found throughout Puerto Rico’s literature, art and culture.
Puerto Rican literature, art and culture, have all been shaped, formed and influenced through years of cultural diversification. The end result being an island that has been built upon a vast array of cultural influences and values.
Puerto Rican Literature
Unlike many countries, Puerto Rican literature got a late start, due to the oppressive rule of the Spanish colonial government. They believed that if Puerto Ricans were allowed to have their own written language, then they would develop their own cultural and social identity, and seek to be independent from their rule. Therefore, the native islanders were prohibited from having any form of written works, and the only ones who were allowed to write were those who were documenting the islands chronological history by order of the Spanish crown. This is how the native islanders’ art of oral storytelling eventually evolved into the Puerto Rican literature that we know today.
When the first printing press arrived in the late 19th century and the Royal Academy of Belles Letters was founded, Puerto Rican literature began to flourish. While the first writers were journalists who expressed their political views against the Spanish colonial rule, after the Treaty of Paris in 1898, poets and writers continued to write patriotic themes in opposition to the new colonial rule of the United States.
During the late 60s and early 70s, Puerto Rican literature was greatly influenced by the Nuyorican Movement. This intellectual and cultural movement involving Puerto Rican writers, poets, artists and musicians living in or around New York City evolved as a result of the discrimination and ostracism faced by Puerto Ricans living in the United States and their goals of maintaining their cultural identity while living in a foreign land.
Since then, Puerto Rican literature has continued to flourish and transcend the boundaries of the island to the world. More and more Puerto Ricans are continually distinguishing themselves as poets, authors, playwrights, novelists, and more in the evolving fields of literature.
Puerto Rican Art
Puerto Rican art is a major reflection of the country’s diverse ethnic background. One of the most pronounced art forms of Puerto Rico is the folk art of creating santos (saints) from clay, wood and stone. This art form evolved from the use of sculptures by the Spanish church to convert the indigenous islanders to Christianity. Today, this centuries-old craft continues to be passed down to new generations.
The artisans who create santos are known as santeros. After they shape simple effigies from clay, wood or stone, it is usually finished by being painted in bright, vivid colors. The effigies vary in size, with the smallest being about 8 inches tall and the largest around 20 inches. Santos have traditionally been seen as messengers which travel between heaven and earth, which is why they tend to occupy a special place in most households and on alters.
Another popular form of Puerto Rican art is caretas or Vejigante’s. During carnivals, the masks worn are known as caretas. While both Spain and Africa used similar masks to signify evil spirits, they did so for different purposes. Tribal African masks were used as protection from evil spirits, while Spanish masks were used to scare lapsed Christians back into the arms of the church. Puerto Rican caretas remain true to their African and Taino origins and always have multiple fangs and horns. These Vejigante masks typically made from Ponce are of papier-mâché and the one’s of coconut shells are from Loiza. There is also the Vejigante mask made from fine metal screening, these are from the town of Hatillo. While they were originally colored black and red, their colors have expanded to include numerous patterns and bright hues.
Puerto Rican arts were most strongly influenced by the Spanish in painting. Native islanders began to emulate classic European styles during the colonial period. However, towards the end of the 20th century, Puerto Rican painting took on a new definition as the works were influenced by more personal issues and broader topics, such as: literature, film, world history, consumerism, and gender.
Puerto Rican Culture
Puerto Rican culture is reflection of the unique blend of historical influences and their history. Puerto Rican culture has experienced a vast amount of influences, from the indigenous Taíno to the European, African, Caribbean and North American inspirations.
Puerto Rican culture was first diversified by the mixture of the Taíno (native islanders) with Spanish and African cultures during the 16th century. The early 19th century brought even more diversification as hundreds of families arrived from Ireland, Germany, France and Corsica. Settlers also arrived from Scotland, Portugal, China and Lebanon, although to a lesser extent.
Much of this immigration was due to the Real Cedula de Gracias de 1815 (Royal Decree of Graces of 1815), which provided European Catholics with the right to settle on the island, as long as they agreed to continue supporting the Catholic Church and paying taxes.
Puerto Rico’s diverse culture is reflected in nearly every aspect of their lives, from the cuisine to their last names. Food, dance, music, the arts, industry and even familial social structure are a reflection of the vast array of influences which has blended together to create Puerto Rico’s culture.
Puerto Rican literature, art and culture reflects the rich and colorful history of the island, and has transcended the boundaries of the country to the world. The melting pot of Puerto Rican culture has had the strongest influence on literature and art within the country, as well as the value placed upon literary and artistic pursuits.