Puerto Rico, U.S.A.

By Published on .

Most Popular

This month, a celebration will be held on the beach in (1) Guanica, Puerto Rico (1996 population: 21,000) to commemorate the landing of American troops there on July 25, 1898. Spain ceded the island to the U.S. a century ago, but Puerto Rico is still caught between two worlds. It is a U.S. Commonwealth, but it has the culture of a West Indian island. It is a place where wealthy American tourists encounter vendors and beggars in a tropical port of call, and everyone in the scene is a U.S. citizen. Puerto Rico is also a notable market. U.S. businesses shipped $12.2 billion in goods to the island in 1996, and Puerto Ricans are the nation's second-largest Hispanic subgroup.

This map shows the change in population between 1990 and 1996 for Puerto Rico's 76 municipios, the equivalent of U.S. counties. It also shows the boundaries and 1996 population totals for the island's six metropolitan areas, which are home to 80 percent of its residents. Puerto Rico is densely populated: it is smaller in area than Connecticut (3,500 square miles, compared with 4,900), but it has more people (3,753,000, compared with 3,274,000). If Puerto Rico were to become the 51st state-a question that could soon be decided by island residents-it would be the 26th largest in population. Puerto Rico already uses the same currency as U.S. states do, follows many of the same laws, and has many of the same sources of marketing information.

Along Highway 2 in the municipio of (2) Bayamon (pop. 232,000), are many of the same names that pop up on any big-city suburban strip: Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Chase Manhattan, KFC, and Citicorp. In the tourist district of (3) Old San Juan (San Juan municipio, pop. 434,000), the names are Coach, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfinger. Puerto Rico was once known as "the poorhouse of the Caribbean," and it is still poor by mainland U.S. standards: in the 1990 census, 59 percent of residents had incomes below the poverty level. But Puerto Rico now has a healthy middle class, thanks in large part to a law that attracts U.S. businesses to the island by exempting them from federal taxes.

Middle-class homes and cars line suburban-style streets in the B ucana barrio of (4) Ponce (pop. 190,000), where tourist dollars flow freely at a Hilton casino. Another reason for the rapid rise in living standards is a rapid rise in education. The share of island residents aged 20 to 24 who are enrolled in college has risen from 18 percent in 1965 to nearly 60 percent today. The University of Puerto Rico's Ponce campus, founded in 1962, grants degrees in 23 fields. Still, higher wages in the states draw Puerto Ricans away. In 1991, median family income was about $10,000 on the island and $20,700 for Puerto Ricans on the mainland.

The mainland's influence on the island is easy to see in (5) Ceiba (pop. 17,700), where about 3,200 sailors are stationed at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Reservation. It is also easy to see on cable television in San Juan, which carries four stations from New York City. The eastern United States is to Puerto Rico what the southwestern United States is to Mexico: more than half (52 percent) of the 2,730,000 Puerto Ricans on the mainland live in New York or New Jersey, including about 500,000 in the Bronx. Another 9 percent live in Florida, 6 percent each in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and 5 percent each in Connecticut, Illinois, and California.

Some Puerto Ricans want to erase their remaining differences with the U.S. by becoming the 51st state. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow residents to decide the island's status in a binding vote. The bill has not passed the Senate, however, and it may succumb to the same ambivalence many Puerto Ricans feel toward the mainland. "Puerto Rico treasures and defends its own identity," said Miguel Hernandez-Agosto, a senior statesman among Puerto Rico politicians, in The New York Times. "But it also treasures and defends its U.S. citizenship."

In this article: