Puerto Rico is an island rich with history and culture. Although Puerto Rico is now a United States territory, it thrives on its historical traditions. Puerto Rican culture is much like its people—passionate and vibrant, with a history filled with celebration.
History of Puerto Rico
Upon returning from his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, Christopher Columbus landed at Puerto Rico and claimed it for Spain. He named the island San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), but the name was changed not long after to Puerto Rico, which means rich port, and San Juan became the capital city.
Because of the many interactions between the native Taino people and Spanish settlers, Puerto Rican culture is a blend of Taino, Spanish, and African cultures. Aspects of all three can be seen in modern-day Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican Music and Dances
Puerto Rico’s musical roots go all the way back to the Taino people. Their music has a predominant Caribbean sound that was played on handcrafted instruments such as the mayohuacán, a wooden slit drum. The güiro is another traditional Puerto Rican instrument used by the Taino people. It is a percussive instrument made from a hollowed gourd.
Other music traditions were brought to Puerto Rico with the introduction of Spanish and African cultures. These new inhabitants brought varying instruments, including several kinds of guitars with varying levels of strings. One that stands out most is the Puerto Rican cuatro, which has 10 strings!
Percussion instruments go hand-in-hand with stringed instruments in Puerto Rican music. Tambours, which are made from hollowed tree trunks often covered with animal skin, can be heard on the streets frequently.
One of the most recognized musical genres associated with Puerto Rico is the salsa, often called “the rhythm of the islands.” The rhythms from salsa music are often complex and draw people onto the dance floor.
Salsa dancing often accompanies salsa music and is often describes as “flavorful and spicy.” It actually originated in the Puerto Rican and Cuban communities of New York City, but it has become quite popular on the island as well.
Puerto Rican Dances
Like other aspects of Puerto Rican culture, dance traditions come from the Taino people along with Spanish and West African roots. Puerto Ricans love to tell stories through their dances, which often include beautiful and vibrant costumes—women wear long, flowing skirts, and men wear large hats as well as sashes to match the women’s skirts.
The bomba is one of Puerto Rico’s most storied dances and is loved by many. It was started at the end of the 17th century. Those who worked in the sugar cane fields were slaves. They created the dance and used it to express their frustration about the hardships of their condition.
While the plena is often thought of as a traditional Christmas dance, it is a dance and a sound that is heard year-round. Like the bomba, the plena is an expression of hardships of the coastal regions of Puerto Rico and is done in 2/4 time.
Holidays in Puerto Rican Culture
The Puerto Rican people like to celebrate! They have over 19 official holidays on their calendar—compared to 10 government-recognized holidays in the mainland United States, 8 in the United Kingdom, and 7 in the European Union. The island has the longest holiday season in the world, and they love it.
La Navidad, the Christmas season, starts right after Thanksgiving Day and extends into the middle of January. It ends with a big celebration called “Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian,” also referred to as “la SanSe.” People spend the time singing “parrandas,” or Christmas carols; Puerto Ricans often take part in traditional Christmas caroling, gathering around people’s homes and singing as a surprise.
Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is more celebrated by most than Christmas Day. A midnight mass often concludes the Christmas Eve celebrations, where the Nativity is often reenacted.
Three Kings Day, which occurs on January 6, is another unique part of the celebrations. It memorializes the visit from the Wise Men (the Magi) who visited Jesus after He was born. The night before the holiday, children set out shoeboxes or hats under their beds for gifts from the Magi. The town of Juana has held a huge celebration on that day for over 135 years. Over 25,000 people gather for the celebration.
Festivals and celebrations are held throughout the years in different provinces and communities. These festivals are often accompanied by parades with colorful puppets and floats, food, dancing, and song.
Puerto Rican Baseball
Baseball is by far the most popular sport in Puerto Rico. It was first introduced in the country by Americans and Cubans, with the first leagues starting in 1897. It wasn’t popular at first, but it caught on just after the Spanish–American War in 1900, when the Almendares Baseball Club beat the American Baseball Club of the Second Regiment of Infantry 32 to 18. After that, baseball’s popularity in Puerto Rico spread quickly from town to town. It even began to be taught in schools.
Because of Puerto Rico’s warm climate, baseball is a year-round sport. There have been many notable professional baseball players from Puerto Rico, including Roberto Clemente and Carlos Beltran.
Religion in Puerto Rico
Religion has always been important to the Puerto Rican people. The Taino people were deeply spiritual and worshiped multiple gods who they believed lived in nature. When Ponce de Leon arrived in 1508, a little more than a decade after Christopher Columbus, he brought with him the Roman Catholic faith. Today, Catholicism is the predominant religion in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans hold Christianity near and dear to their hearts. It is believed that 75 to 85 percent of the population is either Catholic or has strong Catholic ties. Each city has a patron saint who is celebrated with festivals and religious processionals.
Your Puerto Rican Heritage
The Puerto Rican people have a passionate culture with much to celebrate and cherish. Do you have ties to Puerto Rico? FamilySearch’s free record collections can help you find your Puerto Rican ancestors. Log in or create a free account, and get started today!
Source: Family Search