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Dichotomy in the “Island of Enchantment”

by Adriana Pons | 2 July 2010 One Comment

By Adriana Pons

From the clear blue waters of the idyllic beaches to the lush green tropical El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico is a small Caribbean island with many beautiful attractions. The island has been a U.S commonwealth since 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American war, when the Spaniards were forced to forfeit Puerto Rico. More than a century later, the influence of the U.S culture is pervasive throughout the island. While Puerto Rico certainly has plenty of large U.S-style shopping malls and huge SUVs, remnants of its Spanish colonial past are still in existence. Known as “la isla del encanto” (“the island of enchantment”), Puerto Rico is a place of many contrasts. Living on the island is similar to having one foot on the mainland U.S and the other in Latin America. This is especially true if you live in and around the capital city of San Juan.

a view of the Puerto Rican countryside

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Perhaps nothing is more telling of a culture and its people than linguistics. Since Puerto Rico is considered to be part of the U.S, visitors coming from the mainland do not need to show their passports, both English and Spanish are the official languages. However, the majority of the population does not speak English fluently. Nevertheless, whether in conversations or newspaper articles, English words are often used in combination with Spanish. For example, you might hear someone say: “Tengo un issue con mi vecino” (“I have an issue with my neighbor”). Indeed, this hybrid of the two languages, Spanglish, reflects the tremendous U.S influence on the island. Culturally speaking though, most Boricuas (as Puerto Ricans are called) would identify themselves more with Spain rather than the U.S. This is because many Boricuas can trace their family roots back to the Iberian peninsula, as the Spaniards colonized the island for over 350 years.

To experience and get a feel for Puerto Rico’s Spanish colonial past, the best place to explore is be Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its narrow cobblestone streets, quaint plazas, 16th Century- built churches, and the San Cristóbal and El Morro forts built by the Spaniards, I find the historic section of the capital to be a wonderful and charming place to visit. The vivid colors of the buildings are emblematic to the Caribbean, and it gives Old San Juan more spice and flavor. Throughout the island’s smaller towns and cities, one will also find plazas and churches constructed by the Spanish colonialists. Occasionally, musical and artisans’ craft fairs, as well as farmers’ markets are held in many of the island’s plazas. Sadly though, what used to be a gathering place for the local communities are now usually derelict, as most prefer to visit the shopping malls.

Tourists bathe in a Puerto Rican waterfall

This blend of American and Spaniard, as well as Caribbean, influences is what makes Puerto Rico so unique. Reggaeton, a type of urban music is a blend of hip-hop and latin music, is extremely popular on the island, and it reflects this great mixture of influences. On the other hand, one of the most obvious signs of American culture is the ubiquitous fast food chain. The island is filled with McDonald’s, Burger Kings Wendy’s and KFCs, amongst many others. As obesity has become an epidemic disease in the U.S, some estimate the problem to be even worse in Puerto Rico. The heavy reliance on automobiles as the primary mode of transportation, and Puerto Ricans’ love for their cars, is also something which seems to have been exported to the island from the mainland. There are an estimated 3.3 million cars in Puerto Rico, which has approximately 4 million inhabitants. In effect, almost everyone owns a car.

The majority of Puerto Ricans have embraced the American culture and its influence. However, when it comes to deciding on whether to join the U.S as the 51st state, the island has rejected this idea on three separate occasions. One of the primary reasons why most Puerto Ricans have voted to maintain the status-quo, to remain a U.S colony, is the strong desire to preserve the island’s culture and heritage. The other reason is because island residents do not pay federal taxes on income earned on the island. Although all Puerto Ricans hold U.S citizenship, most will not consider themselves to be American when asked of their nationality. Most will say they’re Puerto Rican, or Boricua. For the most part, the majority have grown complacent with regards to the island’s relationship with the U.S, mainly due to economic interests. Therein lies the paradox that is Puerto Rico. light filters into a Puerto Rican cave

All photos taken by Adriana Pons

Written by Adriana Pons

Adriana gave up the big city grind in New York City in exchange for the Caribbean life, where things are no less interesting nor intriguing. She blogs at Observations from the "Island of Enchantment." See all posts by

One Comment »

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