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Puerto Rican Identity: Differences between Island and Mainland Puerto Ricans

Karina Borja-Freitag, Senior, Professional Writing

As many immigrants arrive in the United States of America and begin to call it “home”, comparisons between such immigrants are certainly inevitable. In particular, the U.S. Hispanic population gives more room for such comparisons since their cultures and traditions are very similar. Most of their similarities stem from a common Spanish heritage. However, there is a lot more to being Hispanic than just speaking Spanish or eating rice and beans. What most people do not understand is that there are also many differences amongst Hispanics and that, most of all, there are many differences between people born and raised in Hispanic countries and people born and raised in the United States who share a common Hispanic heritage.
      For example, such differences are particularly seen between Puerto Ricans born in the island (island Puerto Ricans) and Puerto Ricans born and raised in the United States (mainland Puerto Ricans). Thinking of such differences might lead one to think of the ways in which island and mainland Puerto Ricans differ in the way that they identify their race and how their self-identification leads to vast differences in the way that they experience their lives. Nancy Morris indicates in Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity that differences between island and mainland Puerto Ricans should be considered under the umbrella of existing differences between the definitions of a nation and an ethnic group:

The importance of a perceived common descent to the self-definition of some groups as nations requires a differentiation between nation and ethnic group. [. . .] A common distinction made between the two is that the term ‘nation’ carries the connotation of a separate political identity and desire for self-determination, whereas ‘ethnic group’ refers to a group that sees itself as culturally distinct without demanding self-determination. [. . .] By these definitions, Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico are a nation; Puerto Ricans in New York may still be part of the Puerto Rican nation, depending on who is doing the defining, but in the U.S. mainland they constitute an ethnic group. (12)

The fact that island Puerto Ricans see themselves as a nation whereas mainland Puerto Ricans see themselves as a minority and an ethnic group in The United States, gives rise to the main differences that exist between the two. However, in order to delve into deeper comparisons between the ways in which island and mainland Puerto Ricans self-identify, it is imperative to understand the historical events that have shaped Puerto Ricans and their heritage.
      Puerto Rico’s association with the United States and its metamorphosis began when in 1898 U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. Up until that point, Puerto Rico had remained one of Spain’s last two colonies in the New World. Puerto Rico’s Spanish heritage is seen when “Puerto Rican essayist Antonio Pedreira, writing in the 1930’s, termed the first three centuries of Spanish rule a period of ‘faithful prolongation of the Spanish culture’” (qtd. in Morris 21). Spanish influence is also seen when “without rejecting his ‘Puerto Rican Spanishness,’ the Puerto Rican ‘considered himself a Spaniard from here with ideas and reactions different from those from there’” (qtd. in Morris 22). In other words, despite its strong Spanish heritage, Puerto Rico’s culture and traditions endured a period of self-discovery and transformation that led Puerto Ricans to feel not only Spanish, but also a little bit African and a little bit Indian (Taíno and Carib). Until 1898, Spanish, African, and Indian traditions made of Puerto Rico a culturally diverse island.
      After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico’s later status within U.S. politics was clearly spelled out when “in 1901 the U.S. Supreme Court defined Puerto Rico as ‘foreign to the United States in a domestic sense’ because it was neither a state of the union nor a sovereign republic” (qtd. in Duany 1). Later, “In 1917 Congress granted U.S. citizenship to all persons born in Puerto Rico but did not incorporate the Island as a territory. Until now, Puerto Rico has remained a colonial dependency, even though it attained a limited form of self-government as a commonwealth in 1952” (Duany 1). Prior to U.S. involvement, Puerto Ricans’ nationalism stemmed from the combination of Spanish, African, and indigenous roots, which resulted in a unique and diverse Puerto Rican culture. After U.S. involvement, Puerto Rico has had to deal with a series of issues that have created cultural divisions between island and mainland Puerto Ricans.
      Due to Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, island Puerto Ricans have felt a strong need to maintain their roots and unique culture, which is the result of many centuries of Spanish, African, and indigenous contact. Island Puerto Ricans have regarded their language as a unifying element in their quest to maintain their “Puerto Ricanness” intact. Throughout history, Puerto Rico has been a psychologically and physically repressed nation, first by Spain and now (indirectly) by the United States. As a result, island Puerto Ricans have jealously guarded their culture and have opposed any U.S. efforts to “Americanize” the island. Even though Puerto Ricans have been given the choice of becoming an independent nation, many have chosen to retain their ambivalent political status. Puerto Ricans’ preference to remain associated with the United States results mostly from their high regards for the U.S. citizenship and the freedom that it brings. Their interest in maintaining U.S. commonwealth status, however, does not imply an indirect effort to become “American” or to deny their unique culture. Instead, many Puerto Ricans view their citizenship as a passport towards a “back and forth movement between two countries [in which] territorially grounded definitions of national identity become less relevant, while transnational identities acquire practice among Puerto Ricans on the Island and in the mainland” (Duany 1). However, such “transnational identity” has created a tense relationship between island Puerto Ricans and mainland Puerto Ricans. Their differences arise from island Puerto Ricans’ desire to remain attached to the island’s Spanish, African, and indigenous roots, and mainland Puerto Ricans’ choice to “Americanize”.
      In fact, such division between island and mainland Puerto Ricans has been aggravated by differences in their life experiences resulting from different languages, music, food, behavior, and dress preferences. In particular, Duany explains that, “The work of anthropologist Eduardo Seda Bonilla (1980) is typical of a nationalist stance toward Puerto Rican migrants in the United States…. [He] concluded that second-generation immigrants had practically lost their cultural roots…. [He] was especially concerned with the erosion of the Spanish language among the so-called Nuyoricans…” (23). Bonilla’s view of Nuyoricans as an extension of U.S. oppression in Puerto Rico and the U.S.’s efforts to “Americanize” the island represents the dominant view of island Puerto Ricans’ towards mainland Puerto Ricans.
      Island Puerto Ricans’ rejection of mainland Puerto Ricans began when the influx of Puerto Ricans into the United States increased, especially in the New York City area, since after 1917 Puerto Ricans were legally considered U.S. citizens. As more and more Puerto Ricans continued to arrive in New York, subsequent generations began to call New York, not Puerto Rico, their home. Differences among island Puerto Ricans and mainland Puerto Ricans grew as mainland Puerto Ricans learned a new language (English) and displaced their main language (Spanish) to a second place. School education, religion, and constant intermingling with people from other cultures created a bigger space between mainland and island Puerto Ricans. Thus, such differences in their life experiences, gave rise to island Puerto Ricans’ self-identification as a nation and mainland Puerto Ricans’ self-identification as an ethnic group.
      As Jorge Duany states in The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States, the fact that island Puerto Ricans identify themselves as a nation rather than as an ethnic group stems from the notion that:

Nationalism faces three recurrent problems in the analysis of contemporary Puerto Rican society. First, it has historically set up an artificial binary opposition between American and Puerto Rican culture – one English-Speaking, the other Spanish-speaking; one Protestant, the other Catholic; one Anglo-Saxon in origin, the other Hispanic; one modern, the other traditional; and so on. (19).

Duany’s notion of a “binary opposition between American and Puerto Rican culture” gives a logical explanation between the main differences 01/03/2006cans. In particular, one of the main differences is that, since Puerto Rico’s relations with the U.S. resembled that of a colonizer and a colonized, “The diaspora [mainland Puerto Ricans] was therefore represented as an obstacle to the consolidation of a national consciousness and the growth of the independence movement on the Island” (Duany 24). Viewing mainland Puerto Ricans as an obstruction to Puerto Rican heritage is seen when in fact:

Many [mainland] Puerto Ricans – especially those born and raised in the United States – do not use the ‘national’ language, Spanish, as their primary means of communication. Nor do most participate actively and directly in the political and economic affairs of their nation of origin. It is even doubtful that most U.S.- based Puerto Ricans share with islanders a common sense of history or a ‘psychological makeup,’ [. . .] Several studies have found that Island-born Puerto Ricans perceive Nuyoricans as a different group, and Nuyoricans also tend to view themselves distinctly from both Island-born Puerto Ricans and Americans. (Duany 28)

In other words, Puerto Ricans born in the United States do not tend to speak Spanish as their main language, and even if they do, they usually speak a mix of Spanish and English, which is more commonly known as “Spanglish”. Such language dichotomy between mainland and island Puerto Ricans has set their life experiences apart, thus, prompting island Puerto Ricans to reject all others, including mainland Puerto Ricans, that do not fit the standards of the Puerto Rican born and raised in the island, and whose main language and culture is Spanish.
      Another way in which mainland Puerto Ricans (Nuyoricans) differ from island Puerto Ricans is in the way that they both associate with their African heritage. For example, since in the United States Puerto Ricans are an ethnic group and a minority, they find that associating with an also historically oppressed minority as African-Americans makes sense. Mainland Puerto Ricans tend to dress, speak, and act like African-Americans. Juan Flores indicates in, Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity, when describing Francisco Alarcón’s experience of Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhoods that, “Wherever he looked and listened, Francisco witnessed young Puerto Ricans and New York Blacks talking and walking in the same manner, singing and dancing with the same style and often seeming indistinguishable in appearance and action” (183). Thus, mainland Puerto Ricans’ resemblance to African-Americans is a symbol of solidarity between the two since they are both ethnic minorities living in the United States.
    At the core of the Puerto Rican and African-American cultures in the U.S. lies the feeling of constant opposition towards the mainstream culture. To illustrate this, Flores says, “The theory of ‘internal colonialism,’ no doubt the most consistent rejection of the reigning ethnic ideology, nevertheless retains the vision of each minority group forming its sense of identity in its relation to, and self-differentiation from, the dominant Anglo culture” (185). That is, both mainland Puerto Ricans’ and African-Americans’ similarities stem not only from their shared status as U.S. ethnic minorities, but also as ethnic minorities in constant opposition to mainstream culture (“the colonizers”).
      In addition to mainland Puerto Ricans’ and African-Americans’ status in the U.S. as ethnic minorities, there is also another factor that plays an important role in their similarities. As Flores indicates, “[. . .] the Nuyoricans’ relatively closer cultural proximity to U.S. Blacks is based on their Afro-Caribbean traditions borne by Nuyoricans in the new setting, even light-skinned Puerto Ricans and the many who might even look like Chicanos, [and this relationship] made for a more fluid, reciprocal relation with the culture of Black Americans” (183-184). The fact that mainland Puerto Ricans share the same African heritage allows mainland Puerto Ricans to place a heavier emphasis in their African roots by the way that they resemble African-Americans.
      However, island Puerto Ricans do not share the same ethnic minority status that mainland Puerto Ricans hold in the United States. Despite their relation to the U.S., island Puerto Ricans identify themselves as a nation. They are proud of their Hispanic heritage and they embrace it through their knowledge of the Spanish language, literature, history, and traditions. They also embrace their African heritage but they do not use it as an oppositional tool towards mainstream culture since, in the island, Puerto Ricans are the actual mainstream culture. Island Puerto Ricans embrace all of their cultural roots. This is illustrated when a member of the Puerto Rican Statehood party answered to Morris during an interview:

[Puerto Rico] is a mixture of many things…. In the first place is the influence of its roots, its native roots of the Indians … all that mixture of the indigenous culture with the European culture during colonization made the creole component of Puerto Rico which exists today…. And the African part … the mixture with the African race that was brought here from Africa to replace the Indians as they disappeared…. And also Anglo-Saxon blood has been added to his mixture, from the United States…. All of this mixture, each one had its culture…. They have been incorporated and have been making the Puerto Rican, who is neither European, nor Spanish, nor Taíno, nor black, nor Anglo-Saxon. He’s Puerto Rican. (qtd. in Morris 85)

In other words, island Puerto Ricans identify with not only their African roots, but also their Spanish (European) and Indian (Taíno) cultural roots. In fact, they even recognize their relation to U.S. influence when they describe their culture. Therefore, island Puerto Ricans identify with their African roots as a way of recognizing their mixed heritage. Their purpose is that of recognition of their own heritage rather than opposition towards mainstream culture. Island Puerto Ricans tend to embrace their African heritage in a cultural and historical way. They embrace it through music, food, and holidays. Island Puerto Ricans do not feel compelled to dress or act in a certain way in order to oppose the mainstream culture. In Puerto Rico, White, Black, and Mulatto Puerto Ricans dress and act in ways that portray simple personal preference. They do not, as a rule, use fashion or mannerisms as an oppositional tool.
      It is certain that both island and mainland Puerto Ricans differ in many ways. However, despite their differences, they both share the common goal of preserving their “Puerto Ricanness”. Mainland Puerto Ricans are shaping their heritage within the boundaries of all the cultural influences that affect their “Puerto Ricanness” within U.S. society. They are primarily doing it by embracing their African roots and by joining forces with other ethnic minorities in the U.S. On the other hand, island Puerto Ricans are shaping their heritage by embracing their Hispanic, African, and Indian roots. They continue to do so despite U.S. influence on the island and many other factors that represent a threat to Puerto Rican culture. Thus, island and mainland Puerto Ricans are shaping their identity by creating new venues in which they can preserve their heritage while carving their own place within American society.

Works Cited

Duany, Jorge. The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the
          United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Houston: Arte Público,
          1993.

Morris, Nancy. Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.