By Angela Padrón

Most everyone knows that the United States consists of 50 states. However, the U.S. also has territories around the world. One of those is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which means Rich Port in Spanish. Many refer to it as la isla del encanto, or “the island of enchantment.”

Puerto Rico is a small island about 100 miles long by 35 miles wide located east of the Dominican Republic between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Spanish and English are the official languages on the island. The country is part of an archipelago of islands, including Vieques, Culebra, and Mona. The most populated city is San Juan, the capital.

The original people living on Puerto Rico were the Taíno Indians. In 1493, Christopher Columbus invaded and claimed the island for Spain. Juan Ponce de Leon, a lieutenant under Columbus, later became the island’s governor. The Taíno Indians were forced into slavery and many died from starvation and disease. As the Taíno population died out, African slaves were brought in as labor to build cities and grow crops. In 1898, as part of the Treaty of Paris, the United States annexed the island. Those born in Puerto Rico are considered  natural-born citizens of the United States, though they are not able to vote in our presidential elections. Congress did allow U.S. citizens on the island to elect a governor, however.

People from Puerto Rico refer to themselves as borinquen, which comes from the Taíno word boriken meaning “land of the valiant lord.” Puerto Rico has a rich and unique culture. The history and culture established by Spain’s Old World colonization is very present in the architecture on the island, especially in towns like Old San Juan. Arts and crafts are very popular on the island, including handicrafts called santos, carved religious figures of saints made from clay, stone, or wood. Another common handicraft is mundillo, a type of lace fabric, the craft of which has been handed down for more than 500 years. During some festivals, people make gigantic caretas, or large paper mache masks, with scary faces of half-animal, half-human beasts decorated with horns, bulging eyes, and other menacing features.

Food in Puerto Rico is similar to other Hispanic countries, in that it includes staples like rice and beans, plantains, chicken, fish, meat and certain vegetables. However, it is the way the food is prepared that makes it different. Many Puerto Rican meals display influences of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American cultures by using seasonings and ingredients such as sofrito, a mix of onions, garlic, coriander, and peppers. Other spices include coriander, papaya, cacao, nispero, apio, plantains, and yampee. Many people in Puerto Rico refer to their food as cocina criolla.

Music is a large part of the Puerto Rican culture. The music has a rich blend of classical and traditional Spanish sounds mixed with African and Taíno instrumental influences. Some of the music includes instruments developed from the Taíno and African cultures, including the guiro, which is made from a notched-out gourd. Other instruments include the requinto, the cuatro, the trestambours, and maracas. Salsa music is widely popular in the country. There are many musicians of Puerto Rican descent, including Marc Anthony, Tito Puente, Hector Lavoe, Jose Feliciano, Ricky Martin, La India and Rita Moreno.

Puerto Rico may be a small island, but it is rich in history and culture. If you’ve never had a chance to visit the island, you’re definitely missing out on an enchanted vacation!

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