Editor's Choice

Puerto Rico: A National History

Jasmine Gonzalez

April 04, 2024


Jorell Meléndez-Badillo provides an insightful overview of Puerto Rico's history, highlighting its people's resilience and exploring the possibilities of its future.

Puerto Rico: A National History by Jorell Meléndez-Badillo, Princeton University Press 

What defines Puerto Rico? Scholars, artists, politicians, and beyond have long tried to find a definitive answer to this question. One might point to the racial and cultural heritage of its people, a blend of the native Taíno people who first inhabited the archipelago, the Spaniards who jostled for its control, and the Africans forcibly brought to toil on its lands. Perhaps it is defined by the land itself, situated in the northeast Caribbean Sea, shaped by both warmth and winds, of which singer Gabriela Berlingeri proclaims, “Esta es mi playa, este es mi sol, esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo.” Or, perhaps, Puerto Rico is something far more intangible: a dream of independence sustained for generations and radiating through the diaspora, unbeholden to the labels—colony, commonwealth, state, or nation—that the world might try to put upon it. 

If we must take all of this, then, and try to distill it down into a single sentence that defines the history, present, and possible future of Puerto Rico, I find that scholar Jorell Meléndez-Badillo may just have written the perfect one: “This, however, did not go unchallenged.”

His new book, Puerto Rico: A National History, is a much-needed primer on the history of Puerto Rico, showcasing how its people have long cultivated a tradition of resilience and resistance. Meléndez-Badillo, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora himself, offers readers a critical understanding of how the island came to exist as it does today and how its future may yet unfold. 

Meléndez-Badillo begins by reaching back in time to highlight the societies that lived and thrived on the island of Borikén, long before the arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean. These indigenous communities operated through hierarchical, matrilineal societal structures known as cacicazgos (chiefdoms) and maintained close relationships with other islands in the region, seeing their surrounding waters as connective pathways rather than insulative borders. From this moment in time, we see the earliest blooms of Puerto Rico’s history of defiance: when the Spaniards arrived on the shores of Borikén in 1508, leaders like Agüeybaná I already knew of the violence they’d wrought on the neighboring island of Ayití and had to make calculated political moves and establish alliances with former rivals to ensure the survival of their people. In response to Spanish terror and exploitation, the Taíno people fought back by burning down settlements, assassinating conquistador leaders, and absconding into the mountains or to smaller islands to establish hidden enclaves that could survive beyond the grasp of colonial control. While Spain’s military force ultimately overwhelmed these insurrections, the foundation of Puerto Rico’s resilience had been firmly established and remains today. 

Centuries later, the decline of the Spanish empire led to the rise of conversations around anticolonialism and independence, though what exactly the end goal should be varied across social classes and political factions. Here, Meléndez-Badillo contends that “there was not a single Puerto Rico, but many [...] For those writing its books and histories, being Puerto Rican meant something completely different to those who could not even spell their names.” Some wanted full autonomy for Puerto Rico, while others believed becoming part of the United States was the right way to go, and these debates played out on the archipelago through various methods, from the sharing of ideas in books and newspapers to revolutionary insurrections.

The opportunity to establish a fully autonomous Puerto Rico, however, quickly dissolved. In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain and brought the fight to Puerto Rico, still a Spanish territory. In the wake of the U.S. Navy’s victory over the Spanish fleet, Puerto Rican elites welcomed the new occupiers and raised the U.S. flag in the capital city of San Juan, marking the passing of the archipelago from the control of one empire to another.  

“Washington reached a consensus that Puerto Ricans were not fit to rule themselves,” writes Meléndez-Badillo, and so placed Puerto Rico into a liminal political reality that still exists today: a possession of the United States beholden to their decisions, but not accepted as full members of the republic as the territory of Hawai’i would be. This in-betweenness was evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, where much-needed humanitarian relief and supplies were deployed at a fatally slow and inadequate pace, despite Puerto Ricans’ status as full citizens of the United States, entitled to the same aid available to the mainland. The disaster here, Meléndez-Badillo contends, was not the hurricane itself, but the crisis that followed from a colonial policy in which the United States simultaneously portrays Puerto Ricans as in need of saving yet refuses to take responsibility for their care or recognize their shared humanity. 

The Puerto Rican people continue to rise in the face of such challenges—Meléndez-Badillo recounts stories of ordinary people across the archipelago’s history coming together in solidarity to overthrow corrupt government leaders, rebuild their communities, and celebrate their culture and heritage. But he warns that this cycle of challenge and struggle must not be romanticized. Puerto Rican resilience has arisen out of necessity from a fight to survive, and as we have seen argued across other social movements such as Black Lives Matter, mere survival is not enough—everyone deserves a future where they can fully flourish. The reality as of this writing is that Puerto Rico isn’t there yet, but I can’t help but be filled with hope as I think again of the phrase: “This, however, did not go unchallenged.” 

This book began with an epigraph from the Puerto Rican essayist José Luis González, which in English reads, “The Puerto Rican reality is chaotic in many aspects, yes, but the conscious writer’s task is to cast light on the chaos, not to merely portray it.” Meléndez-Badillo succeeds in not just recounting historical events from a distance as other historians might but using the stories of real people—both from history and from the present, including his own—to spark something deeper in the reader. I found it impossible to read this book and not be overwhelmed with emotion at times, not just feeling like I learned something new but that I also wanted to do something more.

“People are working to create liberatory futures for Puerto Ricans,” Meléndez-Badillo writes, “no matter if they are in Santurce, Cayey, and Cabo Rojo, or New York City, Orlando, or Milwaukee.” With a book like this in the world, perhaps we may see that future come to fruition within this lifetime. 


About Jasmine Gonzalez

Jasmine Gonzalez has been a part of the Porchlight marketing and editorial team since 2022. The youngest daughter of a high school history teacher and a local business leader, one of her earliest memories involves toddling over to the living room bookshelf and reading aloud all of the titles on the book spines. She’s been voraciously reading and writing in English and Spanish ever since. Outside of work, you can find her cooking intricate recipes, playing video games on vintage consoles, and fulfilling her role as the very cool aunt that gives books and Rolling Stones vinyls as gifts. Yes, she would like to befriend your dog.

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