13 minute read

Puerto Rico

History & Background

Puerto Rico is the smallest of the three islands, including also Santo Domingo and Cuba, that make up the Caribbean chain known as the Greater Antilles. The first governor, Ponce de León, set a pattern of common interests for Spain and Puerto Rico, but later this commonality of interests ceased to be, and the Spanish captains-general who held all authority on the island came to represent a Spain that became increasingly foreign to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico. The island consequently was transformed into a colony much as the American colonies would have been had there not been an American Revolution. After the euphoria felt by Puerto Ricans at their "liberation" by the United States in 1898 and with appointment of an American civil governor at the end of the military régime, it became clear that Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking tropical island possessed of four centuries of recorded history, and in virtually all respects culturally different from its new masters, was being ruled by Washington in a manner not so very different from that practiced by the former Spanish authority. If anything, the change in régime reinforced Puerto Rico's colonial status. The American governors were instructed to charge Puerto Ricans with the task of convincing Congress that they deserved to run their own affairs. They succeeded at this, at least for a while, and it was the main source of their very concentrated power. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican politicians and statesmen not only had to satisfy their constituents at home—or at least keep them tranquil—they also had to gain the approval of their American governors. With the advent of the Commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado) in 1952, it was no longer a matter of "political maturity," but also one of money. Puerto Rico was too poor to survive as a "real" country; it needed American help, and so, while the Commonwealth galvanized all its energies into industrialization schemes, banking, and more recently in high tech projects to prove the country's moneymaking capacities, the colony went on, and the extremely powerful governor was its most effective agent.

It has been said that when the colonial metropolis sneezes the colony catches pneumonia. Such was certainly the case with both Cuba and Puerto Rico. For these two islands, the illnesses visited upon them by the turmoil in nineteenth century Spain resulted in general paralysis. Nowhere was this paralysis more endemic than in the area of education. Plans for much-needed educational reform agreed to by a few liberal Spanish governors were regularly undone by their traditionalist or reactionary successors. The captains-general governors throughout the century retained all real power. What was required of the island population and its élite was collaboration. While some Puerto Ricans took another course of action, such as living in exile, the island leaders, like Muñoz Rivera and other autonomistas, who remained felt constrained to negotiate within the colonial parameters set by Spain. Formed in the Spanish mold, these same men negotiated in a similar way with the American conqueror—first with the American military commander and then with his civilian successor, the governor dispatched from Washington. The basic and essential colonial structure was maintained and solidified with the help of the President, the Congress, and the U.S.

To attempt briefly to analyze Spanish educational policy in Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century would be an exercise in futility. Let us refer to the Report written by the Secretary of the Insular Board of Education, Enrique C. Hernández in 1899 and presented on 2 January 1900 to his superior, the American President of the Insular Board of Education, Dr. Victor S. Clark. Until 1850, Hernández states:


Public education was practically left to private initiative. . .[and] primary education was confided to those whose education and training left much to desire, and. . .this was supplemented only by an exceedingly scanty secondary instruction given by the teachers employed by the Economic Society and the few private schools and academies that then existed.

The Jesuits came and went; more or less durable, private, essentially Puerto Rican initiatives were taken and lasted for (usually) rather short periods of time. Perhaps the most significant of these was the Civil Institute of Higher Studies, founded in 1882 and opened in 1883. In 1883-84 a total of 172 resident pupils were enrolled in the Institute, 170 matriculated at private schools affiliated with the Institute, and 77 home tutored students were not resident at any school, for a total of 419. The official plan of study included Spanish, Latin, the geography of Spain, universal history, and elements of physiology and hygiene, as well as elements of agriculture, French or English, and religion and moral instruction. A parallel, but quite short-lived, professional school for the preparation of surveyors, builders, commercial and industrial agents, and engineers was also established with very strict standards of admission, which probably contributed to its rapid demise. Similar difficulties also attended the opening of a trade school in 1886 that was designed to furnish an opportunity to workmen and others to acquire a broader knowledge of their particular arts and trades. Diverse religious institutions were allied in one way or another with the Secondary Institute (e.g., the Mothers of the Sacred Heart, for girls—now the coeducational Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, in Santurce; the Central Academy, El Estudio and the College of the Paulist Fathers, in Ponce; the Lyceum, in Mayagüez, as well as the Lyceum in Guayama). All of these institutions received some taxbased financial support. After renewed petitions to found a university in Puerto Rico were turned down by the Spanish government, the Society for the Protection of Intelligence was founded by Laurano Vargas. It still existed in 1900, and its object was to provide funds for study abroad to talented, but needy youths. At the initiative of the Ateneo de Puerto Rico, the colonial régime authorized the founding of an Institute of Higher Studies linked to the University of Havana in 1888 that lasted only a few years. Its most notable achievement was the establishment of a scientifically-based course for midwives. Finally, a school of Enseñanza Popular (People' Teaching) was established in 1896 for the education of workmen; subjects taught included reading and writing, the history of Spain, political economy, the geography of Puerto Rico, popular law, and ethics. About 100 workmen attended the lectures and workshops of this school; it disappeared after the United States conquest and occupation. Hernández made the following comments:

So it resulted that in the principal towns (by the time the régime changed) the culture of the Porto [sic] Rican students was much superior to that of the Spaniards, as is evidenced upon mere cursory examination of the periodicals and publications of the time. This naturally was not the case in the smaller towns, especially in the country, where the inhabitants were under the complete domination of their masters, without other means of defense than their innate intelligence and wit, sharpened in the struggle to evade laws they believed oppressive and to escape obligations that they believed unjust, and when their natural acuteness was not sufficient to effect this they took refuge in a passive resistance against which all the efforts of the Government were fruitless.


Thus, at the time of the American takeover, the bankruptcy of the Spanish ancien régime in matters of education was complete, and the initiative had passed into the hands of a rather disparate Puerto Rican leadership. Secondly, faute de mieux, stress was placed less on elementary or primary education than on the more advanced levels (although the 1880-98 period saw the establishment of two Normal Schools designed to train elementary teachers). Finally, a rather traditional, humanistically oriented program of study remained at the core of secondary study, complemented by a set of complementary practical courses, such as ship navigation, agronomy, pharmacy, and midwifery.

At the close of the school year 1898-99, less than a year after the American arrival, the wretched conditions of public education in terms of the children served are evident in the following numbers given in Dr. Clark's above-cited Report. Out of a total island population of 857,660, some 203,373 boys and girls constituted the school age cohort. Of these students, 14,720 boys and 7,153 girls were actually in attendance at the schools that existed at the time—a bit over 10 percent.

It is erroneous to believe, however, that a pupil enrolled in September stayed in the course throughout the school year. Some dropped out; others came in late to take their place. As best as could be determined for the island's schools in 1907 some 65,436 pupils were enrolled. However, of these only about 35,000 received a full year's instruction. Thus, despite much school reform and rhetoric, great expenditures of money, and an extraordinary amount of planning (including passing laws that declared school attendance obligatory), in the decade following 1886, school attendance increased a little over 50 percent. One is led to speculate that mass schooling had not yet entirely entered into the Puerto Rican cultural mentality or perhaps that the population, recalcitrant to government-inspired initiatives, failed to see the advantages in having their children taught in the schools.

The decades following the Congressional passage of the Jones Act in 1917—the Act that replaced the first Organic Act of Puerto Rico, known as the Foraker Act (1900), that accorded United States citizenship to the residents of Puerto Rico—witnessed the further attempted implementation of what has been called the three educational objectives common to the entire sequence of powerful American Commissioners of Education on the island: "Americanization or de-Puertoricanization, physical extension of the school system, and the teaching of English" (Osuna). However, these goals were never attained. Many schools were built; however, the early experiment of bringing in American teachers to teach in them was a failure. It became necessary to train native Puerto Rican teachers and then to police their command of English through annual testing. The training was attempted through the creation of Normal Schools. One of these, first located in Fajardo and then in Río Piedras with a faculty imported from the United States, was joined to various other institutions and declared a university by law in 1903. However, it constituted little more than the nucleus for a new humanities and sciences-based University of Puerto Rico created over an initial period of five years (starting in 1924) by its American Chancellor, Thomas E. Benner. A tripartite primary-middle-high school model was transferred more or less as is to Puerto Rico and was expected to function as it did in much of the United States at the time, with pupils advancing year by year in the grades. It succeeded only partially.

Thus, despite the genuine enthusiasm felt by many Puerto Rican thinkers, economic and political leaders, and patriots for educational reform and progress, American efforts in these directions (or viewed as such by Americans) met with mixed success. Henry K. Carroll's assertion that the people of Puerto Rico "will learn the art of governing in the only possible way—by having their responsibilities [e.g., education] laid upon them" was systematically ignored. Indeed, the Foraker Act invested the entire responsibility for education on the United States-appointed Commissioner of Education whose "reports. . .[were] annually [to be] transmitted to Congress" (Section 18). Yet, already in 1899 General Miles had warned: "A careful and painstaking study of local conditions and laws, occupying many months at least, should. . .[precede] any attempt at legislation on a subject as important and difficult as that of public instruction of a million people of Spanish origin" (Negrón de Montilla).

Besides the traditional inertia of the upper socioeconomic classes with regard to the education of their laboring compatriots-Blacks, jíbaros, and factory workers (often women in the sewing industry), resistance to the United States's English-language policy in the schools (implemented at least temporarily in 1907) was rampant both among the teaching staffs and their pupils and would continue until well into the fourth and fifth decades of the century. By this time textbooks were almost all in English and even Spanish translations were culturally exotic to Puerto Rican children, e.g., white Christmases; light brown-haired Bill, blond Mary and their dog, Spot; the small-town American suburban house with its white picket fence; and the total absence of Blacks and dark-skinned people. Meanwhile directives from the Commissioner of Education continued to require school attendance on Epiphany, the Day of the Three Kings when Puerto Rican children traditionally received what is called in the United States their "Christmas presents." Also, the foisting on the school system by the last United States Commissioner of Education, Puerto Rican-born J.B. Huyke, of textbooks written by himself was seen as a public scandal, as was his consistent affirmation of the power invested in him by his office to choose whatever textbooks he wanted.

The end of the 1920s and start of the 1930s saw new perceptions and opinions voiced by a generation in the process of succeeding its fathers. The son of Muñoz Rivera, Luis Muñoz Marín was the most charismatic of these new voices. In March 1928 he wrote in The Literary Digest, "We demand a form of government that shall give us ample power to deal with our internal affairs, unhampered by documents and policies not made for Puerto Rico and not decently applicable to Puerto Rico" (Negrón de Montilla 1971). And, in The American Mercury (February 1929): "Two major problems perplex the old Spanish province of Porto Rico arising out of its enforced relationship to the United States. One deals with consequences of American economic development, the other with the cultural Americanization." In this same article Muñoz focuses on the students of the University of Puerto Rico, finding in them the effective means to face "the two instruments of Americanization, the bayonets of education and the contagion imminent in close commercial relationships, because they want Porto Rico to be Porto Rico and not a replica of Ohio [or] of Arizona." It should be noted that the University administration passed in 1926 from the control of the Puerto Rican legislature and the United States Commissioner of Education in Puerto Rico to a separate status entirely.

By the start of the 1930s, the three elements that would constitute the basis of Muñoz Marín's gradual assumption of power in Puerto Rico and that would be the raison d'être of his Partido Popular Democrático (founded in 1937) were already in place. These were (1) the affirmation of Puerto Rican identity and reaffirmation of its "true" culture, to be accomplished particularly by strengthening the position of Spanish; (2) the everincreasing participation of Puerto Ricans themselves in the economic life of the island, leading eventually to the creation of Operation Bootstrap and governmental planning agencies like Fomento; and (3) the integration of the dispossessed poor into full participation in the political, economic, and social life of the island.

These goals, it was felt, could be achieved only by education, led by higher education. The schools were the key; they would provide a necessary patriotic and hardworking technocracy armed with university and graduate degrees who would be beholden to Muñoz's party for their careers and the chance it gave them to know an upward social mobility unheard of before in Puerto Rico.

On 25 July 1952 the bill approving the new Puerto Rican Constitution was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. Henceforth the governor and legislature of Puerto Rico would be elected by the people resident on the island, and domestic affairs would largely pass into their control. However, Congress had retained the last word.

From 1940 to 1968, the reigning political party was the P.P.D. (the Populares); it was during this 28 year period that Muñoz put into practice the ideas and principles summarized above. The modern Puerto Rican educational system can be understood only in terms of the Commonwealth objectives as these constitute a response to the complex set of events and factors in the historical background of Puerto Rico.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferencePuerto Rico - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education