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Yo Soy (I am): The Historical Trajectory of Language in Puerto Rico

This guide provides access to an array of resources on language and identity in Puerto Rico, including digitized primary source materials in a wide variety of formats, books, periodicals, and online databases.


Rosskam, Edwin, photographer. School room in rural school. Cidra, Puerto Rico.1938. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This guide provides access to an array of resources on language and identity in Puerto Rico, including digitized primary source materials in a wide variety of formats, books, periodicals, and online databases.

Historically Puerto Rico endured a long and complicated path as a colony of Spain and later, a territory of the United States. This complexity surfaces in its unique language, which any dictionary defines “as a structured system of communication.” Puerto Rican language is unique to the island’s history. In Puerto Rico, communication is not simply Spanish or English, despite qualities that evolve from these two languages. The islands’ first recorded inhabitants, the Taíno Indians, were the first to establish a system of communication. As Spanish settlers occupied the island and introduced new customs, ideologies, and language, the island underwent a drastic change. Despite concerted efforts to eradicate the native Taíno language during 400 years of Spanish rule, the Taíno language is still tangible in Puerto Rican Spanish; and it blends with other cultural systems of communications.

The African customs, ideologies and languages enslaved Africans brought over as a result of being transported as a workforce for the island, made an indelible mark on the already fused language of this Caribbean island. This blending of many African languages, prospective blending among indigenous languages, and fusion in European languages had already permanently influenced the vernacular spoken in Puerto Rico, when the Spanish-American War (1898) further complicated Puerto Rico’s history. The Spanish-American War (1898) brought a second wave of colonization to Puerto Rico. During this second wave, the United States took control of the island, which remains a territory of the nation until present day. Consequently, the political and sociolinguistic panorama of the island experienced another radical change through the 20th century. Initially, the U.S. established English as the official language throughout the island, making it the language of instruction. After heavy resistance from the Puerto Rican people, officials declared Spanish the language of instruction, with English as a required subject. In the present day, Spanish and English are both official languages in Puerto Rico. And yet, Puerto Rican language is unique as a result of successive waves of language changes and cultural influences that ensure a hybrid identity.

This guide provides digitized sources, selected books, online databases, and external sources that delve into the history of Puerto Rico and its inevitable effect on the development and use of language. The resources are in English, with the exception of primary material written in Spanish. For specific questions or assistance using the Library’s resources, use the Ask a Librarian service to contact a reference librarian within the Hispanic Reading Room.

Timeline: Language and Education under Colonization

1493 Christopher Columbus sets foot in Puerto Rico and encounters the native Taínos. This encounter introduces the Spanish language into the already established Taíno language and culture. The Taíno and Spanish languages blend leading to the incorporation of Taíno words into the Spanish used and taught in the island.
1508 Juan Ponce de León is named governor of the island and establishes the first Spanish settlement, Caparra.
1512 The encomienda system is implemented by the Spanish as a form of communal slavery. As part of the encomienda system the native Taínos are forced to provide free labor to the Spanish Crown in exchange for instruction of the Spanish language and Christianity. Under the encomienda system the native population was also granted protection from enemies but was forced to adapt to Spanish customs.
1517 Spanish conquistadors transport enslaved Africans to Puerto Rico to supplement the decimated native workforce. Upon arrival the Spanish implement Spanish as the language of instruction leading to another linguistic fusion. This linguistic fusion integrates African words and sounds into the language spoken in the island.
1770 School structures are established in towns throughout Puerto Rico, under the first government ruling for formal instruction of male students. The focus of this ruling, is teaching male students reading and writing skills.
1779 Schools under Spanish sovereignty were opened for female students.
1856 Rural schools were established around the island.
1864 79.6% of the Puerto Rican population were documented as illiterate under the island’s census.
1898 U.S. forces attack San Juan during the Spanish-American War. On December 1898, the Treaty of Paris is signed,ceding Spain’s control over Puerto Rico to the United States.
1898 - 1917 The U.S. focuses on reformation of public education in Puerto Rico and implements English as the language of instruction.
1949 - present After seven different language policies were implemented in Puerto Rico’s public education system, by 1949, Spanish was determined the language of instruction with English as a required subject.