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Almost a Woman
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Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 8 links]

Understanding Context

"Home is really Puerto Rico."
     Esmeralda, to her teacher


The history of Puerto Rico and its relationship to the U.S. is a complex topic, yet crucial to understanding Esmeralda Santiago's story. Use this brief overview to begin your research. Additional sources are found in Resources.

When Columbus landed on Puerto Rico in 1493, the island was a flourishing center of Taino culture. The Taino, a native people of the Caribbean, called their country Boriken (later Borinquen), a name still used by Puerto Ricans. Many Taino people died as a result of their resistance to Spanish rule and/or from diseases brought by the Spanish colonists. The Spanish imported enslaved Africans to replace the Taino laborers. Puerto Ricans today represent some or all of these three groups.

Over the years a growing number of Puerto Ricans organized to end Spanish colonial rule on the island. This effort culminated in a revolt known as El Grito de Lares (the Cry of Lares) in 1868. Although the rebellion, led by Ramón Emeterio Betances, was crushed, it became a powerful symbol of Puerto Rico's ongoing fight for independence. Spanish rule did not end until 1898, when Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War.

Although many Puerto Ricans hoped that the U.S. would grant the island independence, the U.S. maintained political and economic control. In 1917 the Jones Act declared that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens but they were not given full rights; for instance, they were not allowed to vote for the U.S. president.

In 1952 Puerto Rico became a commonwealth, with its own legislature and constitution. However, the controversy over Puerto Rico's status continues. Many Puerto Ricans believe it should be independent and have engaged in a long and difficult struggle to achieve this goal. Others would like to see Puerto Rico become the 51st state. Still others remain undecided.

Even before the U.S. takeover of their island, Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. mainland. This migration intensified in the 1940s and 1950s. Puerto Rican workers, displaced because of the industrialization of the economy, fled to the U.S. in search of work and decent wages. Some Puerto Ricans came to the U.S. as migrant farm workers. Many others came to U.S. cities to work in factories, restaurants, and other low-skilled manual jobs. Lack of job training, inadequate schooling, and discrimination have created barriers for many Puerto Rican families. Despite high rates of unemployment and poverty, Puerto Ricans in New York City have created a vibrant culture with a strong sense of community. They also maintain a deep connection to Puerto Rico, often returning home -- or yearning to.

Understanding Context: Activities
  • As a class, have students make a list of what they know about Puerto Rican history, culture, language, etc. Their answers may include factual information and impressions, as well as stereotypes. Invite students who are Puerto Rican to offer their expertise. To delve deeper into the context of the film, have students in small groups choose a research topic relating to the film, such as: the colonization of Puerto Rico, bilingualism, the debate over statehood, Puerto Rican music, etc. Have each group present its findings to the class. Review the initial list. How has the class project increased students' knowledge and/or dispelled common stereotypes?

  • Organize a class debate about the status of Puerto Rico. Have students trace the history of the conflict and the ongoing controversy. What are the pros and cons? How might Puerto Rican statehood or independence change the experience of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S.?

  • The terms Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably. Find out what students know about these labels. Then divide the class into two groups. Have each group research one of the terms, on the Web and at the library. (You may want to direct students to "Understanding Ethnic Labels and Puerto Rican Identity" as part of their research.) Share the information the students have gathered and discuss the implications of each term. Some key questions you may want to ask include
    • Why do some people prefer the label Hispanic? Why do others prefer the label Latino?
    • What groups are left out from either term?
    • Why do you think people use the general labels of Hispanic and/or Latino instead of Puerto Rican-American, Cuban-American, etc.?
    • How are these labels helpful? How are they confusing or misleading?

  • Have students research other places that are ruled by the United States but are not one of the 50 states. How do they compare to Puerto Rico? How does Puerto Rico's status affect the migration back and forth between the U.S. and Puerto Rico?

Timeline of Puerto Rican History

1493     Columbus lands on the island that 50,000 resident Taino Indians call Boriken and claims it for Spain. The Spaniards name it San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), later Puerto Rico ("beautiful port").

1511     The Tainos revolt against the Spaniards; many Tainos are killed or die of diseases brought to the island by the Spanish colonists.

1513     Enslaved Africans are brought to the island by the Spanish as laborers.

1868     An uprising against Spanish rule, known as El Grito de Lares (The Cry of Lares), is suppressed but becomes a symbol of the fight for independence.

1898     At the end of the Spanish-American War, Spain cedes Puerto Rico to the United States in the Treaty of Paris.

1900     Puerto Rico becomes the first U.S. unincorporated territory.

1917     The Jones Act makes Puerto Rico a U.S. territory. Puerto Rican natives are declared U.S. citizens; Puerto Rican men are drafted into the U.S. military.

1938     The Democratic Popular Party is founded under the leadership of Luis Muñoz Marín.

1948     U.S. grants Puerto Rico the power to elect its own governor. On November 2, Luis Muñoz Marín is elected governor.

1953     The largest migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland occurs, mostly to New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

1967     Voters affirm continuation of commonwealth status.

1968     On November 5, Luis Ferré, leader of a pro-statehood party is elected governor.

1991     Puerto Rico declares Spanish the only official language of the island.

1993     Commonwealth status is reaffirmed by voters by a slim margin. English and Spanish are designated as the official languages.

1998     In a non-binding referendum, voters reject statehood once again.

2000     On November 7, Sila M. Calderón is elected the first female governor.



Essays + Interviews | Puerto Rico: A Timeline
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