Literature of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Literature, at first repressed by the Spanish Colonial Government, evolved from the art of oral story telling to its present day status. Puerto Rican literature got off to a late start. This was because the Spanish Colonial Government, which ruled over Puerto Rico at that time, feared that Puerto Rico would develop its own social and cultural identity and eventually seek its independence. Therefore, written works by the native islanders were prohibited and were punishable by prison terms or banishment. The island, which depended on an agricultural economy, had an illiteracy rate of over 80% in the beginning of the 19th century. The only people who had access to the libraries and who could afford books were either appointed Spanish government officials or wealthy land owners. The poor had to resort to oral story-telling in what are traditionally known in Puerto Rico as Coplas and Decimas.
The island’s first writers were commissioned by the Spanish Crown to document only the chronological history of the island. Among these writers were Father Diego de Torres Vargas who wrote about the history of Puerto Rico, Father Francisco Ayerra de Santa Maria who wrote poems about religious and historical themes and Juan Ponce de León II who was commissioned to write a general description of the West Indies. The first native-born Puerto Rican governor, León included information on Taíno culture, particularly their religious ceremonies and language. He also covered the early exploits of the conquistadors. These documents were then sent to the National Archives in Sevilla, Spain, where they were kept.

Puerto Rican history, however, was to change forever with the arrival of the first printing press from Mexico in 1806. That same year Juan Rodriguez Calderon (a Spaniard) wrote and published the first book in the island, titled Ocios de la Juventud. In 1851, the Spanish appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Juan de la Pezuela Cevallo, founded the Royal Academy of Belles Letters. This institution contributed greatly to the intellectual and literary progress of the island. The school licensed primary school teachers, formulated school methods, and held literary contests. However, only those with government positions and the wealthy benefited from the formation of the institution. It was ironic that the first Puerto Rican writers came from some of the island’s wealthiest families, who were fed up with the injustices of the Spanish Crown.
19th Century – The first written works in Puerto Rico were influenced by the Romanticism of the time. Journalists were the first writers to express their political views in the newspapers of the day and later in the books which they authored. Through their books and novels, they expressed what they believed were the social injustices, which included slavery and poverty, brought upon the common Puerto Rican by the Spanish Crown. Many of these writers were considered to be dangerous liberals by the colonial government and were banished from the island. An example of this treatment was poet and journalist Francisco Gonzalo Marin, who wrote against the Spanish Crown. Some went to the Dominican Republic, Cuba or New York where they continued to write about patriotic themes while in exile. The literature of these writers helped fuel the desire of some to revolt against the Spanish government in Puerto Rico, resulting in the failed attempt known as the Grito de Lares in 1868.

When the Americans invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War in 1898, many members of the Puerto Rican literary class welcomed them believing that eventually Puerto Rico would be granted its independence. Instead, Puerto Rico was declared a territory of the United States. The new government failed to realize that Puerto Rico was already a nation with its own culture and proceeded to Americanize the island. Many writers and poets expressed their opposition by writing about patriotic themes through their work. Puerto Rican literature continued to flourish.

Twentieth century – During the early part of the 20th century, many Puerto Ricans moved to the eastern coast and Mid-western parts of the United States in search of a better way of life. Most settled in cities such as New York and Chicago. There they faced racial discrimination and other hardships. A sub-culture known as the Nuyorican Movement came about as result of a people trying to maintain their cultural identity in a foreign land. This movement is composed by a group of intellectuals which includes writers and poets who express their experiences as Nuyoricans living in the U.S.. Some of these writers and poets founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Notable authors and playwrights include Nicholasa Mohr (Whose El Bronx collection of stories earned her a finalist position for the National Book Award), Piri Thomas, Pedro Pietri, and Giannina Braschi.

Books and Novels – Some of Puerto Rico’s earliest writers were influenced by the teachings of Rafael Cordero. Among these was Dr. Manuel A. Alonso, the first Puerto Rican writer of notable importance. In 1845 he published El Gibaro, a collection of verses whose main themes were the poor Puerto Rican country farmer. Eugenio Maria de Hostos who wrote La Peregrinación de Bayoán in 1863, which told about social-science topics. Alejandro Tapia y Rivera also known as the Father of Puerto Rican Literature, ushered in a new age of historiography with the publication of The Historical Library of Puerto Rico. Cayetano Coll y Toste was a renowned Puerto Rican historian and writer. His work The Indo-Antillano Vocabulary is valuable in understanding the way the Taínos lived. Dr. Manuel Zeno Gandia in 1899 wrote La Charca and told about the harsh life in the remote and mountainous coffee regions in Puerto Rico. Dr. Antonio S. Pedreira, described in his work Insularismo about the cultural survival of the Puerto Rican identity after the American invasion. Some other notable Puerto Rican writers include Dr. Enrique A. Laguerre, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, Pedro Juan Soto whose collection of stories called Spiks accounts the hardships of the Puerto Rican migrants of New York City.

Poetry – Maria Bibiana Benitez was Puerto Rico’s first poetess and playwright. In 1832 she published her first poem La Ninfa de Puerto Rico. Her niece was Alejandrina Benitez de Gautier, whose Aguinaldo Puertorriqueno, published in 1843, gave her the recognition of being one of the island’s great poets. Alejandrina’s son Jose Gautier Benitez is considered by many to be Puerto Rico’s greatest Romantic-era poet. Poets Jose de Diego, Virgilio Davila, Luis Llorens Torres, Nemesio Canales and Juan Antonio Corretjer were independence advocates who wrote poems with patriotic themes. Lola Rodríguez de Tio was the poetess who wrote the lyrics to the revolutionary Borinquena used by the revolutionists in the Grito de Lares. Mercedes Negron Munoz wrote under the name Clara Lair and published A ras del Cristal in 1937. In her poem she describes the everyday struggles of the common Puerto Rican. However, it was Julia de Burgos who was to be considered by many as the greatest poet to be born in Puerto Rico. The inspiration spurred by her love of Puerto Rico is reflected in her poem El Rio Grande de Loiza. Of the four great poets of Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos, Luis Pales Matos, Luis Llorens Torres and Evaristo Ribera Chevremont, the latter is considered the most universal and lyrical. Although several of Evaristo Ribera Chevremont dozens of published books do treat the subjects of Puerto Rican nationality and regionalism, the majority of his verses are liberated from folkloric subject matter and excel in universal lyricism, as written by Carmen Irene Marxuach in her critical book Evaristo Ribera Chevremont :Voz de Vanguardia published by the Universidad de Puerto Rico in 1987.

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