Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rico’s indigenous population was comprised of highly spiritual individuals who worshipped multiple gods believed to reside in nature. It was a common belief that these gods controlled everything from the success or failure of crops to one’s choice of a spouse.
All that began to change when Ponce de León arrived in 1508, bringing with him several Roman Catholic priests who ministered to the new colony and set about converting the Taíno Indians to the faith, beginning with baptisms. In 1511, Pope Julius II created a diocese in Caparra, the island’s first settlement.
Today, depending on the source, Puerto Rico’s population is between 75 and 85 percent Roman Catholic. Although weekly church attendance is far below that figure, the Catholic Church has great influence on Puerto Rican life. Each town has a Catholic church at its center and celebrates its patron saint with an annual festival. Although many patron-saint festivals have become much more secular over time, they typically include a religious procession and special Mass to mark the day. Images of saints are common items in traditional households, and you can’t enter a church without seeing clusters of women lighting candles, praying, or kissing the hem of the dress worn by a statue of Mary.
Some Puerto Ricans practice a hybrid form of religion called espiritismo, which combines elements of the Catholic religion and Indian beliefs in nature-dwelling spirits that can be called on to effect change in one’s life. Similarly, some Puerto Ricans of African descent practice Santería, introduced to the island by Yoruba slaves from West Africa. It also observes multiple gods and combines elements of Catholicism. Practitioners of both religions patronize the island’s botanicas, stores that sell roots, herbs, candles, soaps, and amulets that are employed to sway the spirits to help individuals achieve success, whether it be in business, love, or starting a family.
Once the United States arrived in Puerto Rico in 1898, Protestantism began to grow on the island, and all major sects are represented. Pentecostal fundamentalism has developed in recent decades, and there is a small Jewish community on the island as well.
© Suzanne Van Atten from Moon Puerto Rico, 2nd Edition