There is a saying on the island that Puerto Ricans are like porpoises: They can barely keep their heads above water, but they’re always smiling. It’s an apt description. In 2005, Puerto Ricans were proclaimed the happiest people on earth, according to a highly reported study by the Stockholm-based organization World Values Survey. Despite high poverty and unemployment rates, it seems nothing can put a damper on the lively, fun-loving Puerto Rican spirit. Most Puerto Ricans like to celebrate big and often. In fact, there are reportedly more than 500 festivals a year on the island, and everything is a family affair involving multiple generations of relatives. Music is usually at the heart of most gatherings, and Puerto Ricans are passionate about their opinions and love few things more than to debate politics or sports for hours.
The culture of Puerto Rican life has been significantly shaped by its history. It was originally inhabited by a society of peaceful, agriculturally based indigenous people who migrated to the island from South America. But beginning in 1508, the island became a Spanish colony, and for the next four centuries European influence reigned. Towns were developed according to Spanish custom around central plazas and churches. The Church spread Catholicism, and Spanish became the official language.
Because the majority of colonists were men, the Spanish Crown officially supported marriage between Spanish men and Taíno women, leading to a population of mixed offspring. The Spanish also brought in slaves from Africa to work the island’s many coffee and sugar plantations, and they too produced offspring with the Taíno and Spanish colonists, producing what for years was called a population of mulattoes.
Perhaps because of this historic mixing of races, racial tensions are relatively minimal in Puerto Rico . There are some levels of society that proudly claim to be of pure European blood, and darker-skinned populations are sometimes discriminated against. But in general, Puerto Rico is a true melting pot of races in which skin comes in all shades of white and brown, and the general population is fairly accepting of everyone else.
When the United States took control of Puerto Rico in 1898, the island underwent another enormous cultural transformation. Suddenly U.S. customs and practices were imposed. English became a common second language, and has at times been proclaimed the official language. The U.S. dollar became the legal tender. American corporations set up shop, bringing with them an influx of American expatriates whose ways of dress, cuisine, and art were integrated into the existing culture. Much of this influence came in the form of the military, due to the many military bases that were established on the island. Some people credit that influence on the relative stability and orderliness of public life, particularly as compared to other Caribbean islands. The island’s governmental and judicial systems are organized similarly to the United States, and many U.S. social services are offered on the island.
Inroads of contemporary American culture have been made into much of island life, but Puerto Ricans are fiercely proud of their Spanish heritage. Since becoming a U.S. territory a little more than 100 years ago, Puerto Rico  has undergone a seismic shift in its national identity that has divided the island politically. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and they enjoy many—but not all—the privileges that entails. The issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status has been an ongoing debate for more than 50 years, and it is as much a part of the island’s national identity as its Spanish language and customs. Roughly half the island’s population wants to remain a U.S. commonwealth, in large part because they believe that status ensures the preservation of their Spanish culture. The other half wants to become a U.S. state so they can have full privileges of citizenship, including the ability to vote for the U.S. president and have full representation in Congress.
Recently, Congress has taken actions that could put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status to a popular vote on the island. Until a vote is held, the future of Puerto Rico’s 3.9 million citizens hangs in the balance between two cultures.