The Day the U.S. Flag Went Up in Puerto Rico

One hundred and nineteen years ago, October 18, 1898, the last Spanish troops in Puerto Rico boarded ships for home. It was the first official day the U.S. flag went up on the island of Puerto Rico. From that moment until today, Puerto Rico has remained a U.S. territory.

For many Americans, Puerto Ricans included, exactly how the United States came to occupy the island remains a mystery. Why Puerto Rico and not other Caribbean islands?

Like most land acquisitions, Puerto Rico came at the price of war, in this case, the Spanish-American one. Puerto Rico came as a package deal. The U.S. picked up Cuba, Guam, the Philippines in that deal.

None of those islands would fold into the nifty arrangement of fifty stars on the U.S flag, but two remain under U.S. occupation, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

After the annexation of Puerto Rico as a territory in 1898, it would take another two decades before the people of Puerto Rico would have a passport. Even after that period of limbo, they would never reap the expected benefits of becoming Americans.

It was both the best and worst thing that could happen.

Before the War

When the Spanish arrived in Puerto Rico, it was 1493. That was the arrival of Christopher Columbus. He named the island San Juan Bautista, which later became Puerto Rico for all the gold in the water.

Almost immediately, Puerto Rico became a stopping ground for trade. Slaves arrived via ships to work the land or for selling elsewhere, like Mexico.

On Puerto Rico, the Spanish grew sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco, but also raised cattle. Like most of the Americas, the Europeans mowed over the natives of Puerto Rico, the Taíno, and Carib people.

The Spanish dug themselves in with fortifications along the coast of Puerto Rico, defending their prized Caribbean settlement against other European imperialist nations.

19th Century; Spanish-American War

For much of the time leading up to the war, Cuba and Puerto Rico shared similar stories. Spain ruled with a repressive leadership.

In 1895, Cuba attempted to declare independence, but Spain repressed those efforts. The oppression smeared on the headlines of U.S. newspapers begged the United States to intervene.

After all, weren’t these poor people going through what the U.S. went through with the British about a century earlier?

It may not have come to pass, but then the Spanish sank a U.S. vessel, the USS Maine, in the harbor of Havana on February 15, 1898.

The U.S., as resolved by Congress, declared that Cuba should have independence. Spain took that as a declaration of war and all hell broke loose. On April 24, there declared war with the U.S.

October 18, 1898; Becoming a Territory

Spain was hardly prepared to take on the United States. The U.S. Navy first attacked the Spanish fleet in the Philippines on May 1, 1898. By August, the U.S. had control of those islands.

That was after the July 17 surrender in Cuba by Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to expunge the Spanish in every distantly controlled land.

On December 10, 1898, by signing the Treaty of Paris, Spain officially renounced claims on the territories of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, but they’d long since left these territories anyway.

When the last of the Spanish troops left Puerto Rico on in October 1898, the United States raised a flag. For a moment, everyone was happy, Puerto Ricans and their American occupiers.

Surely, Puerto Rico would become a state in due time.

1917; Becoming Citizens

Not only did Puerto Rico not become a state, for almost two decades they lingered without any status at all. They were neither a sovereign nation nor were they Americans.

The sentiment amongst Americans was that the people of Puerto Rico were a mixed bag of primitive people. They couldn’t become equals in the United States. But, the U.S. also wasn’t keen to abandon the military position of Puerto Rico.

The John-Shafroth Act of 1917, spurred by the need for more troops in World War One, made Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States.

Had Congress also granted them the right to vote or enjoy the pleasure of representation, it would have been good news. As it turned out, Puerto Ricans received citizenship with a caveat.

They would have a representative in the House, but not one who could vote.

In 1953, Puerto Rico went from a territory to an unincorporated commonwealth, a status the island retains to this day. It changed little [read: nothing] about the power of her people as Americans.

In Puerto Rico, the debate rages on about whether raising the U.S. flag in 1898 was a positive event or not.

The people of Puerto Rico recently voted to become a state, but the vote was merely symbolic as they have no voting power in the mainland U.S. on such matters.

They don’t even have the power to vote on congressional decisions that affect Puerto Rico. But, they have better infrastructure and if they can afford it, and are willing to go there, they have access to the United States.

As such, the U.S. flag in Puerto Rico remains simultaneously the best and worst thing that’s ever happened.