Puerto Rican Folktales
Puerto Rican culture is a mixture of Taino (native inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands), Spanish, and African influences. As such, the folktales from this country reflect this mixed heritage. Few purely Taino myths have survived, as the islands (including Puerto Rico) were colonized by Spain in the fifteenth century. (Christopher Columbus ‘‘discovered’’ the island on November 19, 1493.) Tainos did not have a written language, and most died off in the sixteenth century following the country’s colonization. Yet Spanish settlers did record Taino stories, all of which were part of an oral tradition (tales passed down through the generations via the spoken word). In 1505, friar Ramo´n Pane´ was commissioned by Columbus to document the Taino culture. In addition to writing of their lifestyle, Pane´e, who lived on Hispaniola for four years, recorded their creation myths (stories that explained their origination as well as the origination of the world), stories of how the Sun and Moon came to exist, and myths and beliefs regarding the afterlife.
Because the Taino population was decimated by the diseases carried by Spanish settlers, the Spaniards imported African slaves to aid in the establishment of the colony. Thus, in the late sixteenth century, African and Taino culture began to intermingle. Slaves also lived by an oral tradition; they were illiterate and uneducated, and so their stories were told aloud rather than written down. As Doris M. Vazquez notes in Folktales, ‘‘Stories from this group of people reflected their struggles and often futile attempts to be free.’’ Yet, because of their low social status, slaves retained little of their own culture and were quickly assimilated into Spanish culture.
This rapid assimilation, coupled with the near extinction of the Taino people and the little that survives from their society, has resulted in a Puerto Rican folk tradition largely dominated by Spanish culture. Thus, Vazquez finds that ‘‘the folk tales that are told in Puerto Rico today reflect basically Spanish themes with island adaptations and very little Taino or African participation.’’ She adds, ‘‘The tales, in general, have undergone changes in numbers, names, or settings which are more tropical or similar to Puerto Rico.’’
Puerto Rican Immigration and Migration to the United States
When Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony, Puerto Ricans who moved to the United States were immigrants. The first such group of immigrants arrived around the 1850s. But, after the Spanish-American War (April 1898–August 1898), Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. Thus, Puerto Ricans who moved to the United States after 1898 were considered Puerto Rican citizens who were required to possess passports in order to travel. In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed in the United States. This act defined Puerto Ricans as citizens of the United States. Because of this, they were able to travel and move freely between both countries. As such, Puerto Ricans living in the United States were no longer immigrants but migrants. The peak of that migration, known as the ‘‘The Great Migration,’’ began in 1946 and lasted throughout the 1950s as businesses began to encourage the migration of Puerto Ricans to fill a demand for cheap labor. (Ortiz Cofer and her family moved to the United States in 1954.) The vast majority of this migration was centered in and around New York City.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Published by Gale Group, 2001.