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Living in Puerto Rico
A practical guide to the way of life in Puerto Rico
Are you dreaming about the good life in Puerto Rico? While Puerto Rico certainly gives expats a taste of the Caribbean, it is not all about long sandy beaches. Find out all you need to know about being an expat in Puerto Rico, the people, the culture, and all that comes with it.
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Life in Puerto Rico
At a Glance:
- Life on the Puerto Rican island mostly takes place in the cities where the population density is rather high.
- The many cultural influence are still palpable in everyday life today.
- Puerto Rico’s healthcare system is underfunded and half of all people living there depend on Medicaid.
- Although English is the second official language in Puerto Rico, not many of the locals are fluent in it.
- Its status as a US territory grants Puerto Rico’s inhabitants US citizenship, but it has also caused many problems for the island.
In September 2017, Puerto Rico, along with other Caribbean islands, was hit by a series of hurricanes, one of which caused severe destruction< to the infrastructure, as well as destroyed 80% of the island’s crops. At the end of 2017, large parts of the island are still without electricity and running water, leading to a severe healthcare crisis. It is unclear how long it will take the island to recover.
Puerto Ricans are very proud of their roots, their culture, and their island. Even those not actually living in Puerto Rico — and there are many — usually refer to the island as their home. When you hear a Puerto Rican talking about their country, they don’t usually mean the United States as a whole, but just the little island in the Caribbean. People of Puerto Rican origin, whether they are living on the island or not, usually refer to themselves not as Americanos, but as Puertorriqueños.
There is of course also the Nuyorican, the New Yorker born in Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican origin. This large group of Puerto Ricans is estimated to outnumber those living in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.
Life on the Island
All in all, there are around 3.3 million permanent residents living in Puerto Rico. In 2016, a total of 5.45 million Puerto Ricans were estimated to live on the US mainland, according to the United States Census Bureau, more than in Puerto Rico itself. Still, the population density on the island is very high. Given that around 93% of the island’s inhabitants are living in the urban centers, and that the mountainous center of the main island plus many smaller islands are largely uninhabited, this makes for very crowded cities indeed!
Puerto Ricans are generally very friendly and outgoing. As a foreigner living in Puerto Rico, you may soon come to the conclusion that many of the stereotypical Latin American characteristics are true for Puerto Ricans. One thing is certain: Puerto Ricans tend to be very lively and expressive, and like to underline their words with extensive gestures. They are also likely to meet you with great hospitality and see it as their personal responsibility to make your life here as enjoyable as possible.
A Historical Mix of Cultures
While it is common to refer to the people of Puerto Rico as Hispanic, we shouldn’t forget that Latin Americans are a racially very diverse group. The largest group of people living in Puerto Rico is white (mostly of Spanish decent) and accounts for approximately 76% of the total population, while 12% are black / African American. The remaining population is comprised of different ethnicities, including Native American, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander, or a mixture of various of these groups.
Although the indigenous Taíno people who inhabited Puerto Rico, as well as other Caribbean islands, before the Spanish colonization were virtually decimated by slavery, diseases, and warfare, their influences are still present in the islands culture. In fact, a small minority of Puerto Ricans still identifies as Taíno today. In the 1500s, slaves were first brought in from Africa to work on the plantations, bringing with them their own traditions.
In the early 19th century, European immigrants from economically depressed countries came to Puerto Rico hoping for a better life on the island. It also became a haven for Spanish loyalists during the South American independence movements. More Europeans, as well as Chinese and Lebanese migrants, joined them later in the century. More recently, immigrants searching for a better future in Puerto Rico come from other Caribbean or Latin American countries, such as the Dominican Republic.
Puerto Rico’s Relationship with the United States
Puerto Rico has been under US sovereignty since 1898, when the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans are officially citizens of the United States, but they cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting representation in either the Senate or the House of Representatives.
Puerto Rico achieved commonwealth status in 1952, when the Governor of Puerto Rico proclaimed the Constitution. However, the old laws defining the political, economic, and fiscal relationship between Puerto Rico and the US remained effective.
In June 2011, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization called on the United States to speed up a process that would “allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence”. As a result, a two-step plebiscite was set up, the first of which was held in November 2012. In the referendum, voters were asked whether or not they wanted to remain a US territory, become independent, or be treated as a US state. The majority of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood.
As of 2017 and following a fifth referendum, the situation hasn’t been resolved yet. The island’s status as a US territory and the inequalities that come with it may be part of the reason for Puerto Rico’s economic recession. On top of this, Puerto Rico faces more than 70 million USD in debt, a burden which increased government funding could help relieve.
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Puerto Rico Today
When it comes to the technicalities of living in Puerto Rico, you’ll find that things like visas and work permits, as well as taxes and social security, are either partly or completely regulated by US law. Our article on Working in Puerto Rico has more information on how taxation is handled on the island. For an in-depth look at the other aspects mentioned above, please read our Relocation Guide to the USA.
A Modern Puerto Rico
Today, Puerto Ricans are proud of their culture and traditions, shaped by family values, hospitality, and religion. While 85% of them are of Roman Catholic faith, Puerto Rico is also home to a large Jewish community, and espiritismo, a belief in spirits of the dead and occult forces, is still common today.
Puerto Rico is an island of sharp contrasts, a place where the new and the old merge to form a very special mix of cultures. One area where old and new influences converge in a notable manner is architecture: you’ll find Spanish colonial buildings next to huge, US-style malls, which in turn coexist with tiny corner shops and ultra-modern construction projects.
The influence of the United States is also reflected in the many English words which have made their way into Puerto Ricans’ everyday Spanish and of course in the overall use of English as the second official language. However, many inhabitants of Puerto Rico do not speak English at an advanced level as Spanish is still the most commonly used language.
Healthcare in Puerto Rico
The Puerto Rican healthcare system is closely tied to US social security, which Puerto Ricans contribute to. However, they do not enjoy the same benefits as people on the mainland. Puerto Rico is often left out of or only partially benefits from US healthcare reforms and does not receive an equal share of healthcare funding. Although about half of the population relies on the public health insurance Medicaid, spending on healthcare is capped in Puerto Rico. The territory also has to cover a larger share of the Medicaid cost than any of the US states.
If the healthcare system was lacking before the hurricane in September 2017, it was nothing compared to the situation in the hurricane aftermath. While large parts of the island were still without electricity and running water in December 2017, and with other resources running low, hospitals and medical staff struggle to provide the necessary care to all their patients.
Expats in Puerto Rico definitely need to take out private health insurance, which will also give them access to the island’s various private hospitals and clinics. You can consult the US hospital finder to locate your nearest healthcare provider in Puerto Rico.
Even though there are usually no common health risks associated with traveling to Puerto Rico, you should make sure that all your standard vaccinations have been refreshed. If in doubt, consult your doctor or a travel health clinic. There have been increased outbreaks of Dengue fever as well as the Zika virus in the Caribbean, so do take precautions against mosquito bites while in Puerto Rico.
Education in Puerto Rico
Education is a high-priority matter in Puerto Rico and receives a third of budget spending. The island is proud of its overall literacy rate of 93%. Puerto Rico has over 1,380 public schools, around 700 private schools, and 27 colleges and universities.
In Puerto Rico, compulsory education lasts for 13 years. Children usually attend primary school for the first six years of their education, and secondary education is divided into two cycles. In public schools, education takes place in Spanish, while English is taught as a second language. There are some private and international schools which use English as their main language of teaching, such as the Caribbean School in Ponce, the Robinson School in Bayamón, and the Baldwin School in San Juan..
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