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Puerto Rican Literature

Puerto Rico's literature dates back to the era of conquest and colonization. The early settlers, along with friars and governors, began to describe the new land they had discovered and its Taíno inhabitants. Their letters and documents provide clues to what life was like in the Caribbean before the coming of Columbus.

Notable in this collection are letters written by Puerto Rico's first governor, Ponce de León, to both the rulers in Spain and the ecclesiastical hierarchies in Seville. Here are found the first descriptions of the "conquistadores", the vocabulary and descriptions of the mythological rites of the Taíno people appear for the first time. Many pre-Columbian names have survived, town names such as: Humacao, Coamo, Utuado, and Caguas. It is believed that the Taíno language became extinct by mid-16th century, although pockets of Amerindian culture may have survived in the remote hinterlands.

Spanish cronists like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Fray Tomás de la Torre, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, and others are among the most notable writings about the island.

The new conquerors of Puerto Rico wrote down their memories in the form of verse, memories, diaries, and specially letters back home. The writings of two Puerto Ricans became known in Mexico because of these close bonds - the poet Francisco de Ayerra y Santa María, a noted Latin scholar, and Alonso Ramírez, a carpenter's son who authored a series of high adventures. After living for a time in Mexico, the Spanish author Bernardo de Balbuena arrived to Puerto Rico in 1620 with the largest known library in the West Indies. He housed his library in a church, which, regrettably, was destroyed and pillaged in 1625 when Dutch troops burned the city to the ground. Balbuena wrote some of his works on the island; they were highly praised in Spain, although Balbuena's portrait of an abundantly wealthy Puerto Rico was probably exaggerated.

In Madrid the first complete history of Puerto Rico was published in 1788. Titled The Geographic, Civil, and Political History of the Island of Saint John the Baptist of Puerto Rico, this work was a major achievement, both as a history and a literary work. The writer, Fray Inigo Abad y Lasierra, had been captivated especially by the flora, fauna, and folklore of Puerto Rico.

The last half of the 19th century was particularly fruitful in terms of literary works as the increasing numbers of new settlers tried to capture the rhythms and landscapes of their new world in prose and poetry. In 1849, Manuel Alonso Pacheco, publishes the cornerstone of Puerto Rican literature, El Gibaro, a book part prose and part poetry. A trio of outstanding lyrical and romantic poets emerged from this period: Lola Rodríguez de Tío (1843-1924), José Gautier Benitez (1851-1880), considered the most complete romantic poet of Puerto Rican literature, and "El Caribe", the nickname of plume of José Gualberto Padilla (1829-96). Other distinguished writers of that era included Salvador Brau (1842-1912), Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903), and Alejandro Tapía y Rivera (1826-1882), who the first author to achieve literary prominence.

Many foreign writers visited Puerto Rico during the 19th century and recorded impression. Their literacy works provide some valuable clues to the life of those times. For example, in 1834 George Dawson Flinter published a report in London depicting the everyday life and social customs of el jíbaro, the "hillbilly" whose traditional homeland was the verdant mountains of central Puerto Rico. Many of these writers took an idealized view of peasant life of the times, describing it as relatively carefree and happy. A dissenting point of view emerged in Manuel Zeno Gandía's naturalistic novel "La Charca" (The Stagnant Pool), first published in 1894. The novel presents a dismal view of social conditions in the Spanish colony at that time.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 significantly changed the literature of Puerto Rico. This period was know as the Generation of '98. From the early years of 20th century, many writers began to focus on the conflict between traditional Hispanic culture and the increasing Americanization of the island. Men like José de Diego, Luis Muñoz Rivera, Luis Bonafoux, Federico Degetau, Cayetano Coll y Toste, and others became not only writers but political and cultural leaders. José de Diego (1867-1918), a precursor of Puerto Rican modernist writers. His works kept alive the dream of independence for the island.

The years following the invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898 were very rich in Puerto Rican literature, Puerto Rico produced poets like Virgilio Davila, Luis Llorens Torres, Luis Palés Matos, and essayists like Nemesio Canales.

One of the leading 20th-century poets was Evaristo Ribera Chevremont (1896-1974), who wrote about both urban and rural life. His poems composed from 1924 to 1950 were brought together and published in "Antología Poetica" (Poetic Anthology).

Antonio S. Pedreira (1899-1939), a professor of Hispanic studies, wrote a landmark work, "Insularismo" which documented the unique phenomenon of Puerto Rican culture after some 3 ½ decades of U.S. political control. His work seems to have released a floodgate of works by other Puerto Rican who in essays, novels, and poetry explored the cultural struggle faced by the island since 1898. Notable among these works were "La Llamarada" (Flash of Fire) and "Los Amos Benevolos" (The Benevolent Masters), by Enrique A. Laguerre (born 1906).

Another notable novelist was Pedro Juan Soto (born 1928), who lived in New York, taught English, and was a true bilingual writer. Among his best-known works were Spiks, which appeared in 1956, and Usmail published in 1958.

The most distinguished Puerto Rican playwright was René Marqués, author of the three-act "La Carreta "(The Oxcart). This play depicts the poor economic condition that led to mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the United States.

Interesting Fact
The Spanish alphabet 27 letters of the Latin alphabet plus the letter Ñ. One more than the English alphabet; five vowels and 22 consonants.

There are three sounds in the Spanish language which are represented by digraphs, namely ch, ll and rr. Traditionally ch and ll were alphabetized after c and l respectively. In 1994 the Spanish Academy dropped this custom, because it makes alphabetization too different from other European languages.

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Did You Know?

Puerto Ricans have voted in five referendums on the issue of statehood, in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017.