Media Resource

BackStory: After Hurricane Maria - The History of Puerto Rico and the United States

The Puerto Rican flag
Photo caption

The Puerto Rican flag, though it shares the color scheme and many of the visual elements of the U.S. flag, was actually inspired by the Cuban flag and the struggle Cuban and Puerto Rican independence fighters shared, first against Spain, and then against the United States.

Even though Puerto Rico has been part of the United States for over a century, confusion persists about its legal status and that of the U.S. citizens that live on the island. And with reason: though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they lack voting representation in Congress, and cannot vote for president, unless they leave the island and move to one of the fifty states.

This episode of BackStory explores the history of the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, characterized by what scholar Amílcar Barreto calls “malign neglect.”

A full transcript for this episode can be found on the BackStory website.

José Julio Henna and the Invasion of Puerto Rico (00:50-7:28)

Comprehension Questions

  • What hopes did Henna have for the role of the United States in securing freedom for Puerto Rico?
  • According to Henna and de Hostos’s manifesto, what would happen once Spanish colonial control of Puerto Rico ended?
  • How were hopes for independence and more radical social change dashed?
What is Puerto Rico? (7:30-19:25)

Comprehension Questions

  • What parallel does Erman note between the year that Puerto Rico became a part of the United States, and Hurricane Maria in 2017?
  • Why does Puerto Rico face difficulties in getting needed federal aid?
  • Hawai‘i was annexed in 1898, just the year before Puerto Rico. Yet Hawai‘i is a state, and Puerto Rico is not. Why?
  • According to Erman, why is Puerto Rican citizenship second-class?
  • How are Puerto Ricans compelled to secure political influence, given they do not have a voting representative in Congress?

Additional Resources

Find a more thorough discussion of the history of Puerto Rico’s legal status vis-a-vis the United States at U.S. History Scene. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College provides a series of teaching guides about Puerto Rico with activities adaptable for all grade levels.

Spell Check (19:35-32:05)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why did the spelling mistake leading to the erroneous “Porto Rico” take so long to get changed back to Puerto Rico?
  • What were some arguments offered by members of Congress to oppose correcting Puerto Rico’s name?
  • According to Barreto, what was underlying the decades of opposition to correcting Puerto Rico’s name?
  • How does the debate about Puerto Rico’s name connect to larger debates about the island’s status and that of Puerto Ricans?

Additional Resources

Learn more about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland with NPR's history podcast, Throughline.

No More Annexation: Assassination! (32:35-41:35)

Comprehension Questions

  • What are some of the different paths have Puerto Rican activists and politicians advocated in the 20th century?
  • How did Albizu Campos respond to the widespread shift away from independence as a popular political goal in Puerto Rico?
  • To which international body did Puerto Rican nationalists seek to appeal? Why?
  • How did the United States respond to the nationalist uprising?
  • What different interpretations of Albizu Campos do the historians in the podcast offer?
Independence through Sport? (41:55-54:04)

Comprehension Questions

  • What is "sports sovereignty"? In what historical moment did it emerge as a practice?
  • What tensions emerged surrounding sports sovereignty at the 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games?
  • According to Antonio Sotomayor, how has sports sovereignty been successful in reproducing the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico?
About BackStory

Founded in 2008, BackStory is a weekly podcast that explores the historical roots of current events. Hosted by a team of historians of the United States, the show features interviews with other scholars and public historians, seeking to bring U.S. history to life. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the show do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at the BackStory website.