Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth

The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico began its unique relationship with the United States when it became a U.S. commonwealth.

Summary of Event

On July 25, 1952, the flag of Puerto Rico was raised in ceremonies marking the creation of the Associated Free State, or Commonwealth, of Puerto Rico. This was the culmination of more than fifty years of efforts to define the relationship between the Caribbean island and the United States. Luís Muñoz Marín, soon to become the first governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, had led efforts to establish the commonwealth. However, there was, and remains, opposition by Puerto Ricans who favor full independence and from others who wish Puerto Rico to become the fifty-first state in the Union. The plebiscite in 1952 and subsequent votes have continued to produce a majority that favors commonwealth status. United States;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico]
Puerto Rico
[kw]Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth (July 25, 1952)
[kw]Commonwealth, Puerto Rico Becomes a (July 25, 1952)
United States;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico]
Puerto Rico
[g]Caribbean;July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth[03840]
[g]West Indies;July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth[03840]
[g]United States;July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth[03840]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth[03840]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth[03840]
[c]Independence movements;July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico Becomes a Commonwealth[03840]
Albizú Campos, Pedro
[p]Albizú Campos, Pedro
Muñoz Marín, Luis
Piñero, Jesús T.
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico]
Tugwell, Rexford Guy

The United States obtained Puerto Rico from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Previously, Puerto Ricans had urged Spain to reform its colonial administration, and some had sought independence from Spain. In 1900, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act Foraker Act (1900) , which established an island government headed by a governor appointed by the president. (The first indigenous governor was Jesús T. Piñero, who was in office from 1946-1949.) A legislature was established: Puerto Ricans could elect representatives to a Council of Delegates; the upper chamber was appointed by the U.S. president. This local body had advisory powers only, and most decisions regarding the island were made in Washington, D.C. There, an elected representative from Puerto Rico could sit in the House of Representatives but could not vote on legislation in the full House. Puerto Ricans finally obtained U.S. citizenship in 1917, when the Jones Act Jones Act (1917) was passed by Congress. It also allowed Puerto Ricans to elect representatives to both houses of their island legislature. Not until 1947 could they elect their own governor.

The two most influential individuals in Puerto Rico’s search for political identity were Pedro Albizú Campos and Luís Muñoz Marín. Albizú Campos was educated in the United States and joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP) in 1927. Becoming president of the party in 1930, he led it into opposition against U.S. control and sought alliances with other Latin Americans. Lacking support at the polls, however, Albizú Campos became more radical. In 1936, he was accused of plotting to overthrow the federal government in Puerto Rico and was sent to a federal prison in Atlanta.

Muñoz Marín also was determined to bring self-government to Puerto Rico, but became convinced that this goal would be best achieved through continued association with the United States. Muñoz Marín and his Popular Democratic Party Popular Democratic Party, Puerto Rican won the first election for governor in 1947 and began negotiations with the United States to recognize the islanders’ desires for their own constitution. The Nationalist Party opposed Muñoz Marín and favored complete independence. Muñoz Marín served as governor from 1949 to 1965.

Pro-independence supporters were angered by the Harry S. Truman administration’s collaboration with Muñoz Marín and the passage of Public Law 600, which amended the Jones Act and renamed it the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act (1950) of 1950, authorizing a constitutional convention. In the fall of 1950, they attacked a prison in Rio Piedras, stormed the governor’s mansion, and tried to assassinate Truman in Washington, D.C. The attacks were unsuccessful but highlighted divisions among Puerto Ricans over the island’s future. The violence led to a state of emergency and the mobilization of the National Guard, which took over the University of Puerto Rico and stormed the home of the Nationalist Party leader. Dozens of people were killed in the fighting. Albizú Campos, having served his sentence and returned to Puerto Rico, was again arrested.

In June, 1951, Puerto Ricans went to the polls to elect members of a constitutional convention. Seventy delegates from Muñoz Marín’s Popular Democratic Party, fifteen supporters of statehood, and seven who favored independence were elected.

The constitutional convention met in 1951-1952 and produced a document that identified Puerto Rico as an Associated Free State, a unique relationship that allowed Puerto Ricans to benefit from U.S. citizenship but gave them the opportunity to elect their own island government. Falling somewhere between a state and a colony, Puerto Rico can elect its own governor, a twenty-seven- member senate, and a fifty-one-member house of representatives. Puerto Ricans may not vote in U.S. presidential elections, and their representative in Congress may not vote on legislation on the floor. This places restrictions on Puerto Rico, because any changes to the island’s status may be approved only by Congress.

When the Puerto Rican constitution was sent to the U.S. Congress for approval in 1952, there was much debate and changes were proposed to provisions that differed from the U.S. constitution. Eventually, Congress passed the legislation, and President Truman signed it into law, establishing Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth in Association with the United States.


The question of the island’s status was complicated by the continued migration of islanders to the United States. Approximately seventy thousand Puerto Ricans lived in the United States, mostly in New York, before World War II. Continued population growth on the island and cheaper transportation by air brought more Puerto Ricans to the United States in the years after the war. By 1987, there were more than two million Puerto Ricans in the United States, with more than half of that number in New York City and environs. By the 1990’s, there were more Puerto Ricans in New York City than in the island’s capital city of San Juan, a fact that was confirmed by the U.S. Census of 2000.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans may move freely anywhere within the United States mainland, as well as back and forth to the island. More and more Puerto Ricans have chosen to migrate to the mainland, but many, whose native language is Spanish, find that adaptation to the new language and culture is not easy. Many Puerto Ricans study English and speak it well, but those who first come to the United States often encounter a period of adjustment. In addition to language difficulties, Puerto Ricans often encounter racial discrimination in the United States.

Although the Puerto Rican community has transformed parts of New York City and many other cities of the Northeast, many Puerto Ricans maintain strong ties to their island. Their participation in both lands is part of the unique identity the island and its people feel, and is reflected by the reluctance of many Puerto Ricans to sever the bonds created by commonwealth status. United States;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico]
Puerto Rico

Further Reading

  • Carr, Raymond. Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment. New York: New York University Press, 1984. Part 2 deals with the status of Puerto Rico, focusing on the policies and platforms of major Puerto Rican political parties.
  • Carrion, Arturo Morales, ed. Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. A thorough evaluation of Puerto Rico’s history and a detailed account of Puerto Rico’s emergence in the mid-twentieth century as a commonwealth.
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. 2d. ed. New York: Perennial, 2002. Chapter 12 compares the experiences of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in the United States. Contains many statistics regarding income. Discusses questions of race and religion.
  • Fernandez, Ronald. The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. Heavily footnoted, detailed account of political ties between Puerto Rico and the United States. Provides much information regarding the internal politics of Washington, D.C., and San Juan.
  • Langley, Lester D. America and the Americas: The United States in the Western Hemisphere. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. Contains a critical analysis of U.S. policy in Puerto Rico, especially pages 184-188, with a perspective of cultural imperialism. Discusses the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States through the Cold War.
  • Meléndez, Edwin, and Edgardo Meléndez, eds. Colonial Dilemma: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico. Boston: South End Press, 1993. Claims Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. Includes chapters on contemporary politics, the economy, and feminism.
  • Picó, Fernando. A General History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of Its People. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2005. A leading Puerto Rican historian provides a rich and compelling history of Puerto Rico, from its earliest times to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Highly recommended.
  • Wagenheim, Karl. Puerto Rico: A Profile. 2d ed. New York: Praeger, 1975. Provides an overview of Puerto Rico’s history and economy. Good chapters on the diaspora, society, and culture. Includes a chronology, many useful statistics, and a sympathetic understanding of the island and its people.

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