Did You Know that Puerto Rico has an Arab Community?
History of Puerto Rico and the Colonial Migration of Arabs to the Island
By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer
The island of Puerto Rico is one of the main islands of the Greater Antilles and has a land area of around 3,515 square miles, while its culture is a mixture of African, Native American, and Spanish influences. This cultural mixture is a product of the island’s long and interesting history, and the settling of three distinct people groups. The first people to set foot on the island were the native Taíno and it’s from them that we get the word Boricua, the term that native Puerto Ricans use to describe their island and themselves, which derives from the Tainos’ name for the island, Boriken. Several centuries after the Taíno first settled the island it was soon to be colonized by the second group of people, the Spanish in the 15th century. The impacts of the Spanish colonization was the introduction of the Spanish language and Catholicism, but there were also devastating consequences as well such as European diseases and Spanish maltreatment which wiped out the native Taínos. Once the Spanish had extensively colonized the island they created a plantation economy based on growing sugar and other raw materials. This plantation economy was soon to be worked by the third group of people, slaves from Africa, and this forced labor helped the Spanish to obtain great profits. The island of Puerto Rico then transferred from the Spanish to the Americans as a result of the Spanish-American War which took place in the year 1898, and the Americans have ruled the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico since then. This long history of Puerto Rico has seen influences from Africa, Europe, and the Americas with the native Taíno. However, where do Arabs and Muslims fit into this mosaic of Puerto Rican heritage and culture?
The first Arabs to come over from the old world to Puerto Rico could have started as early as the initial Spanish colonization of the island. The reason for this was that there were many Arabs, Berbers, and native Muslim Iberians who formed the core of the population of Al-Andalus, Muslim ruled Iberia, which has had a long history as an emirate and a caliphate. Soon, this caliphate of Al-Andalus, known as the Caliphate of Cordoba, would be divided into numerous taifa states being successively dominated by Muslim powers from modern-day North Africa as well as by Iberian Christian kingdoms. However, it would be these Christian kingdoms that would conquer the taifa states one by one and form the modern nations of Spain and Portugal. This Christian conquest of Al-Andalus, known to many as the Reconquista, reached its end in 1492 with the siege of Grenada, which was the same year that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. The end of the Reconquista soon led to the oppression of the Arabs, Berbers, and Iberian Muslims who were either forced to convert, leave Spain, or be executed with the most famous event stemming from this being the Spanish Inquisition. Faced with few options, the Arabs that didn’t leave or were executed converted to Catholicism or they had to hide their religion as they moved to Puerto Rico during the Spanish colonization of the island, and while these Arabs came to Puerto Rico early on by willingly settling on the island, other Arabs were brought to the island by force. According to mvslim.com, there were some Arabs who were enslaved and forced along with populations from Africa to grow crops such as sugar as well as coffee, and cacao. These two different migration trends both resulted in the Arabs assimilating into the mixture of African, Spanish, and Taíno cultures. This fact means that there are Puerto Ricans on the island that has Arab heritage and are completely unaware of it, and while this migration to Puerto Rico began during the colonial era, the modern migration of Arabs would not begin until the 20th century.
The Modern Migration of Arabs and Information of The Modern Day Arab and Muslim Community
The modern migration of Arabs started when many Palestinians fled from their homeland due to the creation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars. According to Arab News, the Muslim population of Puerto Rico has increased over the years from 2,000 in 1970, to 4,500 in 1990, to around 5,300 Muslims today which is around 0.13% of the total Puerto Rican population, and out of these 5,300 individuals around ⅔ are Palestinians. However, despite making up a majority of Puerto Rican Muslims, the Palestinian population has remained constant even though the Muslim population has doubled since the 1970s when Palestinians had a share of around 80%. Today the remaining ⅓ of Muslims are composed of Syrians, Egyptians, other Arabs, and Pakistanis and most of them live in the two cities of San Juan and Caguas.
The influence of this small Muslim community being composed mostly of Arabs can be seen with the few mosques that are dotted around the island. According to mvslim.com, there are currently 9 mosques in Puerto Rico with the first mosque created in 1981 near the city of Rio Piedras near the University of Puerto Rico. Masjid Vega Alta, the second and largest mosque on the island, was built in 1992 and it is around a half an hour drive from San Juan. The other 7 mosques on the island are located in Jayuya in the central region of the island, Ponce, which is a city on the southern coast, Aguadilla near the west coast, the San Juan suburb of Montehiedra, Loiza also a suburb of San Juan, Hatillo on the northwest of the island, and Farjado on the eastern side of the island. The mosque that is in Fajardo is somewhat of a tourist attraction with its blue and gold dome representing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Along with the Palestinians, Egyptians, and other Arab Muslims that have arrived during modern times, there are also Puerto Ricans with longer roots on the island who are converting to Islam. Many of these Puerto Ricans claim to be descendants of the original population of Al Andalus and are reverting back to the Islamic faith of their ancestors. According to Arab News, the Muslim population will increase to around 6,700 by 2100, which is around 0.22% of the population, due to the conversion of these Puerto Ricans as well as the steady birthrates of other Muslim Puerto Ricans.
Today many Arab and Muslim Puerto Ricans are trying to strike a balance between their Muslim and Arab backgrounds and their Puerto Rican nationality. Despite these Puerto Ricans having some Arab heritage and some Puerto Ricans converting to Islam, they still want to keep their Puerto Rican identity. According to theconservation.com, they are in search of a “Boricua Islamidad” which refers to a unique Puerto Rican Muslim identity that is not completely assimilated into Arab cultural norms as they try to find out what it means to be a Puerto Rican as well as a Muslim. Even though there are some problems with regard to their identity, Arab and Muslim Puerto Ricans are still a part of Puerto Rico’s story and will always have an influence on this small Caribbean island nation.
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