Puerto Rico's literary practice got off to a late start compared to the country's other cultural developments. For many years, the written word was suppressed by the Spanish government, except for the few instances when it was used to benefit the Spanish monarchy. Soon after the American takeover of Puerto Rico, the development of literature began to progress rapidly, and the various genres started to flourish in this commonwealth state, especially poetry.
The advancement of literature throughout the country's history can be classified into three main eras: the early development of literature, 19th century literature, and 20th century Puerto Rican literature. Many distinguished authors, poets, and playwrights have emerged from the desolate past of Puerto Rico's literary history, greatly influencing the culture, society, and overall ethnology of this amazing Caribbean country.
During the first three centuries of Puerto Rico's development as a country, the literature on the island was almost non-existent. The Spanish Colonial Government, which controlled Puerto Rico at the time, prohibited the native islanders from having access to books and other written documents. Islanders who were caught with any literature were subject to punishments like prison terms, or could even be ex-communicated from the island. Spanish government officials feared that introduction of literature would allow the aboriginal people to develop their own cultural and social identity, which would eventually cause the Puerto Ricans to seek their independence. Because it was forbidden for the locals to read, the illiteracy rate in Puerto Rico was at 80 percent in the early part of the 19th century.
The only people who were allowed access to libraries and who were allowed to buy books were members of the Spanish government and wealthy land owners. The poor citizens of Puerto Rico developed the tradition of oral storytelling, which is known as coplas and decimas on the island. These oral manifestations kept much of the islanders' history and folklore alive.
Some of the major writers during this time of sparse literary production were Spanish authors like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Fray Tomás de la Torre, Bartolomé de las Casas, and a few others. The writings of these authors were primarily records kept so that the Spanish king could be aware of what was happening in his colonies. Other literary influences on Puerto Rico during this time period include written descriptions of the conquest and colonization of the island, as well as physical descriptions of the land written by early settlers, governors, and friars. These written accounts give insight into the living conditions on Puerto Rico and in the Caribbean before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Of these writers, one of the most notable is Juan Ponce de León II , who was the first governor of Puerto Rico. León wrote a number of letters to both the monarchs and religious hierarchies in Spain, in which he explained the condition of the West Indies. The governor's writings included the first accounts of the conquistadors, as well as depictions of the Taíno people's mythological rites, and some vocabulary from the Taíno, which has survived even until now in town names like Humacao, Coamo, Utuado, and Caguas. It is believed that the Taíno language has been extinct since the 16th century except in remote parts of the island that still practice the Amerindian culture.
The history of literature on Puerto Rico changed drastically when the printing press was introduced from Mexico in 1806. During the same year, Juan Rodriguez Calderon wrote a book titled Ocios de la Juventud, which was the first book to be published on Puerto Rico. The next major progression for literature on Puerto Rico came in 1851 when Juan de la Pezuela Cevallo, the Spanish-appointed governor of the island, created the Royal Academy of Belles Letters, which certified primary school teachers, designed school methods, and held literary contests. Although the founding of the Royal Academy was a big step toward literacy on the island, it was primarily to the benefit of wealthy citizens and government officials.
During the 19th century, literature on Puerto Rico was greatly affected by the Romanticism movement. Many journalists expressed their views to the public through newspapers, and then later by writing books that described the social injustices that were taking place during the time, including slavery, and poverty. By speaking out against the Spanish government, these writers were labeled "dangerous liberals," and many were deported from the island. Poets like Francisco Gonzalo Marin, who was also a journalist, spoke against the Spanish crown and was exiled from the island. The ex-communicated writers were sent to places like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or New York. These patriotic writings helped to fuel a revolt called the Grito de Lares in 1868. Although heartfelt, the efforts of the Puerto Rican citizens to upset the Spanish government were a failure.
In 1869, Americans invaded Puerto Rico and were welcomed by many authors and other literary personalities who believed that the island would gain its independence, but instead Puerto Rico was claimed as a territory of the United States. Many authors openly expressed their disapproval of the Americanization of their island through poetry and other patriotic writings, creating a high turnout of literary works. Puerto Rican writers and poets like Virgilio Davila, Luís Llorens Torres, Luís Palés Matos, and essayists like Nemesio Canales followed in the footsteps of Modernist writer Ruben Darío of Nicaragua in taking the first steps away from Spanish literature.
After America's takeover of Puerto Rico, many of the islanders moved to the United States but still wanted to maintain their Puerto Rican cultural identities. The emergence of a Puerto Rican sub-culture in the United States brought about racial discrimination toward the native islanders, which prompted the Nuyorican Movement. This movement was made up of a group of intellectuals, including writers and poets some of whom founded the Nuyorican Poets Café.
Puerto Rico has produced an accomplished group of writers in various literary genres, including poets, playwrights, essayists, and novelists. Although there are many Puerto Rican writers producing different styles of literature, most of the island's writers are poets. Many of these writers were avid patriots, which is reflected throughout their works that give accounts of social, political, and psychological aspects of life on the island. Puerto Rico's academics often write analytic works about Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland. Some of the most current popular writers from Puerto Rico include Rosario Ferré, Mayra Calvani, Esmeralda Santiago, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Jesús Colón, and a new breed of poets like Mayra Santos Febres and Edwin Torres.
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