Puerto Rico: mixing Latin American culture with American materialism
Barranquitas (Puerto Rico), December 2nd 2016

Salsa music blares from the loudspeakers of the Mc Donalds. The cheerful, uplifting tones ensure that even we –stiff Dutchies- are gently moving along in our chairs on the tones of the music. Who grows up in Puerto Rico hears this music every day from his birth onwards; this means you have to become a swinging type. At first sight, Puerto Ricans are real Latinos. They always seems to find time to grab a beer with a group of friends in one of the many bars or barbecue restaurants. Yet they have also blended in much of the North American lifestyle. They like spending their Sundays in large shopping centres and they seem to have become one with their car. Drive-through restaurants are always crowded and people also don’t have to come out of their car to collect money from an ATM.

Like more than a million other visitors each year, we arrived at the capital San Juan by cruise ship. Most visitors do not go beyond a visit to the beautifully restored historical centre of San Juan. A few people take a walk in the nearby national park El Yunque, but outside these places you don’t see a lot of other travellers. We have spent three weeks in Puerto Rico to try to get to know it a bit better; Puerto Rico seems a stranger in the Caribbean.

Old colonial architecture in Old San Juan

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean which is a territory of the United States. It is not a US state and not part of a particular state. Puerto Ricans living on the island do have an American passport, but are not allowed to vote for the US presidential election. They have some independence, but on the main issues the United States has the final say. The senator that Puerto Rico sends to Washington can speak to the senate, but he/she cannot cast a vote. A strange situation for a country that tries to promote democracy worldwide. The US passport makes sure that Puerto Ricans can settle without problems on the US mainland to work there. The economic crisis has left deep scars in the Puerto Rican economy. Many factories have closed and unemployment here is twice as high (approximately 13.8%) than on the mainland. The average wage that they can earn on the island is only half (about $ 17,000) of the average salary in the rest of America. However, the price level of groceries in Puerto Rico is even higher than on the mainland. Some Puerto Ricans told us that this is because the US does not allow Puerto Rican businesses to import goods directly. Everything must first go through the customs of the mainland of the US; even if agricultural products are coming from the neighbouring island Dominican Republic.

With this economic situation it is understandable that many Puerto Ricans spend part of their lives on the mainland of the US to work or to study. Yet there are few who go there, that feel more American than Puerto Rican. They rather take a part of their society to the US than to blend into American society; so, they prefer to stay in Puerto Rican neighbourhoods where the Puerto Rican flag waves proudly. In Puerto Rico, however, American franchise companies have taken a firm market share. Every medium-sized town has at least a McDonalds, a Burger King and a Subway restaurant. The music continues to be Latin American and the language is undoubtedly Spanish. Many people are bilingual, but large parts of the population only speak Spanish.

Us in the Estadio Hiram Bithorn for the baseball game between Santurce and Mayagüez, two of Puerto Ricans major teams

As we drive through the lush green countryside, we regularly see men sitting under a tree with their fighting cock. The cock is being pampered until the moment he has to fight. Cockfighting is banned in the US, but here it is allowed and very popular. An average fight lasts only 30 seconds and afterwards one of the pampered roosters end in the cooking pot.

Outside the densely populated areas, the American influence is less obvious. The road network is in very poor condition, houses look old, but the gardens are kept tidy. We estimate that at least fifty percent of the cars has lighting that is partly broken and the driving style can be called "passionate". On winding, narrow mountain roads people drive fast and reckless. They have to be fast, because Puerto Ricans should have time to enjoy life with his friends while drinking a beer.

We guess that the main reason why the Puerto Rican do not want to become too American, is because they are better in one important thing. They are poorer and have much less power, but they master the art of being happy. A recent study has shown that Puerto Ricans are among the happiest people in the world (with a score of 4.67 on a scale of 1 to 5). The other US residents only scored 3.47 points. The Puerto Ricans don’t mind taking over some nice and convenient things from the Americans, but in the end: life has to remain fun.

Playing volleyball at sunset a Playa Isla Verde
Tropical forest of Humacao
Colonial architecture in picturesque San German
Salt trucks at the salt pans of Cabo Roja

Ivonne films a snail in El Yunque National Park

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