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The History of Puerto Rico: When the Jíbaros Came to Town

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The 1800s saw a gradual shift in Puerto Rico from a military fortification to an agricultural resource. In the late 1700s, the island began to produce coffee, and it quickly became Puerto Rico's most lucrative export. In addition, the rich soil became a source of tobacco and sugar. And in the middle of this agricultural revolution was a working class that has become synonymous with Puerto Rican culture: the Jíbaro.

The Rise of the Jíbaros
The Jíbaros were the country folk from the interior of Puerto Rico who were principally farmers and laborers. It was largely on their backs that the agricultural boom took place. The Jíbaros worked the fields and plantations of the hacendados, or Spanish landowners. The arrangement was typical for the times: Jíbaros weren't slaves (the Spanish imported slaves from Africa), but they were an impoverished and uneducated group. And, like the slaves, they found their voices in music; today, the songs of the Jíbaros are a celebrated part of the island's culture. The Jíbaros also became the subject of paintings and other artistic expressions by some of Puerto Rico's most renowned masters.

A Bad Time for Spain
By the 1800s, Spain was suffering the fate of its fellow colonial empires. With its far-flung territories either lost or in danger of rebelling, the crown spent more money and effort to maintain control of its New World jewels. At this point, those jewels consisted of Cuba and Puerto Rico and, naturally, the island began to occupy a larger share of the Spanish spotlight.

To help prevent potential unrest, Spain granted conditional citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1812 and, three years later, lifed the trade embargo it had imposed on its colonies; this gave the local residents "legitimate" trading opportunities with other nations for the first time since it became a colony (those opportunities existed before in the form of smuggling, a huge and profitable business on the island). Also, Spain now allowed foreign settlers on the island, and even offered land grants in exchange for loyalty to the crown and the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks to these reforms (which were sadly quite temporary), the island grew and prospered.

During this time, Puerto Rico's art, architecture and education all flourished; but hand in hand with this came a political awakening and a groundswell of support for independence. Interestingly, however, this was not a unanimous sentiment; many Puerto Ricans preferred to maintain the status quo, with a few modifications to the existing arrangement. It's the same position that Puero Ricans find themselves in today.

El Grito de Lares
The quest for autonomy reached a turning point on September 23, 1868, when a physician named Ramón E. Betances staged a revolt in the small town of Lares. The uprising, which was comprised of several hundred men and women, came to be known as El Grito de Lares, or "The Cry of Lares." It was not a success: the revolution was quelled within a day's time. But it is significant because it remains the only time in their 400-year history that Puerto Ricans have ever rebelled in force against Spain.

El Grito de Lares was the spark that led to further reforms as the Spanish tried to maintain order in their colony. In 1870, th e island's first political parties were formed; two years later, slavery was finally abolished. And, as the 19th Century drew to a close, one man came along who changed the island's fortune forever: Luis Muñoz Rivera.

Known as the "George Washington of Puerto Rico," Rivera spearheaded a political charge for autonomy that led to the Spanish granting Puerto Ricans political and administrative authority. On February 9, 1898, the new, independent government of Puerto Rico began under the leadership of Muñoz Rivera. And then the Spanish-American War began.

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