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Article Puerto Rican Song

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Left to right: Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Losada who performed Spanish songs from Puerto Rico on April 10, 1939, collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Oakland

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony between 1493, when it was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus, and 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in the wake of the Spanish-American War.

In 1900, the United States Congress established a civil government on the island. In 1917, owing to pressure from Puerto Rican independence activists, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act, which granted American citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, those that settle in the continental United States are considered migrants rather than foreign immigrants.

Puerto Ricans have been moving to the United States since the nineteenth century. The initial émigrés were political exiles that used New York as a base for their efforts to gain Puerto Rican independence. Poverty and unemployment led to waves of immigration after the Second World War, aided by cheap airfares between Puerto Rico and the United States. Even as conditions in Puerto Rico have improved, Puerto Ricans continue to move between the United States and their island in a pattern of "circular migration."

New York City has the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the United States. There are also sizeable communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark.

Some of the well-known types of Puerto Rican music are polyrhythmic, blending intricate African percussion with melodic Spanish beats. The emergence of the North American pop music, radio and movie industries has had a major impact on Puerto Rican music trends.

The Puerto Rican folk music forms of bomba and plena have gained widespread popularity in the United States. Bombas are sung a cappella to African drum rhythms. Most bomba songs are about every day life and activities. Plenas often feature additional percussion instruments, accordion and cuatro (ten-stringed steel guitar). These songs are more news-driven than bombas. Plena was known as the periodico cantado or "sung newspaper" because it spread information about events among the working classes, like Mexican corridos.

Música jíbara is a broad term for Puerto Rican folk song from rural areas that includes a number of other genres. One type of Música jíbara centers on a music and dance form known as seis and features such instruments as the cuatro, the six-stringed Spanish guitar and the guiro (gourd scraper). A style of Puerto Rican narrative songs that do not include the African rhythms of Plena also exists in the countryside. The recording of "Bolero Sentimental," sung by Elinor Rodriguez in 1939, is an example of a song about a depression and its effect on country people. It describes an event which was among those that led to migrations to the continental United States.

Aguinaldo is a type of Música jíbara particularly performed during the Christmas holiday season, when musicians go from house to house singing improvised, Christmas-themed lyrics and asking for small gifts of money or food. Examples of include Aguinaldo is "La Estrella del Oriente," sung by Cruz Losada, "Venid Pastores," sung by Aurora Calderon, and "Si me dan Pasteles an Aguinaldo," sung by Aurora Calderon.

Ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded twelve Puerto Rican songs in California in 1939, including the above examples. All of these are available in this presentation. An example of a patriotic song about Puerto Rico is also among these recordings: "La Tierruca," performed by Aurora Calderon (spelled "La Terruca" in the collector's notes).

Vocal artists with Puerto Rican roots have achieved national and sometimes international fame across a variety of musical genres. In the pop music world, notable Puerto Rican singers include Ricky Martin, who helped to spur interest in new Latin beat styles among mainstream American audiences in the late 1990s, Marc Anthony, a top selling Salsa and Latin hip-hop songwriter and performer, and Jennifer Lopez, who has sold over 70 million records worldwide and performs songs in a range of styles from Latin pop to R&B.

Starting in the nineteenth century, Puerto Rican singers have gained acclaim in the classical music realm. Notable opera performers who achieved fame at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, among other major venues, include Justino Diaz, Martina Arroyo, Ana María Martínez and Graciela Rivera Zumchak.

The Puerto Rican musical theatre artists such as Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera have enjoyed long careers on the Broadway stage. Meanwhile the Puerto Rican singer-guitarist-composer José Felciano is known for many international hits including the 1970 Christmas single "Feliz navidad."


  • "The Chicano Civil Rights Movement" (Songs of America).
  • Larsen, Ronald The Puerto Ricans in America (Lerner Publishing Group, 1993)
  • The Library of Congress National Jukebox features two commercial recordings by female vocal quartets accompanied by violin and piano of traditional Puerto Rican songs sung in Spanish: "La Terruca" ("La Tierruca") and "Las Vacaciones." Both recordings were made in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1917.
  • "Mexican American Song" (Songs of America).
  • Other Puerto Rican song collections in the Library of Congress archives include the Richard A. Waterman collection of folk songs of Puerto Rico, a collection of field recordings of songs recorded in Puerto Rico by Richard A. Waterman of Northwestern University in July and August 1946 in a cooperative recording project with the Puerto Rican Office of Information and the Library of Congress and the Henrietta Yurchenco Collection of Puerto Rican Recordings, field recordings from Puerto Rico collected by Henrietta Yurchenco between 1967-1979. Also, see the finding aid, Puerto Rico Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
  • "South American, Central American, Mexican, and Caribbean Musics," by Daniel Sheehy and Steven Loza in Ellen Koskoff, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) Section on Puerto Rican music pp725-727
  • "Spanish American Song" (Songs of America).
  • Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups p858-867. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981)
  • See more articles about Ethnic Song in America

About this Item


  • Puerto Rican Song


  • -  Immigration and Migration
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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