Official name of puerto rico: Why Isn’t Puerto Rico a State?

FAQ: What is Puerto Rico? Is it part of the United States? (Updated)

It’s 2020, and Puerto Rico is voting again on whether to become a state of the United States. But what exactly is it now? Is Puerto Rico part of the United States, and can its people vote in US elections? Find all your answers here! 

This is a revised and expanded version of an explainer we originally published in November 2012.

Is Puerto Rico a state of the US? If not, then what is it?

The US territory of Puerto Rico. (Public domain map from CIA World Factbook)

Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking island region in the Caribbean, is a United States territory, but not one of the country’s 50 states. 

Since it was taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico has been an overseas territory of the United States (known in US legal jargon as an «insular area»).  

Puerto Rico is also often called a «commonwealth» — a word from its official English name, the «Commonwealth of Puerto Rico» (no relation to the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire). The word «commonwealth» here is pretty much just a synonym for «democracy», referring to the territory’s republic-style system of local government. Several US states also have «commonwealth» in their full formal names.

 

Is Puerto Rico a country?

Puerto Rico isn’t an independent country, since it’s under US control. But it is sometimes treated like a separate nation, participating as an observer in some international organizations (with US approval), and sending its own teams to the Olympics and FIFA soccer matches.

Learn More: Which Countries Are and Aren’t in the Olympics?

 

 

So is Puerto Rico part of the United States or not?

Technically, Puerto Rico isn’t considered part of the US, even though certain laws treat it like it is (for example, it’s included in the US for import and export purposes). Instead, the law says it belongs to the US as a type of possession called an «unincorporated territory».

Unincorporated territories are places where courts have said the US constitution doesn’t apply unless and until the the US government says so. It’s also possible for a territory to be «incorporated» as part of the country. Besides the 50 states and the District of Columbia national capital zone (Washington, DC), the only incorporated territory of the US today is the remote, uninhabited Pacific island of Palmyra Atoll.

Location of Puerto Rico relative to the U.S.
Map by TUBS/Wikimedia Commons (source; CC BY-SA)

But in many ways Puerto Rico seems like a part of the US. Federal government offices have a major presence on the island, and its
financial, postal, and telephone systems are integrated with the rest of the country.  

Although the territory has no voting representation in the US legislature, it does
have a non-voting delegate, known as
the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico.

 

Why is Puerto Rico not a state?

In short, because its people haven’t firmly asked for it. Though the original decision not to make Puerto Rico part of the the US was based on blatantly racist court rulings in the early 1900s, its people voted in 1967 to remain a self-governing territory instead of a state.

Several referendums since then have been less conclusive. Support for Puerto Rico’s current status has plummeted, but votes in 2012 and 2017 were carried out in controversial ways, failing to a get a clear picture of whether the majority of Puerto Ricans want to become a US state (more details in our article on the 2012 referendum).

But that might be about to change. In November 2020, Puerto Ricans will finally get the chance to vote on statehood with a simple YES or NO. And if they choose yes, there’s a very real chance the territory could become a state in the coming years. To learn all about what’s happening, how things might turn out, and how Puerto Rico would compare to the other 50 (or 51) states, check out our explainer on the 2020 Puerto Rico statehood referendum.

Are Puerto Ricans Americans?

Yes. Anyone born in Puerto Rico is automatically a US citizen. They’re also citizens of Puerto Rico — but since this second citizenship isn’t from an independent country, they have to use US passports to travel internationally. 

Although their citizenship is granted by the US legislature and not guaranteed by the US constitution, today Puerto Ricans are legally considered Americans in every way. That includes eligibility to serve in the US military, where quite a few of them have risen to high ranks. But voting is a different story…

Can Puerto Ricans vote in US elections?

It’s complicated. Since Puerto Rico has no senators or voting representatives in the US legislature, residents of Puerto Rico don’t have any way to vote for representation in the US government.  

Similarly, since the president of the United States isn’t elected through a popular vote, but by electors appointed by the states and the District of Columbia (DC), Puerto Rico residents aren’t able to vote in the main presidential election.

Territory Name:  
• Puerto Rico (English, Spanish)
Official Name:  
• Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (English)
• Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (Spanish)
Capital: San Juan

But notice that we said Puerto Rico residents. Since all American citizens have the right to live anywhere in
the US, a Puerto Rican who moves to one of the 50
states can vote for president or legislators there instead. And many do move — some even serve in the legislature as representatives of their new states. 

It also goes both ways: If
an American from the states moves to Puerto Rico, they can’t vote
for legislators or the president unless they’re still a legal resident of one of
the states or DC (or if they’re in the military). Former residents of the states who live overseas would qualify to vote from abroad, but in the voting laws Puerto Rico doesn’t count as «overseas» — another case of it being treated as part of the US even though other laws say it technically isn’t (see above).

All that said, residents of Puerto Rico actually do have a bit of influence over the choice of US
president: The presidential primaries, where the two major US political parties let voters choose who their candidate for president will be, are separate from the electoral college, and the parties allow Puerto Rico to participate in those.

In March 2016, voter majorities in Puerto Rico chose Marco Rubio over Donald Trump to run as the Republican candidate for president, and Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. In July 2020, Joe Biden received the most votes to represent the Democrats against President Donald Trump.

 

Can a Puerto Rican be president of the US?

Probably. People born in Puerto Rico are usually considered «natural-born» US citizens, which qualifies them to run for president — but only after living in the states or DC for at least 14 years (living in Puerto Rico doesn’t count).  

There’s a common misconception in the US that the constitution clearly excludes people born outside the country from becoming president. What it actually says is that the president must be a «natural-born citizen», a phrase that’s interpreted different ways by different legal experts. 

Many think it includes anyone who gets citizenship based on the circumstances of their birth, whether that’s from being born inside the US, being born abroad to US parents, or being born in a territory like Puerto Rico. Some do argue that anyone born outside the the US proper would be excluded, but they seem to be in the minority, and the question has never been firmly settled by either the courts or the legislature.

Does Puerto Rico pay US taxes?

Yes, but with one massive exception: Most Puerto Rico residents who make their money within the territory get a special exemption from the federal income tax. However, they still have to pay several smaller or less common federal taxes, like Social Security, business taxes, and estate taxes.  

Puerto Rico’s territorial government also levies its own taxes, including an income tax and a sales tax, on residents of the islands.

What kind of government does Puerto Rico have?

Municipalities of Puerto Rico (click to enlarge). Map by NordNordwest & Kmusser (source). License: CC BY-SA

Currently, Puerto Rico is a constitutional republic like each of the 50 states — however, as an «organized territory» instead of a state, its government’s authority doesn’t come from the US constitution. The US legislature had to pass legislation specifically allowing Puerto Rico to write its own constitution, and technically has the power to take that privilege away again if it wanted.

Like the 50 states, Puerto Rico has its own elections, with a democratically-chosen governor and two-chamber legislature. Any American citizen can vote in Puerto Rico, as long as they’ve lived there for at least 30 days. Federal law also requires that US citizens who have moved from Puerto Rico to another country be allowed to vote by mail in Puerto Rican elections, just like people who move abroad from one of the 50 states. 

Read Next: Will Puerto Rico become the 52nd state of the US?

Puerto Rico Fast Facts | CNN

CNN
 — 

Here’s a look at the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a self-governing US territory located in the Caribbean.

(from the CIA World Factbook)

Area: 9,104 sq km

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Population: 3,098,423 (2022 est.)

Median age: 43.6 years

Capital: San Juan

Religion: Roman Catholic 56%, Protestant 33%, other 3%, none 7%

Unemployment: 10. 8% (2017 est.)

Leyla Santiago Death Toll Investigation TRACK

ARMIJO, JOSE/CNN

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Puerto Rico orders review of storm deaths

The people of Puerto Rico are US citizens. They vote in US presidential primaries, but not in presidential elections.

First named San Juan Bautista by Christopher Columbus.

The governor is elected by popular vote with no term limits.

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Jenniffer González has been the resident commissioner since January 3, 2017. The commissioner serves in the US House of Representatives, but has no vote, except in committees. Gonzalez is the first woman to hold this position.

It is made up of 78 municipalities.

Over 40% of the population lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

Puerto Ricans have voted in six referendums on the issue of statehood, in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012, 2017 and 2020. The 2012 referendum was the first time the popular vote swung in statehood’s favor. Since these votes were nonbinding, no action had to be taken, and none was. Ultimately, however, Congress must pass a law admitting them to the union.

In addition to becoming a state, options for Puerto Rico’s future status include remaining a commonwealth, entering “free association” or becoming an independent nation. “Free association” is an official affiliation with the United States where Puerto Rico would still receive military assistance and funding.

1493-1898 — Puerto Rico is a Spanish colony.

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July 25, 1898 — During the Spanish-American War, the United States invades Puerto Rico.

December 10, 1898 — With the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Spain cedes Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. The island is named “Porto Rico” in the treaty.

April 12, 1900 — President William McKinley signs the Foraker Act into law. It designates the island an “unorganized territory,” and allows for one delegate from Puerto Rico to the US House of Representatives with no voting power.

March 2, 1917 — President Woodrow Wilson signs the Jones Act into law, granting the people of Puerto Rico US citizenship.

May 1932 — Legislation changes the name of the island back to Puerto Rico.

November 1948 — The first popularly elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, is voted into office.

July 3, 1950 — President Harry S. Truman signs Public Law 600, giving Puerto Ricans the right to draft their own constitution.

October 1950 — In protest of Public Law 600, Puerto Rican nationalists lead armed uprisings in several Puerto Rican towns.

November 1, 1950 — Puerto Rican nationalists Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempt to shoot their way into Blair House, where President Truman is living while the White House is being renovated. Torresola is killed by police; Collazo is arrested and sent to prison.

June 4, 1951 — In a plebiscite vote, more than three-quarters of Puerto Rican voters approve Public Law 600.

February 1952 — Delegates elected to a constitutional convention approve a draft of the constitution.

March 3, 1952 — Puerto Ricans vote in favor of the constitution.

July 25, 1952 — Puerto Rico becomes a self-governing commonwealth as the constitution is put in place. This is also the anniversary of the United States invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.

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March 1, 1954 — Five members of the House of Representatives are shot on the House floor; Alvin Bentley, (R-MI), Ben Jensen (R-IA), Clifford Davis (D-TN), George Fallon (D-MD) and Kenneth Roberts (D-AL). Four Puerto Rican nationalists, Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodriguez, are arrested and sent to prison. President Jimmy Carter grants Cordero clemency in 1977 and commutes all four of their sentences in 1979.

July 23, 1967 — Commonwealth status is upheld via a status plebiscite.

1970 — The resident commissioner gains the right to vote in committee via an amendment to the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970.

September 18, 1989 — Hurricane Hugo hits the island as a Category 4 hurricane causing more than $1 billion in property damages.

November 14, 1993 — Commonwealth status is upheld via a plebiscite.

September 21, 1998 — Hurricane Georges hits the island causing an estimated $1.75 billion in damage.

August 6, 2009 — Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is confirmed by the US Senate (68-31). She becomes the third woman and the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

November 6, 2012 — Puerto Ricans vote for statehood via a status plebiscite. The results are deemed inconclusive.

August 3, 2015 — Puerto Rico defaults on its monthly debt for the first time in its history, paying only $628,000 toward a $58 million debt.

December 31, 2015 — The first case of the Zika virus is reported on the island.

January 4, 2016 — Puerto Rico defaults on its debt for the second time.

May 2, 2016 — Puerto Rico defaults on a $422 million debt payment.

June 30, 2016 — President Barack Obama signs the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a bill that establishes a seven-member board to oversee the commonwealth’s finances. The following day Puerto Rico defaults on its debt payment.

January 4, 2017 — The Puerto Rico Admission Act is introduced to Congress by Rep. Gonzalez.

May 3, 2017 — Puerto Rico files for bankruptcy. It is the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

June 5, 2017 — Puerto Rico declares its Zika epidemic is over. The Puerto Rico Department of Health has reported more than 40,000 confirmed cases of the Zika virus since the outbreak began in 2016.

June 11, 2017 — Puerto Ricans vote for statehood via a status plebiscite. Over 97% of the votes are in favor of statehood, but only 23% of eligible voters participate.

September 20, 2017 — Hurricane Maria makes landfall near Yabucoa in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. It is the strongest storm to hit the island in 85 years. The energy grid is heavily damaged, with an island-wide power outage.

September 22, 2017 — The National Weather Service recommends the evacuation of about 70,000 people living near the Guajataca River in northwest Puerto Rico because a dam is in danger of failing.

October 3, 2017 — President Donald Trump visits. The trip comes after mounting frustration with the federal response to the storm. Many residents remain without power and continue to struggle to get access to food and fuel nearly two weeks after the storm hit.

December 18, 2017 — Gov. Ricardo Rosselló orders a review of deaths related to Hurricane Maria as the number could be much higher than the officially reported number. The announcement from the island’s governor follows investigations from CNN and other news outlets that called into question the official death toll of 64.

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January 22, 2018 — Rosselló announces that the commonwealth will begin privatizing the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

January 30, 2018 — More than four months after Maria battered Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency tells CNN it is halting new shipments of food and water to the island. Distribution of its stockpiled 46 million liters of water and four million meals and snacks will continue. The agency believes that amount is sufficient until normalcy returns.

February 11, 2018 — An explosion and fire at a power substation causes a blackout in parts of northern Puerto Rico, according to authorities.

May 29, 2018 — According to an academic report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, an estimated 4,645 people died in Hurricane Maria and its aftermath in Puerto Rico. The article’s authors call Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 64 a “substantial underestimate.”

August 8, 2018 — Puerto Rican officials say the death toll from Maria may be far higher than their official estimate of 64. In a report to Congress, the commonwealth’s government says documents show that 1,427 more deaths occurred in the four months after Hurricane Maria than “normal,” compared with deaths that occurred the previous four years. The 1,427 figure also appears in a report published July 9.

August 28, 2018 — The Puerto Rican government raises its official death toll from Maria to 2,975 after a report on storm fatalities is published by researchers at George Washington University. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a critic of the Trump administration, says local and federal government failed to provide needed aid. She says the botched recovery effort led to preventable deaths.

August 29, 2018 — Trump says the federal government’s response to the disaster was “fantastic.” He says problems with the island’s aging infrastructure created challenges for rescue workers.

September 4, 2018 — The US Government Accountability Office releases a report revealing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was so overwhelmed with other storms by the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico that more than half of the workers it was deploying to disasters were known to be unqualified for the jobs they were doing in the field.

September 13, 2018 — In a tweet, Trump denies that nearly 3,000 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He expresses skepticism about the death toll, suggesting that individuals who died of other causes were included in the hurricane count.

July 9, 2019 — Excerpts of profanity-laden, homophobic and misogynistic messages between Rosselló and members of his inner circle are published by local media.

July 10, 2019 — Six people, including Puerto Rico’s former education secretary and a former health insurance official, are indicted on corruption charges. The conspiracy allegedly involved directing millions of dollars in government contracts to politically-connected contractors.

July 11, 2019 — A series of protests begin in response to the leaked messages and the indictment, with calls for Rosselló to resign.

July 13, 2019 — The Center for Investigative Journalism publishes hundreds of leaked messages from Rosselló and other officials. Rosselló and members of his inner circle ridicule numerous politicians, members of the media and celebrities.

July 24, 2019 — Rosselló announces he will resign on August 2.

August 7, 2019 — Puerto Rico’s Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced is sworn in as the third governor Puerto Rico has had in less than a week. Earlier in the day, Rosselló’s handpicked successor, attorney Pedro Pierluisi’s August 2nd swearing-in is thrown out by the Supreme Court, on grounds he has not been confirmed by both chambers of the legislature.

September 27, 2019 — The federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances releases a plan that would cut the island’s debt by more than 60% and rescue it from bankruptcy. The plan targets bonds and other debt held by the government and will now go before a federal judge. The percentage of Puerto Rico’s taxpayer funds spent on debt payments will fall to less than 9%, compared to almost 30% before the restructuring.

December 28, 2019 — A sequence of earthquakes of magnitude 2. 0 or higher begin hitting Puerto Rico, including a 6.4 magnitude quake on January 7 that killed at least one man, destroyed homes and left most of the island without power.

February 4, 2020 — A magnitude 5 earthquake strikes Puerto Rico. It is the 11th earthquake of at least that size in the past 30 days, according to the US Geological Survey.

November 3, 2020 — Puerto Ricans vote in favor of statehood, and Pierluisi is elected governor.

January 2, 2021 — Pierluisi is sworn in.

April 21, 2022 — The Supreme Court rules that Congress can exclude residents of Puerto Rico from some federal disability benefits available to those who live in the 50 states.

August 4, 2022 — Vázquez is arrested in San Juan on bribery charges connected to the financing of her 2020 campaign.

September 18, 2022 — Hurricane Fiona makes landfall along the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, near Punta Tocon, with winds of 85 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The hurricane causes catastrophic flooding, amid a complete power outage. Two people are killed.

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Puerto Rico

Free Associated State of Puerto Rico is the official name.
Located in the Caribbean Sea on the island of Puerto Rico from the group of the Greater Antilles and a number of adjacent small islands.
Capital — San Juan.

Government:
Puerto Rico is a dependent territory of the United States and has the status of an “unincorporated organized territory”, which means that this territory is under the control of the United States (and is not an integral part of them), the effect on the territory of the US Constitution is limited ; supreme power belongs to the US Congress, but the territory has its own system of self-government.
Puerto Rico has its own constitution, legislative, executive and judicial branches. The connection to the United States lies in the presence of a common citizenship, currency and defense. Due to the lack of a clear legislative framework for the status of the territory, this issue is being actively discussed on the island itself, in the United States and the UN. In 2000, by order of President Clinton, a special commission on the status of Puerto Rico was created. In its report, the commission confirmed the current status and recommended that the citizens of the island be granted the right to self-determination. It is assumed that within the framework of this procedure, Puerto Ricans will choose one of three options: securing their current status, joining the United States as a state, or gaining independence. The bill has been submitted to Congress for consideration.

State Symbols:
Flag of Puerto Rico is the official symbol of the freely associated state of Puerto Rico. section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which fought for the liberation of Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spanish domination.
In 1995, the government of Puerto Rico approved a flag statute that lists the colors of the flag without specifying a hue, so you can see flags with different color shades of blue and red.
The coat of arms of Puerto Rico was granted to the country by the Spanish monarchy in 1511 and is the oldest in the New World, since Puerto Rico was the first state in America to receive a coat of arms. In 1976, the country’s government adopted it again.
The green background of the shield symbolizes the vegetation of the island. The lamb (of God) and the flag depicted on the shield symbolize John the Baptist, and the book with seven seals on which the lamb sits symbolizes the book of Revelation of John the Theologian. The frame of the shield consists of several elements: castles and lions depict the kingdoms of Castile and León, and the flag with coats of arms depicts the kingdom of Aragon and the kingdom of Sicily. The Jerusalem cross represents the Kingdom of Jerusalem, whose hereditary rights passed to the Kingdom of Sicily and then to the Spanish crown. The letter F and arrows represent Ferdinand II of Aragon, the letter Y and the yoke represent Queen Isabella I of Castile. The Latin motto «Joannes Est Nomem Ejus» (a quote from the Gospel of Luke, 1:63, meaning «John is his name») recalls that the island was originally called San Juan Bautista in honor of John the Baptist.
«Puerto Rican» is the national anthem of the Free State of Puerto Rico. In 1952, the music was officially approved, and in 1977, the text of the anthem.

Geography:
Puerto Rico consists of the main island of Puerto Rico and many smaller islands and cays, including Mona, Vieques, Culebra, Deseceo and Caja de Muertos. Of the last five islands, only Vieques and Culebra are inhabited throughout the year. Mona Island is inhabited only by employees of the Puerto Rican Ministry of National Resources.
The main island has 170 km. in length and 60 km. wide, mostly mountainous with large coastal areas in the northern and southern parts. The main mountain range of the island is called «La Cordillera Central», which means «central ridge», it also contains the highest point of Puerto Rico — Mount Cerro de Punta, an altitude of 1,338 m above sea level. Another important peak, Mount El Yunque, 1065 m above sea level, is located in the Caribbean National Forest in the municipality of Sierra de Luquillo. The island’s capital city of San Juan is located on the northern coast of the island.
The climate of Puerto Rico is maritime tropical, mild with slight seasonal temperature fluctuations: in the southern part the temperature is slightly higher than in the north, and in the central mountainous it is always cooler than on the rest of the island. The average annual temperature is + 28 °C. The hurricane season lasts between June and November.
Puerto Rico has 17 lakes, none of which are natural, and over 50 rivers, most of which flow from the main mountain range. In the northern part of the island, the rivers are wider and more full-flowing than in the southern.
Rio Camai National Cave Park is a karst area in northeastern Puerto Rico. This area is famous for its completely surreal limestone formations and is rightfully considered one of the best places in the world for caving. More than 200 caves have been discovered in this region, some of them have a colossal internal volume, and the Kamai River is one of the largest underground rivers in the world.
In 1998, the flora of Puerto Rico consisted of 239 different plant species, 16 species of birds and 39species of amphibians and endemic reptiles.

Population:
Puerto Rico is sometimes said to have a European (Spanish) majority, an almost extinct American Indian population, a mixed race population, Africans and a small Asian minority. Analysis of blood and proteins showed that the population of Puerto Rico is 45% European, 37% African and 18% Indian. A later analysis of mitochondrial DNA taken from 800 people found Amerindian mtDNA in 61. 1% of residents, African mtDNA in 26.4% of residents, and White mtDNA in 12.5% ​​of Puerto Ricans.
In the 1800s, hundreds of Corsicans, French, Lebanese, Chinese and Portuguese, along with large numbers of immigrants from Spain, the Canary Islands and other Spanish colonies in South America, moved to Puerto Rico. After the Decree of 1815, which allowed foreigners to settle in Puerto Rico, thousands of immigrants from all over Europe arrived in the country.
Massive immigration in the 19th century caused the population of the island to increase from 155,000 in 1800 to almost a million at the end of the century. The census, conducted in accordance with royal decree on September 30, 1858, gives the following picture of the population of that time: white population — 300,430 people, free people of color — 341,015, slaves — 41,736, undetermined — 127 people. Later, Puerto Rico became a permanent home for more than 100,000 immigrants who came not only from Spain, but also from Latin American countries. People from Argentina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela entered the country. The wide variety of surnames also gives an idea of ​​different origins. Emigration from the country has also become an integral part of Puerto Rico’s recent history.
After the end of World War II, due to poverty, cheap airfare and support from the island government, waves of emigration moved to the United States, especially to New York, Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Tampa and Hartford. Emigration continued even after the economy improved and the birth rate fell. It continues at the present time, and in combination with a drop in the birth rate, in the next 20 years it can lead to a rapid aging of the population and its decrease.
In 2000, a census was taken in which Puerto Ricans were asked what race they considered themselves to be. 95.8% named only one race: 80.5% identified themselves as white, 8% as black, and 0.4% described themselves as representatives of the Indian race.
One of the problems of modern Puerto Rico is the high level of poverty — 50% of the population lives below its line.
The official languages ​​of Puerto Rico are Spanish and English. Spanish is the main language in public institutions, although English is a compulsory subject from elementary school to the second year of college). According to 2006 data, approximately 3,860,120 people use Spanish as their main language and 82,000 use English.

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