History of Puerto Rico’s Newspapers

As the chronology of events in Puerto Rico suggests, the period between 1836 and 1922 was pivotal in the history of Puerto Rico. The major protagonists of this period—colonial authorities, the elite, political actors, labor activists, women, etc.—used newspapers to promote their activities. The result is that the connection between Puerto Rico’s newspapers and its history is intrinsic. In addition, newspapers of this period can bring to light the nature of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, a relationship that has been emblematic of the relationship between the US and Latin America in general.

The printing press arrived in Puerto Rico at the beginning of the 19th century, late in comparison to other Spanish colonies. Circa 1807, La Gaceta de Puerto Rico was founded. It was the first newspaper printed in Puerto Rico. Although it included insular and European news, La Gaceta reflected the views of the Spanish government and eventually became a singular means of official communication. Puerto Rico’s first daily, Diario Liberal y de Variedades de Puerto Rico, appeared in 1821. As a reflection of the liberal climate in Spain and its colonies at the time, this newspaper included discussions on the rights of farmers to possess land. In 1834, the Spanish Crown regained power and began to censor the press. The Boletín Mercantil de Puerto Rico was founded in 1839 as a result of the creation of the Chamber of Commerce. Although at first its purpose was to promote commerce, industry, agriculture, and literary production, it later became a semi-official instrument of the Spanish government. Both La Gaceta and the Boletín condemned the movements toward independence and the abolishment of slavery that took place in the 1870s.

The years between 1870 and 1874 saw the beginning of 45 newspapers. This was due in great part to Spain’s new printing law of May 6, 1866, which in general terms considered it a crime to write against the King and the Real Family, the Legislative Chambers, the Parliamentarians, and other ministers and other governmental authorities; it also was proscribed to issue journal articles which could affect the fidelity or discipline of the Armed Forces. This law was applied to Puerto Rico in 1869 and 1870. Upon its 1874 restoration in Spain, censorship again became law, yet Puerto Rico would never return to the times when one or two newspapers, mouthpieces of the reigning powers, existed. After Spain’s democracy period (1868-1874), the press gained a great momentum. The establishment of the First Spanish Republic in 1873 gave way to the foundation of many newspapers both liberal and conservative, such as Don Simplicio, Don Cándido, La Verdad, El Avisador del Comercio, El Semanario Puertorriqueño, and others. Governor Primo de Rivera’s press conference in 1873 highlights the influence of the press. After announcing the start of the Spanish American war, the governor asked for moderation from the press, to avoid alarming the population or offending the US government.

The fall of the First Spanish Republic in 1874 gave way to a period of conservatism and repression. Governor General José Laureano Sanz began the repression of liberal intellectuals and their newspapers. Despite the conservative environment, two of the most important liberal newspapers appeared in San Juan: El Buscapié (1877) and El Clamor del País (1883). These papers criticized the tyranny of Spanish governors, and thus, suffered censorship and punishment. Simultaneously, numerous newspapers appeared in other cities including Ponce, Mayagüez, Caguas, and Fajardo. One of the most important newspapers founded in San Juan was La Integridad Nacional (1885), a publication of the party Incondicional Español. The year 1887 was one of severe persecution against liberals. Journalists and editors were imprisoned and condemned to death. Liberal newspapers like El Clamor del País and El Buscapié denounced the persecution, whereas conservative newspapers like El Boletín attacked those seeking autonomy. Many newspapers disappeared. Both El Porvenir and El Escarpelo, founded in Cayey in 1889, came to swift ends, but had as a worthy successor in the weekly El Cañón, which suffered significant reprisals for its attacks on the government and for writing about slavery issues.

In 1890, 19 newspapers were started; 25 more followed suit in 1891 and an additional 27 came into being in 1892. Especially noteworthy from 1892 is El Noticiero (successor to El Diario de Ponce) founded by Ramón María. On May, 1893, Aguadilla’s first newspaper, La Región, was first published; however, that year also would be its last. Also in 1893, Aguadilla’s El Criollo replaced Voz del Pueblo, which was directed by Pedro Acevedo Rivera.

The Puerto Rican press experienced a great transformation during the last decade of the 19th century. Doctrinaire journalism gave way to critical and news information. Journalists became more professional; permanent sections appeared, and editors began to rely more on “facts” than opinion and imagination. Luis Muñoz Rivera, founder of the Union Party, opened La Democracia at the beginning of the decade. Because of its popularity, it became one of the most influential newspapers of the time. It was one of the first newspapers to take advantage of new technologies and of international correspondents. However, the newspaper that set a new paradigm was La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico (1890). Ramón B. López, its founder, was not a politician but a businessman. He wanted his newspaper to be profitable. Unlike other newspapers of the time, La Correspondencia was a daily that published interesting news instead of political discourse. It did not side with any political group or ideology. It included advertising, and was very cheap and popular. Other newspapers had to follow this model in order to compete. This decade also saw the development of a strong labor movement in Puerto Rico. In 1897, Ensayo Obrero, the first newspaper associated with this movement was published.

The years previous to the Spanish American War were an intense period in Puerto Rican Press. There was great discussion on the role of US newspapers as instigators of the war, of the reaction of the European press, and of the economic dependency of the Caribbean on US markets and products. During the Spanish-American War, many US correspondents traveled to Cuba and Puerto Rico to cover the news of the insurrection and other events related to the war. Reporters such as Edwin Emerson, who was accredited by the U.S. Navy and Army, had a two-fold mission:  to send secret reports to the government about the happenings of the war and to send public news to their respective newspapers. These reporters were flocking to Key West, Tampa and Pensacola to develop plans to reach the Islands to cover these events. The reports and articles of these journalists were published in newspapers such as the Equator-Democrat (Key West, FL), the Herald, Harper’s Weekly, World’s, Chicago Record and the Chicago Daily News.

Puerto Rican journalists also began to compare and contrast their press to that of the US. Liberals admired the idea of free speech, whereas conservatives denounced its sensationalism. Once the Spanish American War began, the press carefully followed its development because Puerto Ricans knew that this war would change their fate. Prior to the transference of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty to the US, the first English newspaper was published: The Porto Rico Mail (1898). After the transference, the American eagle replaced Spain’s coat of arms in La Gaceta de Puerto Rico, which disappeared soon after.

Subsequent years featured constant persecution of journalists.  La Democracia deplored the arrival of US companies, but the government repressed the newspaper. Luis Muñoz Rivera, founder of La Democracia and of the Union Party, opened another newspaper: Diario de Puerto Rico (1900). Both newspapers sponsored a certain degree of autonomy for Puerto Rico, and as a result suffered censorship. Like before, Puerto Rican newspapers continued to reflect the political dichotomy between liberals and conservatives. Puerto Rico’s Republican Party founded El Aguila de Puerto Rico (1901) and El Tiempo (1907). Like the party, these papers promoted annexation and statehood. On the other hand, Santiago Iglesias, leader of the labor movement, founded the newspaper Unión Obrera (1902).

At the same time, existing newspapers experienced dramatic changes. Manuel Zeno Gandía, medical doctor, writer, politician, and journalist, bought La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico and gave it a political theme, whereas El Boletín became more journalistic. It also was the first Puerto Rican newspaper to import a linotype machine; La Democracia, El Tiempo, and La Correspondencia followed it. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, several English newspapers began publication, such as The Portorrican Student (1908), The Horticultural News (1910), and Porto Rico Progress (1910). Three of the most important newspapers in Puerto Rico began during the 1910s: El Diario de Puerto Rico (Ponce, 1909), Puerto Rico Ilustrado (1910), and El Mundo (1919). El Diario de Puerto Rico was influential during the entire 20th century, and it continues as El Nuevo Día. The Puerto Rico Ilustrado had impact on Puerto Rican literary production at the time, and El Mundo became one of the most popular newspapers.

In his inaugural speech delivered in 1921, Governor Emmet Montgomery Reily declared that the US government was opposed to any kind of autonomy for Puerto Rico and that it considered “foreigners” those who supported it. He specifically asked the press to stop inciting such ideas. La Democracia reacted with a campaign against the governor. One of the participants was Luis Muñoz Marín, son of Luis Muñoz Rivera and future first elected governor of Puerto Rico. Because Governor Reily had dismissed the advice of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, the US institution that advised US administration on Puerto Rican matters, the Bureau did not support Reily against his political enemies and against opposition journalism. As a result, Reily was removed. This incident illustrates the impact of the press on Puerto Rico’s history.