Ever since the Spanish landed on the beaches of San Juan in 1493, Puerto Rico has lived through a rollercoaster of repressive colonialism, almost-tangible independence, and wishy-washy statehood. At each step of the way, its flag has stood as a symbol of the times. If you’ve ever had trouble distinguishing the Puerto Rico flag from the Cuban flag or wondered what’s behind the American color scheme, wonder no longer — we’ve got you covered.
Puerto Rico’s First Flag
After almost 400 years of Spanish colonial rule, the first inkling of a national revolution movement in Puerto Rico was spearheaded by Ramón Emeterio Betances in the mid-1800s. The push for independence — known as ‘El Grito de Lares’ — needed a symbol, so Betances designed the flag below to closely emulate that of nearby Dominican Republic.
Both colonies shared goals of independence, and both agreed on the meanings of the color scheme. The white star signified liberty and freedom, the white cross signified the yearning for patria, or homeland, the red resembled blood shed by the rebellion, and the blue represented the sea and the sky. Francisco Ramirez Medina, the first and only person to call himself the President of the Republic of Puerto Rico, adopted this flag in 1868.
In classic colonial fashion, Spain wasn’t having any of this. Throughout the final decades of the 19th century, Spain refused to recognize the movement, and instead flew various flags resembling the motherland. Below are a few examples.
In the final years of the 19th century, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee (based in New York City and San Juan) decided to rebrand their movement and ignite another pro-independence push. The current design is attributed to a handful of people, but Francisco Gonzalo Marín gets most of the credit. Marín looked further west across the Caribbean to Cuba who was pushing for their own independence movement and pretty much inverted the color scheme of the Cuban flag. The flag below was officially adopted as the national flag of Puerto Rico in 1894 and, with the exception of a few changes in shading, has pretty much remained the same ever since.
The American Hand-Off
In a brutal blow to Puerto Ricans, rather than realizing independence in 1898, their oppressors merely changed hands. The Spanish-American War saw Puerto Rico become a colony of the United States. For the first few decades of the 20th century, the United States attempted to ‘Americanize’ the people of Puerto Rico. The aggressive assimilation programs were complicated, contentious, and not unsimilar to the same social engineering faced by immigrants within the U.S.
After realizing that Puerto Rico’s ascension to the title of statehood had been stalled at “territory” since 1917, inhabitants fought back. In response, the United States decided to implement what became known as the Gag Law, or the Ley de la Mordaza. Between the years of 1948 and 1957, it was a crime to own or display a Puerto Rican flag, to sing a patriotic tune, or to speak or write of independence.
Final Color Change
When Puerto Rico was finally adopted into the United States commonwealth in 1952, pro-U.S. diplomats agreed to change the light blue to a royal, and the red to deeper red, both of which better mirror the United States flag. Puerto Ricans, however, are intent on pushing for either recognition as the 51st state of the Union or full sovereignty as an autonomous nation. As a result, today you can find flags of various color schemes flown across the country, each of which represents their own unique idea of Puerto Rico.