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How Do U.S. Textbooks Portray Puerto Rico?

In 1983, the Coalition for Human and Civil Right Advocates studied the portrayal of Puerto Rico in U.S. textbooks and found that:

The authors of these textbooks, both old and new, appear to have read exactly the same sources and books. Their accounts, offering minimal and generally misleading information, are virtually identical in every case.

And in every case, their presentation of the facts came from an Anglo perspective that reduces Puerto Rican history to little more than a footnote in the “pageant” of U.S. history. Given the complete absence of the Puerto Rican perspective and the failure to include new scholarship from Puerto Rican historians, and we have excellent historians, the information presented in even the newest textbooks remains one-dimensional and insufficient.

Have things changed? A presenter at the 2012 annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) more recently concluded: “Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are largely absent from U.S. history textbooks.” His proposed solution was to rely on supplemental materials to cover U.S. territories in advanced classes.

That doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico is entirely ignored in U.S. textbooks. An Age of Extremes, Book 8 in Joy Hakim’s popular A History of US, mentions Puerto Rico several times, although only in its role as a prize of the Spanish-American War:

  • “After the war– which lasted for 100 days — the United States controlled the Philippine Islands, Guam, the Samoan Islands, and Puerto Rico.” p. 55
  • “Spain’s time as a great world power was behind her. Still, she remembers the glory days.. and clung tightly to colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands.” p. 144
  • “The United States took Puerto Rico as a territory.” p.147

Taking the NCSS advice and reviewing supplemental resources can lead to disappointment.  An online middle school lesson from a state Geography Alliance (we withhold the reference to spare them embarrassment) has this stated objective:

Students will discover important facts and places regarding the country of Puerto Rico.

While it is admirable that this source at least recognizes Puerto Rico, there is no advantage in teaching students about “the country of Puerto Rico” when the island has been so conclusively determined to be a territory of the United States.

World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, an online database from ABC-CLIO, is a searchable resource available to many college students.   Its rundown on Puerto Rico’s position includes this acknowledgement:

Although U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are routinely linked to immigration and assimilation debates they should not be subjected to, with the intention of marginalizing island residents who are overwhelmingly Hispanic.  (as quoted in Annex 51)

This resource may make some thoughtful points, but it is not a basic textbook. Students who meet Puerto Rico in this article, or in other journalistic presentations, will understand Puerto Rico better if they have a solid background of knowledge about the island from geography classes — which they are not getting from textbooks.

It seems fair to say that Puerto Rico’s portrayal in U.S. classrooms continues to be “one-dimensional and insufficient.” Now that  Puerto Ricans have chosen statehood, geography textbooks will have to be reviewed and revised. Let’s hope that this will lead to better coverage of Puerto Rico in our textbooks.

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