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Spanish Rule, Colonial Society

mulattos, craft guilds, coloreds, social class system, peasant farmers

Before the abolition of slavery in 1873, Puerto Rico was largely an agricultural society composed of a few large landowners and many small, peasant farmers. In the agricultural regions, society was traditional, life was slow-paced, and people had few opportunities for social mobility. Puerto Rico also had many towns and cities, however, where greater economic opportunity and social mobility existed. In the main cities, including San Juan, Ponce, and Mayaguez, there were import-export merchants, smaller wholesalers and distributors of goods, many small retail grocery stores, and a range of artisans’ shops.

Puerto Rican society was legally divided into castes. The upper caste was composed of whites, who enjoyed full legal rights. The middle caste was made up of the free people of color (gente de color), who possessed fewer legal rights than the whites. These free people of color, or coloreds, could be blacks or mulattos. The third caste was that of slaves, who were given very few legal rights.

Puerto Rico never had a very large slave population, but it did have a large population of free people of color. Some of them were former slaves who had been emancipated by their masters or had purchased their freedom. Most free people of color were of mixed white and black heritage, the result of intermarriage or informal relations between the races. Free people of color were prohibited from becoming doctors or lawyers, or from becoming members of the civil and church bureaucracies. They were required to serve in the militia, but in segregated units. These sharp and demeaning restrictions limited the range of opportunity available to them. On the other hand, the law extended certain legal and economic rights to this large segment of the population. They could own property, houses, stores, and even slaves. They could also be members of all the craft guilds, some even becoming master craftspeople.

Just as in many other places during the 18th and 19th centuries, a social class system began to evolve. At top were the white merchants and other white storekeepers and farmers with large farms. Storekeepers, some artisans, farmers of medium-sized farms, and professionals and civil servants formed a middle group. Most people belonged to the lower group, which included farmers of small farms and unskilled laborers. At the bottom of society were slaves. Social mobility was greater for whites than it was for free blacks and mulattos.

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