In 1899, when Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, Census figures indicated that 61.8% of Puerto Ricans identified as white. By the 2000 Census, however, 80.5% of Puerto Ricans identified as white. In other words, more than four out of five Puerto Ricans were white in 2000.
How did this happen?
There are three possibilities. The first two involve demographic changes. Large amounts of immigration or emigration could have altered the racial balance. Alternatively, life might have been so hard for non-whites that the relative survival rates of whites and non-whites would have been so drastically different as to also alter the racial balance.
A study titled “How Puerto Rico Became White”, by Mara Loveman and Jeronimo Muniz, rejects both these possibilities. Life was and is indeed harder for non-whites in Puerto Rico, but not enough that non-whites were dying at the extreme rates needed to change the racial balance. Puerto Rico also had relatively little immigration throughout the 20th century. Large numbers of emigrants have indeed gone to the United States, on the other hand. Of these emigrants, a far higher share identifies as non-white.
Perhaps this would explain Puerto Rico’s whitening. Or perhaps the higher share of Puerto Ricans living in America identifying as non-white is due to the third possibility: culture. That is, the definition of white shifted to being more inclusive in Puerto Rico. This would allow more people to claim the advantages of whiteness.
The study agrees with this last explanation:
…whitening was not the demographic process that both its advocates and its critics tended to assume. It appears that whitening resulted, instead, from a change in the social definition of whiteness itself. The boundary of whiteness in Puerto Rican society shifted during the first half of the twentieth century, and especially in the decade from 1910-1920. Individuals who were seen to be on one side of the racial boundary in 1910 found themselves on the other side in 1920. This suggests that the story of how Puerto Rico became white may be as much or more a story of racial boundaries migrating over individuals as it is a story of individuals crossing over racial boundaries.
Loveman and Muniz also describe Puerto Rico has having an inverted one-drop rule. While in the United States a drop of non-white blood is (sometimes) sufficient for an individual to not be considered white, in Puerto Rico the opposite occurred. One drop of white ancestry was all that was needed for one to be considered white:
…the specific terms used to describe this one drop rule shifted slightly from 1910 to 1920. Instead of alerting census-takers to be on the lookout for mulattos as “impure blacks” with any trace of black blood (i.e. individuals who were not “really white”), the instructions for Puerto Rican census-takers in 1920 cued census-takers to be on the lookout for mulattos as “impure blacks” with any trace of white blood (i.e. individuals who were not “really black”). The shift in the 1920 enumerator instructions in Puerto Rico, subtle as it was, created more wiggle room in the application of the one drop rule than was possible in the previous census. In both cases, race was construed to be determined by “blood.” But whereas in 1910, any trace of “black blood” was sufficient to keep an individual from being categorized as “white”, in 1920, any trace of “white blood” was sufficient to keep an individual from being categorized as “black.”
There is one final, and quite interesting note, about all this. In the 2010 Census the percentage of Puerto Ricans identifying as white dropped for the first time in more than a century. Whites decreased from 80.5% of the population to 75.8%. Whether this is due to actual demographic shifts (i.e. mostly white emigrants leaving to the United States), or a change in culture, is difficult to discern. It will be quite interesting to examine, in the future 2020 Census, whether this trend continues.