Religions of Puerto Rico
¡Bendición, mami!, ¡Dios te bendiga!, ¡Ay santo!, ¡Como Dios quiere!, and our ever present ¡Ay, bendito! are well-known examples of how religion is deeply rooted in Puerto Rico. Those expressions which convey blessings, surprise, hope, faith in God’s will, and compassion are part of our daily lives and make up a significant cornerstone of our identity. While most associate our Island with Catholicism, dozens of other denominations and religions coexist here and add to our rich diversity. Let’s go over some of the main ones, their history, and their current presence, all with love and respect.
Christianity is by far the most prevalent religion in Puerto Rico. Over 80% of the island claims the faith, though in varying ways. Most denominations of Christianity here correspond to Catholicism, Protestantism, as well as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Adventists. While numbers vary, around 56% (around 1.5 million) of the island is Catholic, and Protestants make up around a third of the population (about 1 million) . Christianity first came by way of the Spaniard conquistadors in the late 15th century. Their faith contrasted with those of the Taínos, our indigenous people who were polytheists and worshipped the spiritual deities represented by their stone-carved cemis. You can find out more soon on my upcoming Native Puerto Ricans webinar! For several centuries, Catholicism was the only religion legally allowed in Puerto Rico. This mostly stemmed from Spain’s strong Catholic background, the Reconquista in the 15th century, and the Inquisition soon after. Up until the mid-19th century, we remained predominantly Catholic. However, by that time, the Spanish empire was declining and needed revitalization. To do so, Spain incentivized immigration into Puerto Rico, through the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815, which allowed other Christian Europeans to come to the island if they were loyal to the Crown.  And so, thousands of Irish, French, Corsican, Italian, Canarian, and German settlers arrived. This migration would open the door to other Christian denominations. For example, in 1873, a group of British and German immigrants built the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in the southern municipality of Ponce, opening an era of religious tolerance and protection of different faiths.
In 1898, the United States took control of Puerto Rico and introduced Protestantism in its heaviest and most prolific wave. Protestantism is the second-largest Christian denomination on the island. Some common branches include Evangelicals (which are around half of all Protestants), Baptists, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, among others. Brought by both the British and the Americans, these denominations quickly found a home here. There is also a noticeable Mormon community in Puerto Rico of around 23,000 people. According to the official Latter Day Saints (LDS) website, it arrived in the 1940s by way of the military, and the first Puerto Rican converted in 1964.  The island houses 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 11,000 Methodists,  and 35,000 Adventists. 
In terms of places of worship, there are hundreds of Catholic churches on the island. The most notable ones are the now-museum Porta Coeli in San Germán, Parroquia Santa Teresita in Santurce (the largest on the island), the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral and Iglesia de San José, both in Old San Juan. The latter two are some of the oldest on the island, established in the 16th century! There are also Protestant churches all over the island, and you can find one just about at every corner. The LDS church is currently building a temple in San Juan to cater to all Mormons on the island, though they have another temple in Guaynabo. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have around a dozen Kingdom Halls, with one of the largest located in Guaynabo. The Adventists also have dozens of temples around the island. It is important to highlight that, in general, most of these denominations have schools, universities, and even hospitals.
Christian celebrations on the island include Christmas, Three Kings’ Day (read my articles on both to learn more about these!) and patron saint festivals, or fiestas patronales. There was a time when these festivals were held yearly in every municipality, all paying homage to their respective patron saint. People gathered in the town square to shop for local artworks, or artesanías, like saint sculptures, jewelry, and paintings of Puerto Rican landscapes and people. Visitors could also find a lot of food, ranging from fried goods like alcapurrias (green banana/yautia fritter filled with ground beef), bacalaítos (cod fritter), and desserts like tres leches, flan, and piraguas (snowcones)! They are great festivals to attend on Sundays for perusing while listening to traditional music. While these are mostly related to Catholicism, anybody is welcome, and everyone loves them!
There is a small number of Orthodox Christians on the island, mostly Eastern Catholic-Orthodox unified churches. These represent an ancient branch of Christianity rooted in the Great Schism of the Church that created the Catholic and Orthodox divide. The island houses the Holy Trinity Syriac Orthodox-Catholic Church in Aguada, the St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox-Catholic Church in Trujillo Alto, and the San Juan Clímaco Russian Orthodox Church in San Germán.  Although numbers are hard to come by, I estimate that less than 1,000-2,000 Orthodox Christians live in Puerto Rico.
Now, let’s turn to one of the oldest religions on the island, Islam. This faith arrived with thousands of West African slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Although Spaniards forced them into Christianity, many secretly continued professing the Islamic faith. Some Moors from Spain, ethnic North Africans, typically Muslim, also came, albeit illegally, as only ethnic Spaniards could come. As a result, they worked low-class jobs, sometimes even as slaves. Islam was secretly practiced for centuries for fear of arrest or persecution. The first modern community of Muslims arrived in Puerto Rico back in 1946 by way of Palestinian refugees after the state of Israel was formed. Around 10,000 came by 1970 in their peak, and there are about 5,300 today due to emigration to the mainland United States.  The vast majority of Muslims here live on the main island, which houses 76 of our 78 municipalities, but there is a single Muslim in Vieques, one of two island municipalities. Today, Puerto Rico is home to the largest Muslim community in the Caribbean. While most Muslims here are descendants of Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Moroccan, or Tunisian immigrants, a notable percentage are Puerto Rican Muslims who converted.
Muslims here had no official place of worship in Puerto Rico until 1980 when a mosque was built in Rio Piedras. There are now 10 mosques: in San Juan, Hatillo, Aguadilla, Fajardo, Loiza, Ponce, Jayuya, and Vega Alta.  Puerto Rican Muslims have said it is hard to meet the expectations of Puerto Rican culture and Islamic culture. They fuse them into what they call ‘Boricua Islamidad’.  During Ramadan, in Puerto Rico, Muslims fast from around 5:30am to 7:00pm  to show the insignificance of material goods and other obstacles when facing them with God.
It is important to note that, while a sizable amount of the slaves who arrived were Muslims, just as many held traditional African beliefs. Some examples of these included the Yoruba faith that turned into Santería, and other local West African religions based on animism. This meant the believers would worship deities, all assigned to natural disaster, plants, animals, and natural formations. As was the case with Islam, however, worshippers had to do so privately. A notable case of this practice was the association of a Christian saint with one of their spirits so they would not be suspected of heresy and could continue with their beliefs. Some of the saints used include Saint Barbara and Saint Gerome, and embodied the deity of Shango (Changó). I go over this in my African Heritage webinar, as well as more details on each tribe! Be sure to check that out. :)
Now, onto Judaism, another religion with a long-standing presence in Puerto Rico. Rumor has it Christopher Columbus may have been a Jew! Why the assumption? His journal entries referenced the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, his last names Colón and Fonterossa are a typical Spanish and Italian Jew name, and his family occupations (weaving) were common for Jews. Interestingly, the day he left for America was also the day the Crown outlawed Judaism (and Islam) in Spain. If he was, in fact, Jewish, he was what many call Crypto-Jews. Crypto-Jews were Catholic on paper but practicing Jews. In Puerto Rico many would work as bankers or merchants and lived in the mountainous interior to have more freedom. 
During WWII, European Jews in search of refuge while fleeing the Holocaust arrived by the thousands here, and were able to safely and freely profess their faith. To this end, the first Jewish community center would open in San Juan in 1942 and the first synagogue, Sha’are Zedeck, would open in 1954.  In addition, some more Jews arrived from Cuba after the Cuban revolution, adding to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jews in Puerto Rico. There are approximately 3,000 Jews on the island, and it is also the biggest community in the Caribbean.  All three branches of Judaism, Orthodoxy, Reformism, and Conservative, are represented. There are three synagogues present on the island, some offering Jewish School. You can also find the Jewish Rohr Center with a Kosher restaurant and host parties for Passover and Chanukah.  Passover commemorates the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian servitude with a large meal (with no leavened baked goods). It takes place soon before Easter, which shows the two religions have close ties. Remember, Jesus was Jewish! In Chanukah, there is an eight-day celebration in remembrance of the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem once Jerusalem was retaken by the Jews. There are gifts every day, family gatherings, and the lighting of the Menorah. This lighting celebrates how one portion of oil lit a flame for eight days, which explains one lighting per day of Chanukah.
Let’s turn to Oriental faiths, which may be surprising to some to be relatively prevalent on the island. Starting off, we have Hinduism. There are three Hindu temples in Puerto Rico: the Bakhti Yoga Ashram in Bayamón, the Lakshmi Aniyega Swamy temple in Guaynabo, and the ISKCON temple in Trujillo Alto. The religion arrived through Indian immigrants during the 20th century, and there are between 1,000-3,500 Hindus on the island.  Please note that some of the numbers regarding the lesser-documented religions on the island are estimates. In Puerto Rico, you can even attend the festivals of Holi and Diwali, where around 250 people attend. Holi is held in Spring and celebrates the Hindu God Krishna’s triumph over evil with powdery colors thrown around everywhere and on everyone. Holi is one of the world’s most widely celebrated holidays, enjoyed and respected by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists all over the world--this means nearly 1 in 6 people! Diwali also celebrates triumph over evil when the goddess Durga killed a demon, and the gods Sita and Rama returned from exile and is also known as the festival of light. It lasts five days and takes place in the fall.  On Diwali, it is common for people to light their homes with many candles and enjoy candy, fireworks, and family time while honoring the goddess Lakshmi.
Now let’s explore Buddhism, which claims between 6,000-7,000 practitioners on the island. Brought by the Chinese and Japanese, there are numerous Puerto Ricans who have converted to Buddhism. There are 6 Buddhist temples located on the island: the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center of Puerto Rico, the Ganden Shedrub Ling Buddhist Center, the University Zen Center of Puerto Rico, the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Center, the Kadampa Buddhist Center of Puerto Rico, and the Zen Center of Puerto Rico.  These temples offer a place for meditation, study, and community service activities for all. In particular, the Ganden Shedrub Ling Buddhist Center also hosts a Mantra Marathon, where hundreds gather to create a mantle that contains 100 million mantras to wish good health, positive energy, and piety on all Latin American nations. 
As you can see, Puerto Rico is no stranger to diversity--in ethnicity, culture, race, OR faith. Here, you can embrace your beliefs and be part of a community that guides you on your spiritual journey. We should all use this example of religious coexistence in our lives and apply it to better ourselves, our relationships, and our connection to our beliefs.
Stay safe, stay cultured,
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