A Short History of Puerto Rican Coffee

in Culture by

By Nicholas Raymond Gonzalez

Coffee is a drink beloved by many—featured in cocktails and desserts, served hot, cold, weak, or strong—and in Puerto Rico, it’s no different. There, coffee culture runs as deep, bold, and strong as the beans they produce.

Across the island and even for the Boricuas around the globe, coffee is a staple of everyday life. From dusk till dawn, Puerto Ricans enjoy their cafecitos often in tandem with their beloved sweet bread.

Despite coffee being a big part of contemporary Puerto Rican society, however, it’s no longer as prominent on the island as one would think.

Coffee was first introduced in Puerto Rico under Spanish colonial rule in the early part of the 18th century, and by midcentury coffee had become a crop of importance for the Caribbean island. Coffee production was officially encouraged, and methods for cultivating and processing the berries were studied, with the outcome that as production increased, quality improved. This newfound coffee culture—and the economic success it brought—would continue for over a century.

Instead of supporting the island itself, Puerto Rico’s colonial status saw the many profits from coffee production returned to Spain. As Laird W. Bergad explained in Coffee and the Growth of Agrarian Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico, “The Mallorcan immigrants utilized the small mountain towns of Puerto Rico’s western highlands as centers of capital accumulation to finance careers or retirement in Mallorca.”

For the last third of the 18th century, coffee exports averaged upwards of a million pounds annually.

Nonetheless, until the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico was a powerhouse in the global coffee trade. The European markets especially adored the island’s robust, rich, and bold brew, shipping in almost 60,000,000 pounds from 1895 to 1896. By this point, coffee agriculture made up over 40 percent of the total land under cultivation on the island, and over 50 million pounds were exported to Europe in the last year of Spanish rule.

Coffee’s prowess was not enjoyed by the people of Borikén, however, as the boom in the coffee market occurred while Puerto Rico was still formally a colony of Spain—unlike in Costa Rica and Colombia, which saw their great coffee booms occur after their breaks from Spanish rule, immensely stimulating their newly independent economies and supporting by their newly formed governments. At the end of the day, Puerto Rico’s oppressor, Spain, was profiting from the Isla de Encanto’s caffeinated success.

Capitalist dynamics feasted on the island and within the coffee sector. As a result, overseers of coffee farms often controlled a mass of poorly paid and fed laborers. The same laborers, also known as jíbaros, would suffer from issues such as hookworm, malaria, liver flukes, and malnutrition. These dynamics within the coffee market created a gap between the rich and poor that would only continue to widen and still widens in the present day.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the coffee sphere in Puerto Rico would begin to have its door close shut. The result of the Spanish-American War would now see Puerto Rico have a new colonial oppressor—the United States. When Spain lost control of Puerto Rico, a large portion of the island’s coffee industry was instantly destroyed, having lost open access to European markets and even Spain itself. In addition, a devastating hurricane, San Circao, tore up the island’s coffee plantations a year after the U.S. invasion. In its wake, many coffee growers were temporarily reduced to poverty.

Significant problems began to develop beyond what the hurricane wrought. Congress would authorize an 85 percent reduction on sugar tariffs for Puerto Rico, and as a result, within a year, sugar profits and prices doubled. Many coffee farms replanted after the hurricane, but just as many turned to sugar in wake of the new, sweet monoculture being developed on the island.

The United States was adamant about the growth of the sugar industry. Sugar was cheap, profitable, and presented a market in which the U.S. already had experience. The same was true of tobacco. Moreover, sugar would be cheaper and more profitable than ever before thanks the U.S.’ ability to exploit its newly acquired colony, Puerto Rico.

Sugar cane growers soon had wealthy Americans and corporations working with them to create a lucrative sugar monoculture. These mainland interests were vocal and influential and often even paid for their sugar in advance

Even under U.S. rule, however, coffee would make a slight resurgence—gain, as a testament to how deep coffee runs within Puerto Rican culture. While having its highs and lows, for the first quarter of the 20th century, coffee would fight tooth and nail to survive, with Puerto Rico struggling in the international market as a small, controlled island while competing with the heavy influence of the powers that be in the United States, who wanted to develop a plantation economy in Puerto Rico dominated by sugar and tobacco.

Despite fighting to survive, coffee exports dropped from an annual average of over 45 million pounds in the final decade of the 19th century to just over 20 million in the early 1920s. By 1945, the number barely reached two million. This drop in production occurred while the cost of living on the island continued to skyrocket, as fewer food crops were grown locally but instead bought at high prices in the mainland market.

Capital from the United States would continue to make itself at home during the decline of the Puerto Rican coffee industry. As a result, the sugar business would balloon, similar to what coffee experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries under Spanish colonial rule. Just as with coffee, capitalist dynamics would manifest themselves in the sugar industry, with the profits from cane siphoned off to the U.S. instead of reinvested into the Puerto Rican economy. This pattern would repeat itself once more during Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical boom in the late 20th century.

The sugar monoculture began to make so much headway on the island that Puerto Ricans began to import essential goods. Foodstuffs and coffee were no longer produced on the island but imported. King Sugar became a primary way for Puerto Rico to generate revenue, as it was the only interest that could survive behind U.S. tariffs. Moreover, it was the only way a Puerto Rican could survive, as many were forced to pay American prices for consumer goods instead of being able to partake in the world market for cheaper ones—another issue that still affects Puerto Rico to this day.

Despite the collapse of the coffee market in Puerto Rico, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Vatican was still a routine customer of Puerto Rican coffee, purchasing over 100,000 pounds of Puerto Rican coffee annually. Its prominence in the Vatican is one of the reasons that Puerto Rico’s coffee is often discussed in high regard, despite the island’s small production.

By the end of the 1960s, Puerto Rico was importing large amounts of foreign beans to satisfy domestic demand. Most coffee workers had shifted to industrialized jobs, leaving many farms dormant. Puerto Rican coffee could not compete with a variety of external factors weighing it down, and it got to the point where, even on the island, Puerto Rican coffee became uncommon. The brand Café Bustelo, widely popular among many Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, is not even grown in Puerto Rico.

After over two hundred years of rich coffee history, the island’s beans are no longer widely exported, if at all, and there is a struggle to even meet the island’s domestic demand. At present, there are only 4,500 farms left, compared to the over 20,000 that existed before the turn of the 20th century. From 2012 to 2018, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry saw a decline in nearly all facets, from total growth and sales to the availability of machinery for the harvest. And today’s Puerto Rican coffee product now is of lower quality, as it must be mixed with foreign beans of lesser quality for various demand and profitability reasons.

Why does this narrative history of Puerto Rican coffee matter? Well, for starters, Puerto Rican history, whether it is comfortable to admit it or not, is American history. Unfortunately, however, Puerto Rican history is not taught in schools, the English language has been made a priority on an island whose native language is Spanish, and the island is by and large disregarded in almost every quantifiable way by much of the United States—certainly by the U.S. government.

And the story of coffee in Puerto Rico may also be able to tell us more about the effects of colonialism on the island. The stories featured too, sadly, showcase that many of the same issues that have plagued Puerto Rico for decades, if not centuries, still exist.

Even beyond coffee, though, something greater is at stake here. Coffee is one of the most traded commodities on the planet. In just 2017 alone, 70 percent of all coffee production was exported, amassing a total of almost $20 billion—this does not even include labor costs and the selling of coffee as a retail beverage.

So, in a literal sense, for a nation that suffers from as much economic hardship as Puerto Rico does, it seems almost illogical for Puerto Rico’s coffee industry to be as irrelevant as it is, as coffee can be a route that Puerto Rico could take toward greater economic health. Understanding more about Puerto Rico’s colonial and coffee history may allow for more conversations to develop that focus on potentially using coffee as a vessel to improve Puerto Rico’s economy.

But if Puerto Rico continues to have little agency over its own existence, the reality is that it will be an uphill battle.


Featured image by datenhamster.org/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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