Esta página no está disponible en español.

Puerto Ricans - Profile

Traditional Holidays

Puerto Rican Food Habits


Puerto Ricans - Profile

March 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Gale Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2002 Four Winds Food Specialists. All Rights Reserved.

The temperate island, located in the Caribbean about 1000 miles from the tip of Florida, was once covered with giant palms, ferns and tropical fruit trees. Wildlife included colorful birds, iguanas, sea turtles and manatees. Early settlers from the rainforests. of Venezuela, the Tainos (also known as Arawaks), fished the abundant rivers and farmed the fertile land in conucos, raised gardens. They named the island Borinquen (Boriken).

Spanish explorers arrived in the early 16th century. According to legend, Juan Ponce de Leon cried, What a rich port! when he arrived in San Juan, creating in a new name for the island, Porto (now Puerto) Rico. Within 20 years, nearly the entire Taino population was exterminated through ill-treatment and disease. African slaves were brought to replace the native Indians on sugar cane plantations.

Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. in 1873 and became an autonomous Commonwealth following World War II. Puerto Ricans are naturalized citizens, free to travel without a passport between the island and the mainland. Yet their culture is more a blend of Spanish and African traditions (with a little Taino influence) than a reflection of their U.S. affiliation. Their aromatic cuisine combines indigenous ingredients such as cassava, chile peppers and corn, with Spanish foods, such as wheat, rice, onions, garlic, olives, salt cod, beef and pork. African favorites, including bananas and plantains, were added to the mix, resulting in cucina criollo (cooking of the people), featuring barbecued (Taino), stewed (Spanish), and fried (African) dishes.

Population in U.S.:

Almost 3,000,000 Puerto Ricans are living on the U.S. mainland, just nine percent of Latinos according to the 2000 Census figures. The population of Puerto Rico is estimated to be almost 4 million. Terms of identity, including Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican-American, Borrinqueno or Boricua (Puerto Ricans reclaiming their native heritage), and Nuyorican (second generation Puerto Ricans living in New York) are used according to individual preference.

New York City has been a magnet for migration from the island since the 1950s, when plentiful garment district jobs were filled by Puerto Ricans. In the 1990s, nearly half of all Puerto Ricans living on the mainland were located in NYC, however, industrial employment has also attracted significant numbers to the cities of the Northeast, particularly in New Jersey and Massachusetts. In recent years, younger Puerto Ricans are choosing to settle in other regions, including Illinois, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Smaller Puerto Rican communities are found in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Socioeconomic Status:

Employment was traditionally obtained in manufacturing, including the steel and auto industry, in the service sector, such as restaurant work, and in businesses serving the Puerto Rican community. Some younger Puerto Ricans are finding white collar and professional jobs. However, only 64% of Puerto Ricans finish high school and over one-fourth of Puerto Ricans are unemployed according the Census 2000 figures. Only 30% of Puerto Ricans working full time earn more than $35,000 annually. Though low education levels and undeveloped job skills contribute to the high rate of unemployment and low-earning positions, declining numbers of manufacturing jobs and outright discrimination are also factors.


The concept of compadrazco, meaning co-parenting, is the foundation the Puerto Rican home. Extended kin take part in the care and nurturing of all children, fostering very close relationships between family members. Men are considered the head of the household and represent the family in community affairs. Machismo is valued, with men and older male children taking responsibility for women and girls. Traditionally, women control household affairs. Puerto Rican families living on the mainland often suffer the pressures of acculturation, and an increase in single- parent households may contribute to low socioeconomic status.


A majority of Puerto Ricans, approximately 70% are practicing Roman Catholics. In recent years, Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian Scientist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian have received many Puerto Rican converts. Small numbers also follow Santeros, priests of the Afro-Puerto Rican religion Santeria, who worship Yoruba deities called orishas that are related to Catholic entities. Certain numbers, colors, foods, and traits are associated with each orisha. Feasting, herbal preparations, music, dancing and animal sacrifice (chickens) are traditional rituals.

Health Beliefs:

Some Puerto Ricans follow a hot-cool-cold, heavy-light classification of foods. Though categorization varies, items such as bananas, coconuts, and vegetables are usually cold; fruit, chicken, salt cod, whole milk, onions and wheat are cool; soups are light; chiles, garlic, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, evaporated milk, infant formula, and vitamin supplements are hot; and starches are heavy (Harwood, 1981). Balance is attempted at each meal, with heavier foods consumed early in the day and lighter foods eaten in the evening. Imbalance can lead to illness, including exacerbation of a mild symptom, such as a cough, into a chronic condition, such as TB. Acidic foods may be avoided during menstruation and hot foods are not consumed during pregnancy. Infants sick with diarrhea may be given whole milk and other cooling foods (such as barley water, mannitol, or magnesium carbonate) instead of formula. Occasionally, when hot vitamins are given to children, they are balanced with a cooling beverage, such as fruit juice or milk of magnesia. Asopao, a type of chicken soup, and eggnogs or malts are considered cure-alls that stimulate the appetite and promote vitality.

Prayer, lighting candles for the saints, and home remedies are common health practices among Puerto Ricans living in New York (Freidenberg et al, 1993). Folk illnesses are prevalent, including the pan-Latino conditions of empacho (digestive distress due to an imbalance of hot-cold leading to a wad of food adhered to the stomach), susto (excessive emotion resulting in depression, malaise or life-threatening soul-loss), and mal de ojo (the evil eye cast by supernatural agents causing mental illness). In addition, some Puerto Ricans suffer from ataque (sudden onset of illness or hysteria), fatique (acute-breathing problems), or pasmo (paralysis due to an imbalance of hot-cold). Some condition respond well to home cures, while others require the intervention of healers, including santeros. Fatique usually requires emergency room care by a physician.

Nutritional Status:

In general, Puerto Ricans tend to consume more complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber (Loria et al, 1995; Bermudez et al, 2000) than do nonHispanic whites, and less saturated fat. An emphasis-on starchy foods and vegetable proteins combined with low intake of leafy vegetables and fruit in the diet can result in low intake of certain vitamins(A and C) and minerals (iron and calcium), especially if income is limited. Further, immigrants may come from areas of Puerto Rico where malnutrition is common; high rates of parasitic infection may also impact nutritional status, with up to a third of school children in New York infected.

Despite possible deficiencies in the diet, the primary health concern in, Puerto Rican clients overweight and obesity, affecting 40% of women and 26% of men living on the mainland. To some Puerto Ricans, plumpness is a sign of good health. Portion sizes for many foods are significantly larger than those of the general population. (Tucker et al, 1998). However, genetics may also be a factor: overweight reportedly occurs despite-low-energy consumption, and high BMI is not associated with socioeconomic status, acculturation, or stress in Puerto Ricans.

The prevalence of noninsulin dependent diabetes is adults is 2-3 times that of nonHispanic whites, and rates of insulin-dependent diabetes in children on the island are the highest of all children living in the Americas. Associated with diabetes is a high incidence of end-stage-renal disease. Dental caries and periodontal disease are also common problems.

Counseling Tips:

Puerto Ricans may be most comfort able with health card providers of the same gender. Once a relationship is established, complaints are easily discussed.

Puerto Ricans may acculturate slowly to mainland practices, maintaining traditional beliefs due to living in homogeneous neighborhoods and through frequent trips to the island. Mothers are a primary source of nutrition information and education, thus the wife or mother of the household should be included in education efforts. Families may bring home-cooked meals to hospitalized individuals and diet restrictions should be fully explained.

Traditional Holidays

March 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Gale Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2002 Four Winds Food Specialists. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Ricans typically observe all Catholic Holy Days in addition to U.S. national holidays. The Christmas. season dominates traditional celebrations:

Chistmas Season

Type: Christian/Secular

Date: Early December-January 6th

Observation: Celebrations begin in early December with parrandas, or caroling parties, featuring pasteles and asopao for refreshment. Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, includes mass followed by a feast that lasts into the wee hours of the morning. Traditional foods include spit-roasted pig (lechon asado), rice with pigeon peas arroz con gandules), coquito (rum and coconut milk), and special desserts such as rice pudding and coconut custard. Celebrants recuperate on Christmas Day, and in U.S. influenced homes, Santa visits the children. On December 28th, Dia de los Inocentes is celebrated. This holiday traditionally included the "kidnapping" of the first-born by friends dressed as Herod's soldiers; the children were ransomed for gifts and everyone celebrated in the town square with feasting and dancing. Today the day has become more like April Fool's combined with Halloween. Men dress as women, women dress as men, and practical jokes are popular. New Year's is celebrated by cleaning house from top to bottom and eatin g a grape at each stroke of midnight. On Dia de Reyes, January 6th, the three Kings visit homes in the dark of night, leaving gifts and treats for children. The season ends on the 9th with visits to friends and clean-up of Christmas decorations.

Puerto Rican Food Habits: Meals

March 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Gale Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2002 Four Winds Food Specialists. All Rights Reserved.

Traditionally, three meals a day are eaten. Breakfast is usually a light meal, sometimes just cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a roll with butter. Larger meals may include eggs, cereal, fried potatoes, cassava or yams, bacon and fruit. Empanadas (meat pies) are eaten in some regions, and pancakes or fritters may also be served. Lunch in poor homes might be limited to starchy root vegetables/fruits with a little salt cod. in most homes, rice and beans or gandules with meat, or thick stew-like soups served with tostones very common. Simple salad with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber added sometimes. Fast foods, inc. pizza and hamburgers, now common and typical lunch entrees. Dinner is similar to lunch. More courses often served, such as appetizers (pickled dishes, fritters, stuffed vegetables) and desserts (esp. flans, custards, rice and bread puddings, fruit ices, fruit salads and coconut puddings).

Frituras, deep-fried finger-foods that are consumed as snacks or added to meals, are a Puerto Rican specialty, often purchased at street stands or beach huts. They include fritters, made from bananas, squash or salt cod (bacalaitos) and stuffed versions called alcapurrias (plantain or cassava dough stuffed with beef, pork, chicken, crab or shrimp); pinones (plantain strips wrapped around spicy ground beef, sausage, and seafood fillings); pastilillos (wheat pastry turnovers filled with sausage, cheese or seafood); and cuchifritos (deep-fried chitterlings or variety meats).

Many foods are imported from the mainland to the island and convenience foods are common. Salad bars and come y vetes (eat-and-run) restaurants esp. popular.



Fats: Lard; olive oil; com oil; some butter

Sweets: Sugar cane products, inc raw and unrefined sugar, molasses

Flavorings: Achiote, bay leaf, capers, chiles, cilantro, cinnamon, coconut, garlic, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, olives, onions, oregano, mint, recao, saffron, sage, scallions, soy sauce, tamarind, thyme

Preparation: Many fried foods. Aromatic seasoning mixes, with chiles and/or sour ingredients (vinegar, capers, tamarind or pickled alcaparrado), used as base for dishes, esp adobo, pique, recaito and sofrito.


Non-alcoholic: Coffee; coquito (coconut eggnog); fruit/herbal drinks esp lemonade, guarapo de cana (sugar cane juice), mauby (see box), passion fruit, tamarind); soft drinks

Alcoholic: Beer; rum; wine

Consumption: Coffee consumed daily; fruit/ herbal drinks popular. Hot and cold mixed rum beverages a specialty: pina coladas invented on the island.


Meat: Beef; pork; goat; organ meats

Poultry: Chicken; turkey

Fish and Shellfish: bacalao (dried, salt cod), conch, crab, crayfish, mackerel, mussels, shrimp, snapper, swordfish, octopus

Eggs: Chicken

Consumption: Steak, pot roast eaten often.

Roasted pork a national dish; ham, sausages added to many dishes. Goat stew served at special occasions. Dried salt cod and canned fish very common. Eggs sometimes served at breakfast;


Cereals and Grains: Corn; rice; wheat

Preparation: Cornmeal breads, esp baked or fried surrulitos (comsticks) popular. Wheat flour rolls and pastries available. Pastry enclosed dishes, such fried turnovers and meat pies eaten often. Pastas flavored with Puerto Rican-style sauces common. Seasoned rice side dishes served at most meals. Rice flour used in some dishes; rice pudding is a national favorite.


Milk: Cow's milk (fresh, condensed, evaporated)

Dairy: Queso de hoja (fresh white cheese); queso de cabra(fresh goat cheese).

Preparation: Few dairy products used; lactose intolerance assumed to be high. Children consume milk; adult consumption primarily limited to cafe con leche (coffee with milk).


Legumes: Beans (black, kidney; lima, navy, pink, pinto, white), black-eyed peas, chick-peas, gandules (green pigeon peas), lentils

Nuts: Almonds


Preparation: Vegetable protein from legumes significant in traditional diet. Legumes eaten every day, added to rice, salads, and soups/stews.


Fruit: Acerola, breadfruit, calabaza (green pumpkin), corn, grosella, guanabana (soursop), guava, mango, passion fruit, plantains

Vegetables: Cassava, chayote squash, chiles (sweet, hot), cucumber, eggplant, green beans, lettuce, malanga, peas, taro root, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, yarns

Preparation: Fresh fruit eaten for snacks; added to some sauces, desserts. Starchy vegetables/ fruits consumed daily, baked, fried, mashed, added to soups, and as dough wrapping savory or sweet fillings. Few dark leafy greens eaten, though salads served at some meals.

DIETARY CHANGES IN THE US-- Research suggests that with acculturation mainland diet resembles that of nonHispanic whites. Complex carbohydrate intake declines, sugar intake increases. Consumption of some foods, such as beef, eggs, whole milk, cheese, leafy vegetables, and fruit or soft drinks may increase, while pork, beans, and fish decreases. Temperate fruits often replace tropical fruits. However, starchy vegetables remain a favorite, and traditional entrees consumed frequently.

Mofongo Recipe

This dish traditionally uses cracklings instead of bacon and lard instead of oil.

1/2 lb. bacon

4 lg. green plantains, peeled, cut in 1/2-inch slices and boiled in water for 20 minutes

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 sm. hot chile pepper, minced

1/2 tsp. each oregano and mint

2 T. fresh cilantro, chopped

1 cup olive oil; divided

Salt and pepper to taste

Fry bacon until crisp; discard fat. Fry plantain slices until golden in 1/4 cup oil. Drain on paper towels. Combine remaining oil with remaining ingredients. Mash plantain with bacon and seasoned oil (ingredients may be divided into small amounts if using a mortar). Mound into 4 servings on plates.


March 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Gale Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2002 Four Winds Food Specialists. All Rights Reserved.

The mauby tree (Colubrina elliptica), also known as soldierwood or ironwood, is used to produce the traditional Taino beverage of the same name. The bitter bark is first boiled, then mixed with unrefined sugar and a little previously fermented mauby (to provide active yeasts), After sitting for several days, the bubbly beverage is ready to consume. It has a slightly medicinal flavor, described as a little like fresh root beer. An unfermented type, usually served over ice, is made with freshly oiled bark (canned mauby concentrate and syrups are also available), sugar, and spices. Mauy bark is added to many Caribbean home remedies, considered therapeutic in the treatment of diabetes and diarrhea, in stimulating the appetite-- and as an aphrodisiac.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback