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Puerto Rico Genealogy: Getting Started

A research guide to online and print resources for genealogy related to individuals from Puerto Rico.
Guide by Diane Dias De Fazio.

Black-and-white woodblock print (detail) showing African-American person holding basket of bananas.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,: Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library.
Potter, Albert (1903-1937) (Artist). "Inland, Porto Rico" [detail], New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Understanding the history of your ancestors' lives is useful for your genealogy research. The Encyclopedia of New York City and The Encyclopedia of New York State both include entries on Puerto Ricans, and the Library holds a number of books on the history of Puerto Rico. Search the Library's Classic Catalog, and peruse these titles:

And search by Subject: Puerto Rico -- History. for a comprehensive view of the Library's collections in English and en Español. This guide offers more research suggestions, below.

Understanding Puerto Rican Migration

Narrative overview

In 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States from Spain in the Treaty of Paris, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. As of this guide's creation (2018), the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

The history of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland United States begins with another island: Puerto Ricans were recruited to work on Hawaiian sugar plantations following the 1899 Atlantic hurricane season1. There are varying accounts as to how many Puerto Ricans were aboard the first vessels to arrive in Hawaii as part of this migration, but historical newspapers confirm that Puerto Rican migration to Hawaii began in 1900.

The complete history of Puerto Rico and migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States and beyond is too extensive to recount here, but generally speaking, Puerto Ricans moved to major cities in the States seeking economic opportunity, and migration increased as air travel became more viable.

1 See Works Cited in this Guide.

The Puerto Rican Diaspora

Where are Puerto Ricans? Everywhere.

According to the 2018 Federal Census, there were 5,791,453 Puerto Ricans living in the fifty states and the United States Virgin Islands. Historically, Puerto Rican migration was centered in five locations: New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, and Hawaii. The Puerto Rican Diaspora: historical perspectives / edited by Carmen Teresa Whalen and Víctor Vázquez-Hernández, illustrates this via case studies, and it is also available as an electronic resource (at the Library and from home with a valid Library card).

As noted above, the first Puerto Ricans to move to Hawaii arrived in 1900. However, the Jones-Shafroth Act granted American citizenship to Puerto Rican residents of Puerto Rico, not to those who resided in Hawaii (then still a territory), which is something to keep in mind if your Puerto Rican ancestors lived in the Aloha State. As of the 2018 Federal Census, there were 41,801 Puerto Ricans living in Hawaii.

The book, California and Hawaii's first Puerto Ricans, 1850-1925 : the 1st and 2nd generation immigrants/migrants, by Daniel M. López explores the history and available records of the early Hawaii period of migration.

The Further Reading section of this guide provides links to Puerto Rican cultural and heritage organizations in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Gather Records and Organize Your Information

You have more than you know!

Organize your family's historical documents and artifacts, and make scanned copies, if you can. You may have the following already:

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates or licenses
  • Military service records
  • Social Security Records
  • Death certificates
  • Obituaries
  • Funeral cards

And, these common family artifacts are often full of clues! Take a look through the following, setting aside anything that includes dates, locations, and/or names:

  • Journals
  • Photographs
  • Letters
  • Family Bible