The period leading up to World War II was a tumultuous time for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean. The island faced numerous challenges, including economic struggles and social hardships. The Great Depression, a global economic downturn, further exacerbated the difficulties faced by Puerto Rico. This article explores the economic landscape of Puerto Rico before World War II, the impact of the Great Depression, and the island’s efforts to overcome these challenges.

Puerto Rico Pre-World War II: Economic Landscape

In the years preceding World War II, Puerto Rico’s economy was primarily agrarian, with a heavy reliance on the export of agricultural products, especially sugar. Large sugar plantations dominated the landscape, creating significant wealth disparities and limited opportunities for many Puerto Ricans. The agricultural sector faced challenges such as low prices, fluctuating demand, and hurricanes, which often devastated crops and infrastructure.

The Great Depression: Impact on Puerto Rico

The Great Depression, which originated in the United States in 1929, had far-reaching effects on Puerto Rico. The island’s economy heavily relied on exports to the mainland U.S., and the economic downturn led to a sharp decline in demand for Puerto Rican agricultural products. This resulted in widespread unemployment, poverty, and social unrest. Many Puerto Ricans faced dire economic conditions, struggling to meet basic needs.

Social Conditions and Challenges during The Great Depression

The Great Depression had a profound impact on the social fabric of Puerto Rico, leading to significant challenges and transformations. The economic hardships brought about by the Depression resulted in widespread unemployment, poverty, and desperation among Puerto Ricans.

As job opportunities dwindled, many Puerto Ricans sought better prospects elsewhere, particularly in the urban centers of the United States. This led to a significant exodus of Puerto Ricans, primarily to cities like New York. The migration to New York, in particular, created vibrant Puerto Rican communities that would shape the cultural landscape of both Puerto Rico and the diaspora. Puerto Ricans faced numerous challenges as they adapted to life in a new environment, including language barriers, discrimination, and economic struggles. Yet, they also found solidarity and support within their own communities, forming social networks and organizations to advocate for their rights and improve their living conditions.

Amidst the economic hardships and social dislocation, the Nationalist Movement emerged as a prominent force in Puerto Rican society during the Great Depression. Led by figures such as Pedro Albizu Campos, the Nationalist Movement advocated for independence from the United States and the affirmation of Puerto Rican identity. The movement gained support among those disillusioned with the colonial relationship and sought to assert Puerto Rico’s political autonomy. The Nationalist Party’s rise to prominence, with its call for independence, challenged the existing power dynamics and ignited debates about the future of Puerto Rico.

The Great Depression, with its devastating economic consequences, contributed to social unrest and political mobilization in Puerto Rico. It served as a catalyst for social movements that would leave a lasting impact on the island’s history. The migration to New York and the emergence of the Nationalist Movement represented different responses to the challenges of the time, reflecting the resilience, determination, and aspirations of the Puerto Rican people.

Efforts for Economic Diversification: Industrialization in Puerto Rico

In response to the economic hardships faced during the Great Depression, Puerto Rico embarked on a path of economic diversification and industrialization. The government, along with the U.S. administration, implemented policies to attract manufacturing industries to the island. This led to the establishment of industrial centers and the growth of sectors such as textiles, pharmaceuticals, and electronics. The push for industrialization aimed to create employment opportunities, stimulate the economy, and reduce the island’s dependence on agriculture.


The pre-World War II era and the Great Depression were transformative periods for Puerto Rico, both economically and socially. The economic struggles and social conditions faced by Puerto Ricans during this time tested their resilience and resourcefulness. The exodus to New York brought about new challenges and opportunities, shaping the Puerto Rican diaspora and fostering a strong sense of identity and community.

Simultaneously, the emergence of the Nationalist Movement underscored the desire for political autonomy and independence, challenging the colonial relationship with the United States. The social and political responses during thistime laid the groundwork for future movements and developments in Puerto Rico’s history.

Understanding the social conditions and challenges of the Great Depression provides valuable insights into the experiences and resilience of the Puerto Rican people. It sheds light on their ongoing pursuit of social justice, cultural preservation, and political self-determination. These historical dynamics continue to shape the collective identity and aspirations of Puerto Rico, forging a path toward a more inclusive and equitable future.