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Puerto Rico for Dummies (and the Rest of Us)
You don't know what you don't know
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Dear reader, please note that I’m not calling YOU a dummy here. Remember that line of bright yellow “X for Dummies” books? Here’s their mission statement:
Dummies has always stood for taking on complex concepts and making them easy to understand. Dummies helps everyone be more knowledgeable and confident in applying what they know. Whether it's to pass that big test, qualify for that big promotion or even master that cooking technique; people who rely on dummies, rely on it to learn the critical skills and relevant information necessary for success.
Sounds good, right? Well, they have one lone article on Puerto Rico on their site, How to Behave with Puerto Rican Businesspeople or Customers.
And it’s got one grossly incorrect bullet point (emphasis mine):
Be aware that Puerto Ricans consider their country to be part of the United States, so if you were to say something like “We Americans . . .” (as if they’re not Americans), your listener would likely be insulted.
They don’t consider “their country” to be part of the United States. Whether we like it or not, it IS part of the US as a territory. It’s a colonial outpost ceded by Spain to the United States in 1898. But it wasn’t until 1917 that Puerto Ricans became US citizens, making it the oldest colony in the Western hemisphere.
Even in today’s modern world, that relationship is still misunderstood. Remember the Hertz rental car debacle? Or how about the Spirit Airlines one? Note the dates on the linked articles: they’re both from May 2023. 🙄
As a Puerto Rican (on my father’s side) this is frustrating. And now that my husband and I are planning a move there, it’s even more exasperating.1
So here is an explanation of that, plus a few more facts that you might find surprising about Puerto Rico.2
Translations from this Episode
Y esta vez: and this time
La última vez: the last time
Con todas mis titís: with all my aunts
Pero esta vez: but this time
Cuando regrese a Los Ángeles: when I get back to LA
All of these are from the first minute of the podcast episode, so I hope it’s helpful to you.
Why Puerto Rico?
Before getting into the list, I’ll answer the question everyone asks: why did you choose Puerto Rico?
Because Puerto Rico is part of the US, you don’t need a passport or a visa to live or work there. While it’s super romantic to think about being a digital nomad and living anywhere, the reality is that you need to have a very flexible job and/or deal with a shit ton of paperwork to execute that properly. We’re just not ready for that (yet).
Puerto Rico also makes sense because of one of the surprising things I learned on my first visit. Spoiler alert: they mostly speak Spanish on the island, so it’s a great place to learn the language through immersion. Something both of us actually need. 😅
So if you were planning a tropical vacation, that didn’t require a visa or a passport if you’re a US citizen, and Hawaii (another location with problematic colonization and fire issues) isn’t your jam, here’s some stuff you should know about Puerto Rico.
1. Where is Puerto Rico?
First of all, where is Puerto Rico? Here’s a little geography lesson!
Puerto Rico is located in the Caribbean Sea about 1150 miles (or 1800 kilometers!) southeast off the tip of Florida. It’s past The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Haiti and the Dominican Republic (aka Hispaniola). If you hit the Virgin Islands (either British or USVI), you’ve gone too far.
Because Puerto Rico is a US territory, they use US money and are US citizens. But they don’t have representation in Congress and therefore do not pay federal income tax. That does mean that American citizens traveling there don’t require a passport. It’s just like going to Vegas, Guam, New York, or Alaska.
But just because you are still in the United States while in Puerto Rico doesn’t mean that you won’t be surprised by a few things. Like you’ll have an easier time finding a Burger King than a McDonald’s, for starters (175 to 108, respectively).
2. You Should Know Spanish
The very first thing you need to know, after where the island is located, is that everything in Puerto Rico is in Spanish.
That includes stop signs, road signs, etc. Primary school education is taught in Spanish and English is taught as a foreign language option. So even though English and Spanish are both the official languages, only 20% of the population speaks English.
Most service people, including restaurant staff and Uber drivers, speak a base level of English, so interacting on a daily basis isn’t necessarily difficult for a non-Spanish speaker. But I highly advise knowing a minimum of conversational Spanish if you’re traveling here without a native speaker.
Story time 📖
The first time we went to Puerto Rico, we found a McDonald’s one morning and my husband had an amusing interaction. As he was ordering, the person did not understand him because he was speaking English, and she did not. Her manager did, but that could have been avoided!
Each time I’ve visited I’ve had Uber drivers in the most touristy areas that do not speak fluent English (this has also happened on the mainland!). They speak enough to enter your PIN (whether you give it to them in Spanish or English), but don’t expect a conversation unless you speak Spanish.
Pro tip: pick up a few key phrases. I mean, we have Mexican food everywhere, so you know how to say taco and burrito. Those are Spanish words!
Build on that with phrases like “la cuenta por favor” for when you want your restaurant bill or “jugo de china” if you want orange juice.
3. You Should ALSO Know The Metric System
This was probably the most shocking thing for me because I really took for granted that being in the US meant we use miles and gallons.
Distance is measured in kilometers (speed is still in miles though, confusingly). And your phone’s GPS will auto-switch3 to kilometers from miles, which makes measuring distances awkward if you’re not prepared. You’d better know your metric conversions!
1 kilometer = .62 miles
1 mile = 1.61 km
Gasoline is also sold in liters, and there’s approximately four liters to a gallon. So at 3.79 liters per gallon…again, that easy math!
Gas is approximately about $4 a gallon right now, or $1.08 per liter in San Juan. Compared to $5 in the greater Los Angeles metro area, that would be so nice for the monster V8 Hemi we have in the Challenger. But there’s no way we’d be able to drive that on the island—forget the price of gas, the damn thing won’t fit down some streets!
I’m just hoping I learn to think in liters, square meters, and kilometers quickly enough to stop doing conversions in my head all the time. Like 5 km is 3.1 miles.
I only that because I’ve run a couple of those and I hate running.🏃♀️🏃♀️🏃♀️
4. And Know Some Boricua-isms
Boricua is another word for Puerto Rican. And boricuas speak a bit differently than other Spanish speakers, it’s almost got a lyrical quality to it.
This isn’t unusual across different Spanish-speaking countries. For example, if you’ve ever heard a Spaniard or Argentinan speaker, you might have heard a slight lisp. This isn’t present in, say, the Mexican Spanish I grew up with.
So to converse with a boricua, you should know some Spanish for sure, but also try to acquaint yourself with the local idioms.
A typical greeting in Spanish is buenos días. That means hello, and it’s used during the day, before the afternoon. In the afternoon you’d say buenas tardes. In the evening, it becomes buenas noches. Of course, you can always just say hola.👋
Boricuas, on the other hand, can speak Spanish very fast and typically cut off some syllables or drop certain sounds. It’s not unusual to instead hear the phrase buen día at any time of the day. I like the efficiency of this. I say it all the time now, including when I greet you on this podcast every time!
There’s a great Instagram account that breaks down a bunch of different boricua-isms and where they came from. It’s run by a Puerto Rican woman and she speaks FAST.
Check out Dialecto Boricua for more.
5. The Craft Beer Scene is AMAZING
Now that I’m writing this after being back there, I can tell you that it’s still true!
Ryan and I looooooove our beer. Beer is entwined in how we met, where he proposed, where we got married (the second time), and even our honeymoon was a beer tour of Europe. He’s also a home brewer.
All these years later we drink more wine now than beer, because as you get older the beer bloat is real. 😥 But our first time out, I was super impressed with the number of styles available from the local breweries.
Beers exist for every major category: stout, brown, amber, blonde, sour, IPA, etc. There was no pigeon-holing into a single island-style beer here.
There are also distinct German and Belgian influences on the menu at La Taberna Lúpulo in Old San Juan. Their entire beer list rivals some of the best taprooms across the US. Of course we had to hit that spot in VSJ again (aka Viejo San Juan, or Old San Juan):
And the options from local microbreweries were reminiscent of our beer honeymoon in Europe. Our favorites were Ocean Lab, Zurc Bräuhaus, and Dragonstone Abbey. All of which appear to still be operating post-Covid!
Our last stop before coming home last week was at Ocean Lab’s restaurant just off the runway at SJU (the airport in San Juan).
The only “problem”—and it’s not really a problem, per se, more of an adjustment we need to make—is that it’s a perpetual humid summer in Puerto Rico. Even California, which also has the reputation for for being nice and warm all the time, has seasons. It gets cold enough to need a wool coat in the winter sometimes! But we don’t have humidity.
So getting used to drinking alcohol in high heat and humidity might take some time because the beers warm up really quick in these conditions—you gotta drink fast. Which means you won’t drink much unless you have an unusually high tolerance.
I’m also looking forward to checking out the wine scene. According to an article from 2015 on CaribbeanTrading.com, the Puerto Rican wine scene was still in its infancy and exporting off the island wasn’t happening—yet. So I’m excited to see what’s going on 8 years later.
Stay tuned because I’m sure I’ll find a childfree Latina or dos que le gusta el vino tambien (translation: or two that likes wine too). And if that’s you, let’s be friends!!
6. There are no Target Stores and Amazon is Tricky
Target doesn’t exist on the island. 😭
Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Costco do. But no “Tar-jay.” Why? Trademarks!!
As explained by Cowles Thompson, a trademark law firm:
Due to trademark law, Target stores are not allowed to operate on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, without paying a hefty licensing fee to Target, the Puerto Rican rental car company.
I don’t know why but this cracks me up!🤣🤣🤣
It shouldn’t because I don’t like shopping at either Walmart or Costco, and Target is where we buy our paper products (like toilet paper!!). I’ve been reassured that there are viable other options…I just don’t know what those are yet.🙀
Stay tuned to see if I’m able to find out!
The Amazon thing is a bit confusing. Some things do ship, but not everything. From my research it seems that it’s kind of like living in far off states like Alaska and Hawaii. Due to the great distance, some businesses choose not to deal with the headaches of shipping that far, which is understandable.
This article breaks it down with more justice than I can.
That said, this is a great time to let you know that LVMC shirts DO ship to Alaska, Hawaii AND Puerto Rico. So don’t hesitate to get one. Remember, once they’re gone, they’re GONE!
Use pauletteerato.com/shop to buy yours ASAP.
If you live outside of the US, send me an email and we can discuss shipping.
7. The Electrical Grid Debacle
I’ve saved the biggest, if not the worst, for last. The thing to know is that there’s a huge issue with electricity on the island. It’s a (excuse the pun) highly charged situation. 🗲🗲🗲
To my understanding, somewhere between an ancient grid battled by 2 destructive hurricanes in recent years, bankruptcy, and then private ownership by a joint American and Canadian company, lies a juggernaut of corruption that somehow fixes nothing but keeps raising prices and turning off the lights pretty regularly.
I mean Bad Bunny made a whole ass video about it. Give it a watch through, even if it is over 20 mins long:
Yes, there are solar panels, gas generators, water cisterns, and all of that in the touristy areas. But what about the rest of the island?
This article is an eye-opening, if slightly idealistic, read from WBUR (which is a Boston station, interestingly). Here are some key quotes:
“It's an equity issue,” says Ruth Santiago, a lawyer and activist who lives in Salinas. “We're developing a separate and unequal electric system here, where poor communities that have less access to the financing or the loans or there's no public funding for these kinds of installations for low-income, middle-income people, well, they're left behind.” From the audio of the article, she also added: “And it’s costing lives.”
“We've got to get out of this vicious cycle of depending on the centralized grid that gets knocked down with every hurricane or every other hurricane,” she says. “It's a matter of the government listening to communities and people who are aware of the need for this transformation.”
All in all, it’s a dire situation, and the hope is that by 2050, in 28 years, the island is on 100% renewable energy. I certainly hope that’s the case for them, because climate change is real.
Hopefully by then they’ll also be able to clear up their political situation of whether or not they’re a state or an independent country.
Let’s 🌯 this up. Seven things you should know about PR before you visit or move there are:
Where it is
Spanish, you should know some Spanish
And the metric system!
Some of the colloquialisms like ¡Buen día!
There’s great drinking here
No Target stores, tho
The electricity issue is kind of precarious. Just a little bit.
There will likely be a follow up episode now that this trip is over and the move is on. Tell me in the comments what more you’d like to know about the beautiful Puerto Rico!
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Expect a pause in recorded content during this time, more info to come next week!
This is only true of Google Maps, Apple Maps did not switch automagically