Columbus named the Island which we now call Puerto Rico “San Juan Bautista.” Juan Ponce de Leon established the town of Caparra in 1508 and by 1521 it was called “Puerto Rico.” When the rich natural resources of the Island were recognized in Spain, the Island was called “Puerto Rico” and the town became San Juan.
This changes were gradual. However, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898. The U.S. government decided that it would be too difficult for English speakers to figure out how to pronounce “Puerto,” They changed the spelling in the Treaty of Paris to “Porto” to provide a hint to English speakers on how to say the name. “Porto Rico” had been used internationally for hundreds of years at that point.
Not everyone agreed. A writer named Robert T. Hill used the spelling “Porto Rico” in an article in National Geographic magazine in 1899 and the editors objected. “The form ‘Puerto Rico’ is the one commonly used by the people of the island itself,” they wrote, “and by those of other Spanish-speaking countries, and it is good Spanish.”
We have a specific date for the beginning of the spelling “Porto Rico,” there is also a specific date when the name was changed back to “Puerto Rico.” This took place when a law to this effect was passed in 1932.
A question of respect
Resident Commissioner Felix Cordova Davila introduced the bill, HJ Res 149, in December,ber of 1931. H was succeeded as Resident Commissioner by Jose Pesquera, who continued to support the bill until its passage that spring.
“§731a. Change of name; Puerto Rico
From and after May 17, 1932, the island designated ‘Porto Rico’ in the Act entitled ‘An Act to provide a civil government for Porto Rico, and for other purposes,’ approved March 2, 1917, as amended, shall be known and designated as ‘Puerto Rico.’ All laws, regulations, and public documents and records of the United States in which such island is designated or referred to under the name of ‘Porto Rico’ shall be held to refer to such island under and by the name of ‘Puerto Rico.'”
(May 17, 1932, ch. 190, 47 Stat. 158.)
While some members of Congress objected that it would cost too much to make the change, most of the representatives agreed that it would be more respectful to use the original Spanish name. In the House, the bill passed with 88 votes. It passed unanimously in the Senate and became law in May of 1932.
“Porto Rico” continues to be the spelling used in French, Italian, and Portuguese.