9/13 Update to my recent piece on the Puerto Rican pronounciation of the letter R:
I did a bit more research on the fricative R used in the islands. According to this (Spanish-language) article by the Cervantes Institute on the So-Called “Problem” of the Velar R in Puerto Rico, there are two dominant theories on the source of the velar pronounciation of the letter R in Puerto Rico.
The first one (which draws on comparisons with the same phenomenon in Brasil) argues that it’s the result of African presence on the island. However, this theory is (rightly, in my view) dismissed, as other parts of Latin America with huge proportions of Blacks do not use the velar R, and for a few other reasons. Also, the parts of the islands where the velar R is most often used do not have a prominent African presence. I would add that the velar R is also not prominent in places like Angola, where most Brasilian Blacks came from. Therefore, even in Brasil the velar R had a different origin.
Another theory, the most likely one and the one favored by the Cervantes article, has to do with the cultural isolation of Puerto Rican peasants between the 15th-20th Centuries, together with the emergence of an individualist peasant culture from the mixture of Spanish men and Taino women. This cultural phenomenon, the jíbaros, is one of the defining features of the early development of Puerto Rican culture and it is limited to the mountainous interior of the big island. According to this theory, the surviving Tainos were only able to pronounce the Spanish double R in this manner, and therefore the pronounciation has Native American origins.
A third possible theory deals with the migration of French people into the island during, mainly, the 19th Century. I also am inclined to accept this theory, at least as a partial explanation for it, in part because I am aware of French ancestry in my own family, and in part because during the 19th century, the Spanish Crown approved a law known as the Cédula de Gracias, which gave free land as an incentive to new Catholic settlers in Puerto Rico.
The Spanish Crown approved this law in order to ensure that the colony would remain loyal to Spain, thinking that a strong Catholic faith served this purpose. The Cédula de Gracias drew thousands of immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries, like France, Ireland, and various Spanish provinces. For this reason, many Puerto Ricans today have Irish and French family names. It also had the effect of turning a mostly Black and racially mixed population into the whitest island in the Caribbean, and this was also intended as a result of paranoia that Spain experienced after Haiti’s independence, and the fear that Black Puerto Ricans would try to stage a similar event in the island.
As a side note, when I studied at the University of Puerto Rico, I took a History of Puerto Rico class. My professor had French ancestry and frequently mentioned the influence of French culture on the island, down to the consumption of French bread, which is frequently served warm by tradition, often accompanied with coffee. It is likely that, as we did with Taino influence, we have historically underestimated the influence of the French culture in Puerto Rico as a result of the official narratives that we’ve been sold.
The truth is that Haiti’s independence (which took place also in the 1800’s) involved the killing of thousands of white French land-owners, and the French colonists who survived were forced to re-settle in other lands, with Puerto Rico, Cuba and Louisiana being close and obvious alternatives for many of them. The Cédula de Gracias, which gave them land as an incentive, would have provided many of these diasporic French citizens an added reason to finally settle in Puerto Rico.
The Cédula de Gracias is not mentioned in the above article, but I think it’s worth considering this angle, as there are entire neighborhoods in Puerto Rico (like the Lasalle Sector in Quebradillas) where people are known to have French ancestry. There is no clear and unique reason for the evolution of velar R in Puerto Rican Spanish, but it seems that by sending unmarried Spanish men to settle the islands early on, who then married Taino women, and later by drawing a certain amount of French settlers to the islands, the Spanish Crown’s policies led to the use of the guttural R in Puerto Rico.