Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the island's population grew at a slow pace and was concentrated in rural areasRural areas: Areas of the countryside, generally devoted to agriculture., particularly along the east and west coasts. This is where the island's main urban centersurban centers: Relatively large and dense settlements of heterogeneous groups of people. were initially established—San Juan in the northeast, and San Germán in the southwest. During the late 18th century, population growth accelerated. After 1815, the development of an economy centered around the island's sugar and coffee plantations attracted an increasing flow of immigrants, largely from Spain, but also from Corsica and other parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean, as well as greater numbers of slaves from Africa.
Puerto Rico in the late 19th century had already become a densely settled country, although most of its population was dispersed throughout the countryside, especially in the island's interior. By 1899, almost a million people inhabited the island. From 1900-1930, Puerto Rico's cities began to absorb a large wave of rural immigrants, particularly those who had been displaced by a faltering coffee industry. During this period, population growth accelerated tremendously, largely the result of lower death rates.
Beginning in the 1940s, Puerto Rico's population experienced rapid, drastic, and lasting changes. The diminished importance of agriculture, and the growth of manufacturing forced a large part of the rural population to relocate in the San Juan metropolitan area and other urban centers on the island. Internal migrationInternal migration: The movement of persons from one place to another within the same country, generally for economic reasons. fed a mass exodusExodus: Departure of a large number of people from their place of origin. to the United States, particularly to New York City. Emigrationemigration: The departure of persons from their place of origin to settle elsewhere. and family planning campaigns led to a significant decrease in population growth between 1940 and 1960. However, during the 1960s, foreign immigration, mostly from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, increased steadily. In the 1970s, return migrationreturn migration: A movement of persons to their place of origin after residing elsewhere for an extended period of time. intensified. This wave brought a second generation of Puerto Ricans who had been born in the United States.
Thus, Puerto Rico was transformed from a predominantly rural and agricultural society—one that propelled great waves of emigration—to a largely urban, industrialized country with a considerable service sector, and with significant migration flows both to and from the island. In less than fifty years, Puerto Rico's population has become almost evenly split between the island and the continental U.S.; it has also become far more diverse in its geographic origins and destinations.
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