JACK DELANO and photographers from the FSA captured life in Puerto Rico during the 30s and 40s

Its hard to fathom how the island of Puerto Rico has changed. Fortunately there is an immense photographic archive of all aspects of life on the island before, during WW2 and afterwards.

Image: Library of Congress

From its first inhabitants by Taíno natives to its centuries of rule under Spain and later the United States, Puerto Rico has developed a culture and character unique among the islands of the Caribbean.

December 1941. «San Juan, Puerto Rico. In a dress factory.» Medium format negative by Jack Delano for the Farm Security Administration.
Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress

This becomes evident in these photographs that take us on a journey through time, where life was hard, simpler perhaps and filled with the same dreams and hopes of a better life, such as today.


In the late 1930s and early ‘40s, photographers from the Farm Security Administration visited the island to document the working conditions of plantation laborers cultivating sugarcane, tobacco, and other crops, as well as daily life both in the capital of San Juan and in remote mountain villages.

In this photo by Jack Delano a boy looks at the poster from the new film opening at the Roxy Theater in Old San Juan, Man Power with Marlene Dietrich and Edgar G Robinson and George Raft. 1941
The film poster for Manpower, 1941

This ever changing scenery and development has been part of what makes the island so unpredictable in every sense of the word.

Photo by Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress


Jack Delano discovers Puerto Rico: After some very difficult years due to the shortage of work as a result of the Great Depression, in 1940 Delano finally received a telegram from the Agricultural Security Administration (FSA). He was informed that his services were needed to document, among other places, US territories, such as Puerto Rico. From the first moment he set foot on the Island in November 1941, Delano was delighted, especially with it’s people, as he often said. During this first visit to Puerto Rico, under FSA assignment, Delano, along with his wife Irene, managed to visit and document a large part of the municipalities. By the beginning of 1942, the Delano’s were forced to leave the Island, as World War II had broken out and the services of Delano were required.

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At the end of the war, Delano was awarded a scholarship from the Guggenheim Foundation which allowed him to return to the Island, where he was permanently established, in 1946. Subsequent decades were extremely important for the development of art and education on the island. . Governor Luis Muñoz Marín created the Division for Community Education (DIVEDCO) for which he recruited his great friend Jack, who stood out as a producer, cameraman, screenwriter and music composer.


Then, he went on to direct more ambitious projects within the division, as was the film Los Peloteros (1951). For his part, Irene Delano organized and directed the Graphic Arts Workshop of the Public Parks and Recreation Commission. During the 1980s , Delano decided to retake the project that brought him for the first time to the Island; documenting the cultural, social and economic changes that had occurred in the last 40 years. ‘A continuity thread is also distinguished: the Puerto Rican, no matter how much he changes, has not lost his family air.’ (Puerto Rico Mio, 1990) This impressive project led to the curator-ship of the exhibition Contrasts: 40 Years of Change and Continuity in Puerto Rico that was presented at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras by the end of 1982. The book Puerto Rico mío was published in 1990. Jack Delano died on August 12, 1997 in San Juan, PR.


Looking through a vast amount of images from photographers such as Jack Delano, publicity of decades past, family photos and advertising one can travel back in time and grasp what it meant to live in difficult times surrounded by contrast, a growing city such as San Juan, social inequality and political transformation.

Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress

Photographer Jack Delano became so enamored with the people and way of life that he made Puerto Rico his permanent home.

Entrance to Rio Piedras, 1937
Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress
Clases de salvamento en la piscina del Morro en San Juan, Puerto Rico. Organizadas por la Cruz Roja en el año de 1940.
Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress
Young man delivers lunch boxes, known as friambreras. San Juan, 1946
Plaza Principal Showing the Biggest Department Store in the West Indies
Gonzalez Padin Department Store, Old San Juan, 1936
Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress

Its an irony,  Puerto Rico has changed a lot and in many aspects it hasn’t changed at all.


Jack Delano Image: Library of Congress

A complete and thorough story on Jack Delano can be read at: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/a-masterwork-spanning-40-years-and-one-island/