It's Sunday evening now, and today Puerto Ricans around the city spent the day celebrating their heritage, culture, family, and history. We are New York City's largest parade, attracting over 2 million persons each year, which also makes it one of the country's largest gatherings as well. This year's celebration takes on far greater significance because of the question of status recently reintroduced to Congress and taking center stage today in many circles spanning all levels of education, income, lifestyle, creed, gender, and race. You see, we are a beautiful people, and come in many colors, shapes, sizes, and personalities. In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
No words ever written can better explain the life and times of being a Puerto Rican.
Many of you have been egging me on to write a piece on statehood through blog call-outs, emails, and phone calls. Not to worry, it's here. As for why I took so long, all I can say is "Calmate piojo que el peine llega".
Statehood has been a hot issue for all Puerto Ricans, on the island and throughout our entire Diaspora. I make no secret as to my standing on this issue, as has been expressed on this blog and pretty much anyone that gives me five minutes of time. I am a statehooder. I make no apologies for it, and here today I'll begin to lay out my reasons why. It will take me 2 or 3 takes, and I fully plan to take my sweet time in writing them. Mañanismo is one of our traits, so expect the posts when you see them. I promise it won't be a case of "del dicho al hecho hay un gran trecho".
Before I get into specifics, tenemos que limpiar la casa un poco--a bit of housekeeping is in order. Fellow blogger, Rock Hackshaw, has written on the subject of Puerto Rican statehood twice now, as he often reminds me. Over this and the next few posts, let's take a look at some of the statements, accusations, and what appears at a quick glance is an informed opinion, many of which can be summed up with the two words often used by my mom when I tried to give that day's explanation for breaking one of her ceramic animals, destroying a new pair of Catholic school uniform pants, or stealing a dozen slices of freshly-fried sweet plantains before my family could eat them: "disparates y tonterias". A good way to think of Rock's essays is "aparecer hasta en la sopa".
First, Rock makes a stunning accusation that deserves highlighting: "Puerto Ricans need to stand up and demand independence. Only then can they make full decisions over their lives and livelihoods. Only then would they be fully respected by other Caribbean peoples."
Says who? Los XXI Juegos Centroamericanos y del Caribe (the XXI Central American and Caribbean Games, coincidentally held in Puerto Rico) just wrapped up yesterday, and los XVI Juegos Panamericanos 2011 (the 16th Pan American Games 2011) both feature the best of the Americas. The annual West Indian Day Parade features Puerto Rican marches each year. Many Caribbean folk call Puerto Rico home, enjoying the benefits of living in the United States without giving up their year-round summer weather. Since when are we not respected? I've searched for some kind of statistic to support Rock's remarkable claim and for the life of me, I come up dry. Perhaps someone did un "mal de ojo" on me, preventing me from finding out some kind of reference that goes beyond the word on the street, where often these cited references actually come from.
As for Rock's clarion call that we Puerto Ricans stand up and demand our independence, I say "tranquilo, cojelo con take it easy". Are all Caribbean nations truly independent ? Not at all. There are some, yes. But many others are still part of other nations, for example, a quick trip to Wikipedia shows that under the British Protectorate are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. These nations are autonomous--to an extent. Here's what Wikipedia says about this:
Luckily Wikipedia had a good reference to put this in context. Back in 1975 there was the "Constitutional Crisis in Australia". Short story: the Queen's Governor-General stepped in to prevent a melt-down of government.
Great Britain also has territories that don't fall into the above category, like the British Virgin Islands. Other European nations still have some hold over the Caribbean, for example, the Netherlands with Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire, and France with Saint Martin. Besides Puerto Rico, the United States also has St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. There are others still, but you get the idea: Independence as a definition in the Caribbean is not a simple thing.
My point: PLEASE someone tell me when you have ever read in some kind of academically-collected reference that any of these places was less respected than the other? The West Indian Day Parade is a good example that shows the exact opposite, as all these entities, plus their Spanish-speaking neighbors like Puerto Rico, all enjoy a great and powerful Pan Americanism that is a testament to how much we share in common versus our differences.
But enough of eviscerating Rock's essay. That could take another three essays of my own and ultimately digresses from the point. He meant well, and that's really all that's important. Besides, I gotta save some for the next post.
On to statehood then--in a roundabout way.
I was born in 1965, in an East New York hospital no longer standing today, to two parents who met here in la gran manzana. I was what was known, both affectionately and derogatorily, as a Nuyorican. First generation Boricuas of that era can fill endless pages of what that life was like: here in New York City, we were the spics to the whites, and the porto rocks to the blacks. Many whole or partial summers were spent on la isla del encanto, where we were called gringos, yanquis, or nuyoriqueños. We lived one foot in each world, never fully a part of either, and the butt of many jokes and taunts. In short, we were fodder for Rodney Dangerfield because "we get no respect".
This was a confusing world that I and my generation grew up in. In Puerto Rico you went to the local colmado, here to the bodega. There you worked in a fabrica, here la factoria. You ate your almuerzo at noon there, and here you lonchaste. And of course, today's event in Puerto Rico was el desfile, here la parada. Besides that, we had a long list of words unique to New York City that you didn't hear on the islands. You went downstairs to el beihmen in the winter to make sure el estin was on. You took your clothes to wash at el londri.
Fast forward 45 years later. We Puerto Ricans have enriched this city that sometimes scorned us and treated us as second class citizens, the "Puerto Rican Problem" as the New York Times once wrote. We've helped shape city, state, and federal policy, and also helped pave the way for other Latino groups to enter our city. We gave you your beloved corner Bodega. We continually give you exciting culture, music, and food. And for African-Americans, a Puerto Rican gave you a source of pride and heritage in The Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named after Arturo Schomburg, one of our many great historians, writers, and activists. We've fought in numerous wars for the US, with great honor and courage. Many of them were members of my family. Take all these together and no one can ever accuse of not making significant contributions to our society and way of life.
It flies in contrast to the stereotypes of that era, that we were freeloaders of society.
This point plays out in a different way in current times, as current politics of the state; we (on this blog), the newspapers, TV news channels, etc. will focus on single entities of Latino descent as though that person is the best we can do or produce amongst ourselves. It's a double insult because it also attacks us, like "en el país de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey".
On a broader scale, things are very different now in the United States since the mid-60's when I was born. The demographic shift is pronounced, and experts far and wide have predicted Hispanics to be in the majority within the next few decades. I haven't studied those predictions closely, I admit, so I am not sure if they factor in things like draconian measures being considered, like those circulating in some southwestern portions of the USA, declaring children born here of illegal immigrants as not US citizens. For now, I'll take the predictions at face value. And that's my primary point regarding Puerto Rican Statehood.
A new argument for Statehood has emerged, one that didn't exist during the statehood debate of the 60s-90s:
If Puerto Rico became a state, it would be the first Latino state of the union. Wouldn't that put it at the forefront of Hispanic issues nationally? Wouldn't that set the stage for the demographic predictions of this country? And finally, wouldn't that be the ultimate irony, that Puerto Ricans, once the disrespected colony passed from Spain to the US "como una bolsa de papas" was now setting the leadership stage of this country?
It's a deep and complex thought that requires some thinking through, and should give pause especially to the English-First whackos of this country. Those of you that believe in this, be very careful: In a few decades that can easily change to "Español Primero", or better put, "A cada puerco le llega su sábado".
Puerto Rico has a freely elected governor. We also have a freely elected legislative body and together handle insular affairs. On the federal side, federal programs and initiatives operate like any state of the union in terms of application, oversight, and administration. "si parece un pato y grazna como un pato..." In other words, Puerto Rico already operates very much like a state.
The economic impact of each scenario needs to be weighed out. Puerto Rico's economy needs to be developed properly no matter what the scenario. It has to be something more than manufacturing, putting millions of people a notch above poverty. Dozens of brownfields exist all over the island, abandoned, rusted relics of the sugar industry. Can agriculture be better developed to improve the local economy, if for no other reason than to feed the island's residents, who currently have about 80% of their food imported from elsewhere? Tourism is about 8% of the island's economy right now. It's unlikely that it can be grown much more than that, but even if it did, to what extent? There's 4 million people there, and they can't all be working for the service industry. One answer to these economic questions is to try to grow local businesses, maybe through "Main Streets" types of initiatives. The economy is the key issue in addressing status, I think. I would like to hear from economists on this issue.
As a state, Puerto Rico would put a huge strain on the federal government because of the EITC. Let's not even get into the "serves the United States right" argument and focus solely on the practicality of so many million dollars now depleting the tax coffers. What gets done with that money on the island? Most will spend it of course, which will enrich the local economy, but for how long?
I think the easy answer is to leave things alone. Commonwealth has been working so far, why not leave it? Take a look at the unemployment numbers, the suffering in the large cities, the rampant violent crime and drugs, and you have all the answers you need for why things need to change. Statehood would be the easiest transition of the different options. It would give a solid congressional delegation real voting power. It would give the island a position of leadership as Hispanics continue to grow in population. The claim that it would somehow lesson Puerto Rico's respect amongst other Caribbean nations has no basis other than casual conversations presented as evidence when in fact it's conjecture. When I write again on the status issue, I will focus more on the economic impact of statehood to the island, New York, and the country.
But that's for another time.
For now, I have no doubt that my fellow Puerto Ricans will figure out what's best for them whether it be now or beyond my lifetime. We are a people of great surprises and resourcefulness.
Let's use a bit of recent history to illustrate this point: On August 17, 2004, during the Summer Olympics, Puerto Rico soundly defeated the United States "Dream Team" in Men's Basketball, delivering a stunning upset that continues to be referenced in sports today.
The lesson here: Never underestimate the Puerto Ricans.
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