Puerto Rico and the never-ending debate over Status
Much has been written about the status of Puerto Rico by people probably smarter and more articulate than me. Academics have written scholarly essays on the subject. Newspapers have written editorials about it. So have guest writers penning op-eds. More recently, bloggers have written on the subject as well. All of these people have taken up the cause to continue to make sure the issue of status remains in front of Americans at one time or another.
Yet where are we? We've gone from colony to commonwealth (think "Colony 2.0") or as it is referred to in Spanish, Estado Libre Asociado ("Freely Associated State"), with plebescites held every now and then, drawing voter turnout unmatched anywhere in free voting societies in the world, and as of July 25th of this year, 58 years will have passed and the island remains a Commonwealth/Freely Asociated State.
So I'm angry. I'm angry about being a Puerto Rican living in New York, wishing often that I was on the island, trying to make a difference. I'm angry that so much of the island lives in a state of poverty that's over double the rate of Mississippi, currently the state with the highest percentage of people living below the national poverty line. I'm angry that in 2008 my mom, who returned to her birthplace in late 2007, was able to vote in the 2008 presidential primary yet could not vote in the general election. I'm also angry that the island's economy was never developed when it could have been but was instead turned over to major corporations. I'm angry that at one point Puerto Rico had three dozen military bases.
I could fill two more paragraphs talking about my anger, but at the end of the day, the island remains a Commonwealth/Freely Associated State.
My anger is tempered by the fact that when I have time and money my first choice for vacation is Puerto Rico, where I do my very best to explore new places, eating new food dishes, meeting new people, and reconnecting with the island in a way that can only be called mystical. And like any good Puerto Rican, I always clap when the plane lands at Luis Munoz Marin Airport, a tradition amongst Puerto Ricans spanning decades. When I visit I avoid the urban sprawl that would make you think you were traveling on Anywhere USA, and put my dollars into the local economy.
And when I return to Brooklyn and talk about my great times spent on the island, someone always asks me to show him/her what Puerto Rican money looks like, or any number of questions like that, reminding me how many people don't know that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States.
On February 12, 2008, during a democratic presidential primary that saw candidates fighting tooth and nail for every possible delegate, came the "Letter from Barack Obama to Puerto Rico". Just a few highlights:
"Puerto Rico is a vitally important part of our country and Puerto Ricans have made immeasurable contributions to the United States. As President of the United States, I will pay close attention to issues that have an impact on the well-being of the people of Puerto Rico."
"Puerto Rico's status must be based on the principle of self-detennination. Puerto Rico has a proud history, an extraordinary culture, its own traditions, customs and language, and a distinct identity."
"I strongly believe in equality before the law for all American citizens."
"I will also work closely with the government of Puerto Rico, its private sector and labor leaders to advance an aggressive agenda of job creation, economic development and new prosperity."
When I read the full text of the letter, I was amazed. We had a potential candidate that "got it". He recgonized that Puerto Ricans had made contributions to American life, that we had a right to self-determination, and that "being Puerto Rican" was a way of life in and of itself. This candidate, a constitutional scholar, recognized that the full rights of citizenship was something that Puerto Ricans were not enjoying, and was recognizing that the pervasive poverty that had gripped the island for decades needed to be addressed by the United States, since Puerto Rico was part of it.
I am pro-statehood, and always have been, a surprise to many because of how vocal I am about the injustices perpetrated on Puerto Ricans by the United States these past 112 years. Do I wish the island to be a soverign state? In a perfect world, sure, and in a perfect world I think most Puerto Ricans would too. But the world is far from perfect, as is true with our country. Reality needs to give way to the dream of people like Eugenio Maria De Hostos, Pedro Albizu Campos, and so many others.
The issue of Statehood for Puerto Ricans is complicated. A few examples:
Taxes. They may not vote for President, but they also don't pay federal income tax, but since so many Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line, the amount of money payable to them in E.I.T.C. would be in the hundreds of millions, significantly topping Mississippi. I won't kid you: sometimes I think of the EITC as a form of reparations, in a "poetic justice" kind of way. That's another story altogether.
Spanish. I for one have never understood this argument. The best I have heard is that it would save the government money because it would not have produce materials in both English and Spanish. It usually takes me some time to stop laughing when I hear this, but after I compose myself I remind myself that, quite possibly in my lifetime (if I take my vitatmins), the same argument might be made...but in reverse, as Latinos are set to become the most populous group in the United States. El zapato might be on the other foot! My opinion on this is that commerce should be the voice of reason here, as I know I would learn to speak in Klingon if it meant a new customer for my home business.
Partisanship. Voter turnout in PR is known to be the highest in the free-voting societies of the world, but its political parties are not Democrat or Republican, but instead based on the island's status. If PR became a state, what would happen to the Popular Democratic Party? The New Progressive Party? Others? Would they retain their names but ally themselves with the major parties of the US? How permanent would these alliances be? What would make or break them?
Civics and Politics. As a state, the full constitution of the USA would now apply to Puerto Ricans, giving them two US senators and a pretty nice delegation in the House of Representatives because of its population of about 4 million. Consider the partisan issue and you see how complicated this gets. Who will they caucus with? What will their agenda be? Up to now, we've had numerous Latino elected officials around the country, but this is very different: this would be a Latino state. I can't help but wonder what this will do to inspire other Latino leaders around the country, and for that matter, the entire world.
And my favorite: the 51st State. This is perhaps the stupidist argument I have ever heard, and is a repeat of the late 1950s when Alaska and Hawaii were being considered for statehood. There's plenty of room on the flag for one more star. I'll tell you one industry that won't complain: flag makers. They'll do sales that will rival post-9-11.
The above is meant to be a personal essay and to provoke some dialog on Puerto Rican status. I sure hope I got my facts straight. There's so much history to go through, so if I confused a fact or figure, my apologies. I'll gladly accept your critique. But here are the questions that I would like readers to comment on:
1. Do you think the issue of status will ever be resolved for Puerto Rico? If so, what status will that be? Why?
If statehood is your choice:
1.Will the EITC issue damage the US economy, or can a plan be put in place to encourage islanders to use it to invest in their local economies, beyond simply spending it?
2. Why or why not does Spanish matter?
3. The island uses the Metric System, except in automobiles, (and PR has the highest percentage of car ownership, not California, a mind-boggling statistic when you consider the poverty level on the island). Should the island be allowed to maintain its use of Metric?
4. Thoughts on partisanship, civics, politics? The new congressional delegation? Changes to the cafeteria menu on Capitol Hill (just kidding)?
5. Other points that should be talked about? Questions that you want answered?
The issue of Puerto Rican status is far more complex than presented here, and besides that, it affects other Spanish-speaking nations as well, but I kept it basic to attract more Latino readers and contributors to Room 8. You'd be surprised at how many of us don't know our history (I own dozens books on the subject of PR and I am still learning my history!). As for these new contributors, I hope they're the full spectrum of Latinos: Puertorriqueños. Dominicanos. Cubanos. Mexicanos. Colombianos. Ecuadorianos. Peruanos. Venezolanos. Uruguayos. Paraguayos. Argentinos. Bolivianos. Panameños. Costarricenses. Salvadoreños. Hondureños. Nicaragüenses. Chilenos. Brasileños tambien. And let's not forget those that are a mix and match of the above and/or something else.
There are thousands of other Latinos like me that are bilingual yet prefer English. There's no shame in that, and we should not feel the need to prove ourselves in Spanish. We should contribute to political dialog in whatever language we are most comfortable with (I did promised a bilingual piece in a recent reply to Rock Hackshaw's post; that's coming real soon).
For now I look forward to your thoughts on the issue of Puerto Rican Status and hope to learn from you as well.
Manuel Juan Burgos Jimenez
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