The land American democracy wronged and then forgot

Claudia Rodriguez

My relationship with the U.S. is complicated, to say the least. I am a U.S. citizen, but as a resident of Puerto Rico, I am ineligible to vote in the general presidential elections. I carry a U.S. passport, but I have felt pressure to prove that my identity as an American citizen is valid, that I am assimilated into American culture, and that I have command over the English language. I am subject to U.S. federal laws and am expected to contribute to most U.S. taxes, yet I have no representation in Congress. 

To be Puerto Rican, therefore, is to have neither recognition nor agency in the processes of American democracy. 

In addition to being an unincorporated U.S. territory, Puerto Rico seems to be absent from general American consciousness. Throughout my time at Williams, I have received varying responses to my Puerto Rican identity, ranging from ignorance about Puerto Rico’s geographic location or development status to the exoticization of my accent or culture. When I introduced myself as hailing from Puerto Rico, I would sometimes receive questions on whether I was considered an international student or needed a visa to study in the U.S. 

Compliments on how “good” my spoken English was were irritating, since I had learned to speak the language well both out of necessity and public mandate. From preschool to high school, I took English as a compulsory subject and worked hard to master the language, knowing fully well that it would noy only help me succeed in college but also allow me to appear more favorably in the eyes of Americans. However, speaking English well did not change the fact that I have a Spanish-sounding name, nor did it absolve me of my non-American upbringing. Encountering these subtle microaggressions and cultural misunderstandings have shown me that Americans naively perceive Puerto Ricans as foreign and distinct from American citizens. More importantly, Americans’ obliviousness and uninvolvement in Puerto Rican affairs is reflective of U.S. imperialist strategies of assimilation and erasure: not only are indigenous histories not taught, but key moments in American history are actively avoided or forgotten. 

A series of racist and imperialist Supreme Court decisions in the early 20th century laid the foundations for Puerto Rico to exist not as a territory with the right of future statehood, but as a colonial possession with no right to self-rule. Although Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, Puerto Ricans were only officially granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 with the Jones Act –– a protectionist, exploitative measure that also imposed strict taxing regulations on imported goods. Over a hundred years later, the Jones Act is a painful reminder of the disenfranchisement of Puerto Ricans and the legal and economic fetters that hold Puerto Rico back from prosperity and self-determination. 

The debate on US colonial relations with Puerto Rico remains relevant, as Puerto Rico struggles with the combined effects of natural disasters, economic depression, national debt and bankruptcy, political instability, and rampant corruption. The issue has since taken on an increased urgency as 52 percent of voters in Puerto Rico voted for statehood in a non-binding referendum held on Nov. 3. This result would allow the island to petition Congress for statehood in the coming year. This is not the first referendum to address the question of decolonization and explore alternative political models for Puerto Rico: As many as six referendums have been organized around Puerto Ricans’ preference for the island’s political status, three offering statehood and independence as alternatives to the status quo. The latest referendum is also not the first to evidence the presence of a growing statehood movement. In 2012 and 2017, residents of the island staked their claim to statehood, but Congress never took further action to admit Puerto Rico into the union. As a result of boycotts led by the pro-status quo party, the Popular Democratic Party, the voter turnout for both the 2012 and 2017 referendums was significantly low. The results were declared unrepresentative of Puerto Ricans’ true standpoint, providing Congress the opportunity to disregard the votes.  

This year’s voter turnout in the gubernatorial elections last week shattered previous ceilings, with 61.9 percent of registered voters in Puerto Rico making their voices heard. Pedro Pierluisi, the representative candidate of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, became the governor-elect. Puerto Ricans elected Jennifer González as the island’s Resident Commissioner – a representative in Congress with no vote. González, who is also a member of the New Progressive Party, has been a vocal and passionate statehood advocate. The victory of the pro-statehood party at the executive and legislative level represents a significant potential advantage in the push for political annexation to the U.S. 

As part of the growing Latinx community, which is projected to become the largest minority group in the U.S., Puerto Ricans residing on the U.S. mainland have become an undeniable presence. According to current estimates, about 5.8 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S., surpassing the island population by nearly twofold. As permanent U.S. residents, Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote in both the primary and general elections. Consequently, Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have significant political power, while Puerto Rico, as a U.S. territory, still remains effectively disempowered and excluded from momentous political processes. The cultural, political, and social capital Puerto Ricans have accrued over the past decades has not gone unnoticed by U.S. policymakers and politicians. 

Puerto Rico was ironically indispensable to this year’s presidential election, given the substantial pockets of Puerto Rican voters who live in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as the close ties that exist between island and mainland residents. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns targeted residents from Puerto Rico with the hopes that islanders might persuade Puerto Rican voters living in battleground states. This strategy demonstrates the powers and liberties Puerto Ricans are granted under a colonial system insofar as their actions and decisions directly benefit American citizens.

While uninvolved in political processes, I cannot fully disengage from US politics: the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of decisions that either benefit or impair Puerto Rican livelihood. Some consider the admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st state a moral and political imperative, given the painful legacy of US colonialism and racial bias Puerto Ricans have endured for over a century. Others might contend that incorporating Puerto Rico as a U.S. state would signify the forfeiture of an individual national identity and unique culture, as U.S. territorial expansion and acquisition presupposes cultural assimilation efforts. In any case, the question of Puerto Rico’s political model – whether as a sovereign nation or incorporated U.S. state – demands greater consensus among Puerto Ricans and requires that island residents come to the conclusion themselves. 

I don’t think I will ever live to see Puerto Rico as a free, independent country, as much as my heart longs to see that dream become a reality. While the road towards economic recovery and political stability is a long one, it will take many more years to heal Puerto Ricans of their internalized colonial mindset. Before there is repair, there needs to be recognition. Until Puerto Ricans are considered legitimate U.S. citizens, endowed with the same rights and liberties as any other American citizen, American democracy will remain a failed system and the United States a treacherous nation. 

Claudia Rodriguez ‘21 is a comparative literature and biology major from San Juan, P.R.