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Puerto Rican Independence Day and National Hispanic Heritage Month
Photo: Uncle Sam and Liberty arriving in Puerto Rico in 1898.
The 15th of September marks the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, 30 days celebrating the Latino culture and heritage shared by over 50 million Americans. Even before President Lyndon Johnson chose the 15th as the start of Hispanic Heritage Week in the 1960s, it was already an important holiday on the Latino calendar as the independence day of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and my mother’s homeland, Honduras. The following day, September 16th, is Mexican Independence Day.
With so much talk of independence and history within America’s Latino community, Hispanic Heritage Month is a proud time of year for most Latinos in the United States. People will be barbecuing, waving flags, and honking their car horns in excited jubilation. But for the nation’s Puerto Rican community, the independence celebrations taking place this week will remind them of a grim and nagging reality: they remain a colonized people.
In fact, Puerto Rico is the last Latin American nation living under direct imperial control. Its metropolis is not Madrid or London, the bygone bleeders of half the world. No. The new colonial master – and perhaps the last one in the modern-day world – is Washington. For over a century, the U.S. has maintained imperialistic dominance over the island and its people, having captured it from the Spanish Crown during the Spanish-American War of 1898. And since then, the independence movement in Puerto Rico has waxed and waned considerably, leaving most Puerto Ricans in a state of abject complacency with regards to the island’s political status.
The political history of Puerto Rico is long and complex, and it’s not the topic of this post. (For a short discussion on that, please read last year’s post titled “El Grito.”) The aim of this post, however, is simply another ringing of the bells, a reminder that continued disinterestedness toward the political status of Puerto Rico will mean the death of the Puerto Rican spirit.
Puerto Rico and its people have become entirely dependent on the United States, both economically and culturally. Not only does the Puerto Rican economy form one small cog in America’s economic machine, whole generations of Puerto Ricans have come to understand the island and its people as colonial possessions of the United States. For over 100 years, to be Puerto Rican has meant a teetering existence between sovereignty within the United States and sovereignty outside it. As it stands today, the island of Puerto Rico is not sovereign. The flag its people wave so proudly in the streets of San Juan and Humboldt Park is not a national flag; it is a colonial one. There is no Puerto Rican nation, and there is no state of Puerto Rico. This means that the Puerto Rican flag, invented in New York, will hang below that of any nation or American state – if not physically, then figuratively.
And the Puerto Rican flag will continue to fly in shame until the Puerto Rican people grow angry enough that they finally demand either incorporation or separation.
These must be the two options put to the Puerto Rican people. Any middle ground is unacceptable. In reality, there is only one true course of action: separation and independence. How can the people of Puerto Rico accept anything else? Will they be able to respect themselves in the morning after the United States begrudgingly grants the island statehood? And no matter what others might say, if the federal government ever does grant statehood to Puerto Rico, it will do so reluctantly. There is a not-so-hidden reason behind the island’s century-long political status as an unincorporated territory subject to the whims of a faraway Congress, just as there is a reason why Puerto Ricans have no voting representation in the very same legislative body that governs them.
The island has been an American possession for over 100 years, during which time the Puerto Rican people have become an integral part of American society – politicians, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, teachers, a Supreme Court justice, actors, musicians, authors, painters, police officers, and so on. Yet despite the tightly interwoven relationship between the island, its people, and the mainland, the United States still does not see fit to grant statehood or independence to Puerto Rico. And why? Federal officials will explain that they wish to respect the rights of Puerto Ricans in determining their own political future, but this explanation will seem strange to any student of American history. Since the nation’s birth in 1789, the federal government has never seriously considered the self-determination rights of any of its territories and has even forgone normal legal procedures in granting statehood – most notably, the annexation of Hawai’i and the inclusion of Nevada, but the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as a whole is perhaps the best-known example.
In reality, it has never been the intention of the federal government to incorporate the island of Puerto Rico as a state. From the beginning of American control, Puerto Rico has remained an unincorporated territory – a colony, for all intents and purposes – as defined by the Insular Cases between 1901 and 1905. Alaska, in comparison, was never an unincorporated territory and became the 49th state less than a century after it was purchased from Russia. On the day it was granted statehood, Alaska’s population was just over 225,000, and even today, the state’s population is slightly over 710,000 people, whereas the island of Puerto Rican has a whopping 3,725,789 citizens, a population larger than 20 states.
The estadistas and populares argue that the United States has no colonies and that Puerto Rico has never been a colony of the U.S., or at least not since the United Nations removed the island’s colonial status in 1953. This is a naïve position to take, as though political entities are actually to be defined by foreign governing bodies. As the Puerto Rican historian Jesús Omar Rivera so eloquently puts it, “Politicians here will name it 20,000 different ways, but in any dictionary Puerto Rico is a colony.”
Most Puerto Ricans would describe the island as a commonwealth either content with its limited sovereignty or on the road to statehood. Yet, the word commonwealth is hollow in the American lexicon; nothing but a fancy title giving the illusion of some political autonomy. The term commonwealth is the name used by three of the original 13 colonies: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Yet no person would place Puerto Rico politically on par with those three states. The term is also used by another unincorporated territory of the United States, the Northern Mariana Islands, which has a population of just over 50,000 but is in many ways much more politically independent than Puerto Rico. (For instance, the governor of the Northern Mariana Islands is the head of state, while the U.S. president is the head of state in Puerto Rico, though Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections.) The word commonwealth was even the name adopted by the Philippines before it gained independence after World War II. Clearly, a commonwealth can imply so many different political statuses within the United States that the word has lost all meaning.
Nevertheless, as the Puerto Rican Secretary of State Kenneth D. McClintock wrote to the New York Times back in 2006, as the president of the Puerto Rican Senate at the time: “Commonwealth (colonialism) long ago ceased to be the clear preference of the people. Today, all local political parties advocate change in Puerto Rico’s status.”
Another prominent figure in the insular government, former Chief Justice José Trías Monge, argued that despite the various names people have chosen to describe Puerto Rico, the island has always been a colony of the United States. (He titled his book, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World.)
Many estadistas and populares point to the bestowment of some American citizenship rights to all Puerto Ricans as a promise of future self-governance in some form within the United States. Lest they forget, the American colonists were British subjects who were not allowed representation in the British Parliament. (As stated above, some of the colonies even called themselves “commonwealths,” a move as politically effective in the British Empire of the 18th century as it is in the American Empire of the 21st.) American citizenship was not granted to the people of Puerto Rico in 1917 as a promise of further incorporation and rights within the United States. Perhaps, regrettably, the act was done for more sinister than that – say, as when a slave master renames his property with his last name. Remember: when Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, they were no longer Puerto Rican citizens. In this way, the granting of American citizenship in 1917 was not a promise of future rights, but future ownership; a move not towards inclusion, but toward dependence.
Allow me to address an issue here: Yes. I am Puerto Rican (adjective), on my father’s side. My grandfather was born on the island and probably descended from a long line of Black Puerto Ricans that extends all the way back to when my ancestors were first brought to the island. I’m not sure when that was, and I may never know. As I said before, we Puerto Ricans are a colonized people – Black and White. I’m not even sure my grandfather was Black, but he certainly looked Black to me. Considering also the last name he passed down to my father, who passed it down to me, my Puerto Rican roots may go as far back as the 16th century. At least, I like to think they do.
I am also, however, an American (noun). Not only was I born and raised here, I study here and continue to study here. My guiding virtues are American virtues. And so, what I’ve written about the status of Puerto Rico I say not as a Puerto Rican, but as an American.
Historically, there is a conspicuous gap between what America does - slavery, the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, McCarthyism, Guantanamo Bay - and what it believes in. In this short essay, I appeal to the latter. America stands directly opposed to colonialism. America stands directly opposed to powers that would deny the rights of self-determination endowed to all citizens of the world. America doesn’t believe in kingship, empire, exploitation, or coercion. Lady Liberty wears an illuminating crown of light, not gold; at her feet lie the broken chains of oppression. She has stood for what’s best about America for nearly 125 years. Let the statue be our paragon now.
Americans must reject the current relationship between the United States and the island of Puerto Rico. Being a colonial power is not who we are; owning colonies is not what we do. America was born out of a complete rejection of colonial rule. As Americans, we believe in representative government, natural rights, and self-determination. How, then, can we continue to allow our federal government to deny the people of Puerto Rico such freedoms?
As a Puerto Rican descendant, I want to see the island regain its identity and self-respect. A majority of islanders no longer accept the status quo; no Puerto Rican should accept it. There should be no middle ground, no option between statehood and full independence. The island has existed in that middle ground for too long. Now is the time for both parties – Puerto Ricans and the federal government – to decide the island’s fate. For as it stands today, the island of Puerto Rico is neither Puerto Rican nor American; it simply exists, belonging to no one.
I realize many islanders fear that Puerto Rico cannot afford statehood or independence, that no longer being state-exempt or having to fend for itself economically would threaten to bankrupt the island. But no one can place a price on liberty. Should the island sink into the Caribbean or stay afloat, let it do so with dignity and freedom.
Until the day when the Puerto Rican flag comes to represent a Puerto Rican state or a Puerto Rican nation, its pattern and colors will be meaningless. The Puerto Rican flag represents an abstraction only – that somewhere in the future, there exists an island called Puerto Rico that belongs to the people who live there. When will that future be realized? No one can know for sure.
But for now, and from this day to that, Puerto Ricans will remain in diaspora, without a proper homeland of their own.
In 2007 Hector Luis Alamo co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, and has contributed regularly to the site since then.From December 2010 to May 2011, Hector was Opinions Editor for UIC’s Chicago Flame. In April 2011, he became a regular contributor for Hispanically Speaking News.Hector studied history at the University of Illinois at Chicago where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.