In 1898, during the Spanish American War, the United States acquired several different territories from Spain, including my native island of Puerto Rico. For the past 100 plus years or so, the island has remained a U.S. territory as a commonwealth. I’ll admit being a U.S. territory has its perks such as being born with U.S. citizenship and not needing a passport to visit my hometown, but that doesn’t mean the debate over Puerto Rico’s status has in any way been stifled.
Most people are content being a commonwealth, mostly, because they’re used to it, but also because they don’t care enough. There are many other people who want statehood for the island. Statehood would mean we would get all of the benefits as the current 50 states, the U.S. government would fully have our back, and we would have a voice come Election Day. On the contrary, there are some Puerto Ricans who would love to see the island as an independent country. Seeing Puerto Rico be its own country is definitely a romantic idea and being able to see the island accomplish things without America’s “help” would be a proud moment, but it is also very unrealistic and there are cons to each of these situations.
In terms of having statehood, there’s a big concern in regards to Puerto Rico’s culture. The island has a distinct culture, which brings together African, Spanish, and Indigenous influences that is unique to the Caribbean. This includes food, music, dance, architecture, artistry, and simply the way of life. There’s a fear that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, then that culture could fade into the past and, eventually, be lost. If not completely lost, then the island’s culture would at least be altered by being fully absorbed into the United States. This Americanization is already noticeable in highly touristic areas like San Juan and beach resorts.
On the other hand, if Puerto Rico were to completely separate from the United States and become its own independent country, then who’s to say it won’t follow the same fate of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, or other West Indies Isles that have faced or are still facing extreme poverty, mass violence, and tyranny? There’s no guarantee that Puerto Rico can survive on its own, especially considering its current state.
Puerto Rico is $70 billion in debt and the island’s unemployment rate is a ridiculous 15%, doubling the U.S’s average 7%. Businesses are closing left and right, universities are on the verge of losing accreditation, and most of the people I know there are being forced into entry level jobs because there’s nothing else. I know that if I would have been raised in Puerto Rico, I would never have gotten the opportunities I got in the mainland.
Not to mention Puerto Rico’s homicide rate, which is on par with countries like Mexico, at 26.2 murders per every 100,000 residents. To put this in perspective, the United States has an average homicide rate of 4.7 for every 100,000 residents. A few years ago, I was at a concert in a nearby town and there was a shooting. Thankfully, my brother, my cousins, and I were unharmed, but it was a fatal shooting and the fact that I was just visiting and witnessed something of that nature shows how prevalent these things are becoming.
Add in other factors like the current drought Puerto Rico is experiencing and it’s no surprise why 55,000 people have been migrating to the mainland every year since 2011. Throughout the entire history of Puerto Rico, the millennium has seen the greatest migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. since the 1950s.
Personally, I haven’t quite decided if I want Puerto Rico to be a state, become independent, or stay as a commonwealth. It would pain me to see Puerto Rico’s culture be Americanized following statehood, but it already pains me to see how Puerto Rico is changing for the worst. Although I love my island, I’m grateful that I don’t live there anymore. Whenever I go there, I’m reminded of just how bad things are. Statistics aside, I even look at my street and most of the houses look abandoned and unkempt, which is heartbreaking to say the least.
In all honesty, I’m not sure Puerto Rico could be independent. I think if the island is going downhill even as a commonwealth, what’s going to happen when it’s completely on its own? But, then again, I have to ask what is the U.S. doing for Puerto Rico right now? Puerto Rico can’t declare bankruptcy and, although the island can apply for help, such as for the current drought, nothing has really been done, so far. If the situation found in Puerto Rico were going on in any state in the U.S., then it would be considered a state of emergency and the federal government would immediately get involved.
Why is it that Puerto Rico is technically a U.S. territory, but must act like an independent country without all of the rights of a sovereign country? I see Puerto Rico slowly killing itself, while the U.S. watches for the sake of allowing the island to make its own decisions, but as it still hangs on to its position as owner of that land. This is where I’m torn. Would I rather have Puerto Rico become a state and receive more American support, but risk losing our identity? Or would I rather have Puerto Rico become independent and continue its negative path on its own?
I wouldn’t have a problem with Puerto Rico remaining a commonwealth, mainly because that’s what I’m used to, but only if it meant more than citizenship and a title for Puerto Ricans. As a Puerto Rican living in the U.S., I see the notion people have of us. We’re envied by many other Hispanics because of our citizenship and the belief we have it easier, which is true to some extent. Although our situation on the island is progressively getting worst, escaping those hardships is somewhat easier because immigration isn’t necessarily an issue. While for many Americans, Puerto Rico is just an easy escape to an exotic paradise, but they don’t quite see past the tourist attractions.
As a Puerto Rican, I know that we pay American taxes, but our votes don’t count in elections. We can attend U.S. universities to avoid the failing education system in Puerto Rico, but we would still have to pay out of state tuition and are ineligible for several scholarships and grants. We can join the U.S. military and fight in American wars, but receive virtually no help from the U.S. when it comes to the violence on our island. There is an imbalance that I don’t like. Puerto Rico belongs to the U.S. when it is convenient for the U.S., but, when the territory becomes troublesome, it is independent. At least that’s how it feels and it doesn’t seem fair. It feels like a modern form of colonization, which is something that the U.S. fought hard against during its own revolution.
It’s interesting how history repeats itself, yet it goes unnoticed because people don’t think those circumstances still exist. The same goes for piracy, slavery, gender inequality, and other “things of the past.” They still exist just in slightly different ways that allow people to believe they’ve died. Take racism, for example. It is still very much an issue, but it has evolved to become a silent issue. (However, this is starting to change given the situation in Ferguson.) It is to the point where mainstream America chooses to believe it doesn’t exist just like they choose to believe that American colonization no longer exists.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is gravely oppressing Puerto Ricans, but I am saying that it seems like they only have their best interest in mind with the exception of whatever extra territories they acquire along the way. I’m saying that it’s questionable how helpful they have been to Puerto Rico, which makes it more difficult to formulate an opinion on the matter of citizenship. So who knows what’s going to happen because this debate has been going on for over a hundred years and nothing has changed. This is the ongoing frustration for every Boricua.