Preserving Puerto Rico's Identity in the Statehood Debate

Status is a complex and multifaceted issue that goes beyond partisan politics

The recent gubernatorial primary victory of the Honorable non-voting House Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón has sparked discussions about Puerto Rico's potential statehood, suggesting Republican opportunities on the island. However, framing this issue solely as a political strategy for either U.S. party oversimplifies and misconstrues the broader and more critical conversation about Puerto Rico's identity and future. 

Misleading Implications of the Primary Results

González's primary win is being used to argue that Puerto Rico could be a stronghold for Republicans if it were to become a state. However, interpreting this election outcome as a clear indicator of Puerto Rican support for statehood ignores several complexities. Puerto Rico's political landscape is not directly comparable to that of the continental United States. The island's political parties do not align neatly with the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties. Local issues, such as the island’s ongoing economic struggles and the impact of federal policies, play a significant role in shaping voter behavior. In addition, González-Colón’s political abilities and success in her own personal candidacy should not be confused with broad support for her Trumpian and annexationist policies, as neither played a role during her campaign.

Moreover, the primary results reflect the opinions of a specific subset of voters rather than the entire Puerto Rican electorate. In fact, in the 2020 election the only candidate for Governor who supported making Puerto Rico a U.S. state received just 33 percent of the vote. Therefore, drawing broad conclusions about Puerto Rico's political alignment or its stance on statehood based on one primary election is both premature and potentially misleading.

The Real Question: Statehood vs. Sovereignty 

The debate over Puerto Rico's status is fundamentally about the island's identity and future direction—whether it should become a state or pursue sovereignty. The question of statehood is not merely about gaining political representation and federal benefits. It involves profound considerations of national identity, cultural preservation, and self-determination.

Puerto Rico has a distinct cultural heritage, language, and history. The island's identity is deeply rooted in its unique blend of Indigenous, African, and Spanish influences. The move towards statehood raises concerns about the potential erosion of this cultural identity. Annexation would require full integration into the United States, which could lead to the gradual assimilation of Puerto Rican culture into the broader American cultural landscape.

On the other hand, sovereignty offers a path for Puerto Rico to fully embrace and promote its cultural and national identity on its terms. As a sovereign nation, Puerto Rico would have the autonomy to define its political, economic, and cultural future without external interference. This option respects the island's right to self-determination and acknowledges its distinct identity while also providing the tools for prosperity and self-sufficiency. Just like my grandfather, who not only taught school but raised enough crops to sustain his family in San Sebastián during the 1920s.

Congress’s Role and Responsibility

Congress has a significant role in deciding Puerto Rico's future, but it should not be in the business of erasing the island's identity and embrace that Puerto Ricans should be self-sufficient. As my friend Juan Dalmau says, we should not aspire to have a seat at the bus; we should be driving it. Any decision regarding Puerto Rico's status must be made with the full participation and consent of the Puerto Rican people. It is essential to ensure that the voices of all Puerto Ricans are heard and that their diverse perspectives are considered.

The push for statehood should not be driven by partisan gains or the desire to secure additional congressional seats. Instead, it should be about what is best for the people of Puerto Rico. This means considering the long-term implications of statehood on the island's culture, economy and self-government.

Congressional Actions and Considerations

The status debate requires thoughtful consideration and robust hearings to unpack the details of each option: statehood, sovereignty with free association, or independence. It is crucial that this process is conducted transparently and inclusively, ensuring that all Puerto Rican voices are heard.

Questions that Congress must address during these hearings include the impact of statehood on Puerto Rico's cultural identity, economic stability, and political autonomy. For instance, would Puerto Rico be able to maintain its legislative and judicial systems in Spanish? How would the imposition of federal taxes affect the island's economy? What measures would be taken to preserve Puerto Rico's cultural heritage and ensure equal representation and services for its residents?

Similarly, the options of sovereignty with free association and independence raise important questions about the United States’ role in supporting Puerto Rico's transition, the potential for economic self-sufficiency, and the establishment of a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries.

The Arizona and New Mexico Precedent

When Congress admitted New Mexico and Arizona as states, it required the use of English-only in their schools and broader state government. This is crucial to consider, given that Puerto Rico’s judicial, legislative, and education systems operate exclusively in Spanish. I would know, I was a rural English school teacher in Puerto Rico. Spanish is undisputedly the lingua franca of the island. I invite you as a reader to visit la Isla del Encanto (“the Enchanted Island” in Spanish) and see this for yourself. When I was a Member of Congress and this issue was considered on the House floor in 1998, my amendment to ensure Spanish would be the official language of the state of Puerto Rico was rejected, 400-4. Every other amendment to preserve the national and cultural identity of Puerto Rico under statehood resulted in the same fate. Annexation requires complete assimilation. Period. 

The Arizona precedent highlights the decisions Congress must make and explain to both the American and Puerto Rican peoples on continuing a homogenous English use across all states or switch to a multilingual country.

My family’s story is a testament of why Puerto Rico’s political future needs to be resolved with clarity and purpose. When I was born, two things happened: I was simultaneously a U.S. citizen and a Puerto Rican national. I was born in 1953 when separate but equal was the law of the land. I was never treated as an American and was always reminded that I am Puerto Rican. Some may see this as a contradiction, but contradictions are inherent in colonialism. This is not my contradiction; it is a reflection of the systemic injustice created by imperialism. 

Conclusion

The debate over Puerto Rico's status is a complex and multifaceted issue that goes beyond partisan politics. It is about preserving the island's unique identity and respecting its right to self-determination. 

While the recent primary results in Puerto Rico may indicate some level of support for statehood, they do not capture the full spectrum of opinions and concerns among Puerto Ricans.

As Congress considers Puerto Rico's future, it must prioritize the island's cultural and national identity and economic self-sufficiency. The decision should be made with careful consideration of the long-term implications and with the full participation of the Puerto Rican people. Ultimately, the goal should be to empower Puerto Rico to define its future in a way that respects and preserves its unique identity. Congress should not be in the business of erasing Puerto Rico's identity but rather in the business of supporting a future that honors and uplifts the island's rich cultural heritage and self-determination.

About the Author

Luis V. Gutiérrez is a former Member of Congress, representing Illinois's 4th congressional district from 1993 to 2019.

The Latino Newsletter welcomes opinion pieces in English and/or Spanish from community voices. You can email them to our publisher, Julio Ricardo Varela. The views expressed by outside opinion contributors do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of this outlet.

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