The current crisis in my beloved Puerto Rico is playing out like that scene in “West Side Story,” the one where the Sharks (the migrated Puerto Ricans begging to be treated fairly) and the Jets (in this case the U.S. Congress, President Obama, the hedge fund vultures and dispassionate economists) are preparing to rumble. At the end of that scene, a Puerto Rican lays dead; accidentally killed by an American acting out of revenge. What can be done to avoid a similar ending to that Shakespearian tragedy in the midst of Puerto Rico’s current fiscal crisis? How can the diaspora help it’s island from afar?
All Puerto Rico wants is to feel respected and treated equally by it’s ruling government – the good old United States. Is that really too much to ask after 117 years of complying with every single demand made by their master, their owner, their “friend?” As a Puerto Rican raised in the States, I want to believe that my country’s government will do the right thing and admit that they are partly responsible for the situation in Puerto Rico. But, many say, it won’t happen.
The intercultural and bi-lingual relationship remains painful to navigate. For many years, both sides have been plodding through a very tenuous and guarded relationship between two different cultures trying to develop mutual trust. It’s an anthropological experiment that has gone awry more than once.
In 1898 when the United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain, it’s not like the locals were treated well. The American government set up shop and kept sending self-appointed military men to keep the “savages” in line. Then, in 1917 Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, only to have their men drafted into both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam – all while these same soldiers were banned from voting for their own Commander in Chief.
That bears repeating because the disenfranchisement remains in place today – your fellow legal American citizens claiming residency in Puerto Rico remain excluded from voting for their own President of the United States. That’s right, soldiers who live in Puerto Rico are serving all over the world and, when it comes time to vote for their President of the United States who put them there, they can’t even vote via absentee ballot.
In the 1950s, “Operation Bootstrap” freaked out my ancestors, when it was determined that our agrarian way of life wasn’t ideal for U.S. interests on the island. Rather, the American masterminds determined that low-wage workers could help create a money-making industrial landscape and thus, away went our sugarcane plantations and the island’s agricultural roots.
At around the same time, medical “experiments” were done on thousands of unsuspecting Puerto Ricans living on the island. These included involuntary sterilization of women, intentional implantation of cancer cells by the infamous Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, and harrowing radiation experiments conducted on unsuspecting citizens including the founder of Puerto Rico’s independence movement, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.
Then, of course, there was Vieques – the U.S. Navy’s bombing playground until 2003. Cancer rates on Puerto Rico’s sister island remain higher than average and the ground water is toxic. So, yea, trust of the United States government is an issue for Puerto Ricans and they’re a bit disappointed by the motherland.
As the last colony of the United States, how much more will Puerto Rico have to endure before we are freed of colonial rule, territory classification, commonwealth status, 2nd class citizenship, etc. – whatever you want to call it?
And, when will Puerto Rico finally resolve its own status question? Perhaps never because, regardless of the island’s referendum voting on this issue, the fact is that the U.S. Congress will ultimately decide the status question. It is such a complicated matter that the new documentary, “The Last Colony,” needs almost two hours to explain the quagmire.
Long story short, you need to know that our federal government perpetuates the notion that Puerto Rico has a right to self-determination – but it really doesn’t, and many of us see that for what it is, a nefarious ruse. That’s why Puerto Ricans are watching so closely to see if Congress and President Obama will intervene and help Puerto Rico through this fiscal crisis. We’re at an historic crossroad in the relationship with our parental government leaders and the issue of status for the island continues to play a huge role in every aspect of daily political operations there.
I remain neutral on the status question, but very passionate about an alternative; requesting that a 28th Amendment be added to the U.S. Constitution for Puerto Rico’s eligible voters; thereby granting equal voting rights to island residents – regardless of status. We are either full American citizens – with all rights therein – or we’re not.
Consider this, in 1961 the 23rd Amendment was passed; securing the presidential vote for residents of Washington, D.C. (primarily African-American at the time and, who still do not live in a state). Thus, I’m wondering why Congress doesn’t consider a similar measure to enfranchise the primarily Hispanic voters in Puerto Rico. This would add more than two million Latinos to the Hispanic voting block. Imagine the possibilities! Actually, I think members of Congress are afraid to even ponder the idea for fear of the redistribution of power. Remember, in 1961 when that 23rd Amendment was passed to enfranchise the African-American community, it was done in part to quell the demands of the Civil Rights movement. So, where’s our movement, mi gente?
The only language our elected officials understand is votes. I believe that, were Puerto Rico’s residents granted the right to vote for President of the United States, it would be game on!
Now, Puerto Rico is on the verge of economic collapse. You need to know that Congress and our Presidents since 1996 are complicit in this situation because they allowed for the dissolution of Section 936 that year (an IRS code which offered tax incentives for major companies to set up shop on the island). Recently, when I was in Puerto Rico, a high ranking appointed official (who is not for statehood) told me with deep sadness in his eyes that they’d “assumed Section 936 would be there forever.”
I also had the opportunity to interview the current Secretary of State of Puerto Rico when I was there. Secretary David Bernier (appointed by current Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla) had this to say about the economic crisis: “it is important to note that the negative effects of this situation are compounded by the complete elimination of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, which was Puerto Rico’s biggest incentive to attract foreign investment.” He also highlighted that he believed engaging Puerto Rico’s “Diaspora” (a term that describes Puerto Ricans who’ve left the island) is “crucial” and that “the diaspora mobilization to request more thorough action from Congress and the White House to aid Puerto Rico is unprecedented.”
So, while President Obama is extending olive branches to other Hispanic groups by raising the U.S. flag over the new embassy in Cuba and cutting back on deportations of Mexican families torn apart by the illegal immigration issue, I’m watching to see when he’ll do something for his own legal Hispanic citizens in Puerto Rico. Thus far, he has disappointed many. Make no mistake, Puerto Ricans pay taxes too and, those who’ve moved to the States will be heard at the voting booth.
When will it be Puerto Rico’s turn for a humanitarian and democratic gesture from our President? FYI, Hispanic Heritage Month begins soon (on September 15th) and so, NOW would be a great time, Mr. President! At the very least, please stop comparing us to the foreign nation of Greece because we are supposed to be a part of the grand old USA.
Back to “West Side Story,” at the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) a Puerto Rican ends up killing an American because he feels disrespected and also to avenge the honor of his people. Two lives lost, one Puerto Rican and one American – all because of a breakdown of trust. Neither side won anything in that movie, while each side lost so much.
This is not the outcome I’m hoping for. Surely, the world’s leader of the free world – the last great democratic hope – can do better by it’s own U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico has paid the price and has earned the right to request assistance in it’s time of need. Please join me in contacting your member of Congress in support of Puerto Rico. The telephone number there is (202) 224-3121. Remind them of all that our island has sacrificed for it’s parent ruler and tell them it’s time to pay up. NEWYORICANGIRL