Next week marks 100 years of American citizenship for Puerto Ricans, granted by an act of Congress on the eve of the first World War.
The exact date is March 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Jones Act, which also established the legislative, judicial and executive branches of island government, and – notoriously – declared English the official language of a territory governed by Spanish-speaking Spain the previous 400 years. (Language has since become a ping pong but that is another story.)
The act laid the groundwork for about 20,000 Puerto Ricans to be drafted into World War I.
There will be some form of island commemoration, as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last week established a commission to plan for the celebration of the 100th anniversary. The pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party has been strangely silent on the matter. Meanwhile, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York is planning a series of traveling lectures beginning in mid March, including stops in Washington, D.C., and Orlando.
What Does American Citizenship Mean?
What does American citizenship mean to Puerto Ricans today?
Most Puerto Ricans likely are glad to have American citizenship for the freedoms and the stability of government it affords, compared with other countries. My own family’s American citizenship covers six generations – born here and there – based on the 1917 act. And my family is not an exception but rather the rule.
But it’s also fair and accurate to say that Puerto Ricans have decidedly mixed attitudes about American citizenship, for reasons that will become clear.
“Excelente idea de celebrar con orgullo nuestra ciudadania!!! Hoy más que nunca debemos apreciar nuestro estatus privilegiado de Puerto Rico,USA! Si no pregunteselo a los mexicanos indocumentados!” wrote a reader in the island’s El Nuevo Día newspaper in response to Rosselló’s new commission. (Excellent idea to celebrate our citizenship with pride! Today more than ever we should appreciate our privileged status of Puerto Rico, USA!. If not, ask undocumented Mexicans!)
Another reader countered, “…el germen del coloniaje está bien profundo en nuestra psiquis.” (The germ of colonialism is very profound in our psyche.)
Puerto Rican Citizenship Is ‘Different’
Why the Janus-like split?
Because Puerto Rican citizenship is “different,” and it has been upheld and reinforced as such throughout the 20th century, leaving Puerto Ricans sometimes confused about its meaning because:
• It was granted by Congress and thus is not a constitutional guarantee, as is the citizenship of those born in the 50 states. Congress can yank back Puerto Rican citizenship, if it had the will to do so (which many scholars think it does not, but it’s not inconceivable).
• The difference has been used to justify treatment of Puerto Rican citizens as “less than” their stateside counterparts in all manner of ways – from a lack of a presidential vote and representation in Congress to unequal treatment in federal programs.
Citizenship for those born or residing on the island is therefore inferior due to its lack of political power. It is a second-class United States’ citizenship.
Lacking Full Power
At a 2015 conference about citizenship at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Juan Torruellas said, “The status of inequality imposed on Puerto Ricans from day one of U.S. sovereignty to the present hasn’t changed one iota.”
Roger Smith, chair of the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism at the University of Pennsylvania, at the same conference characterized Puerto Rican citizenship as “a novel form of differentiated citizenship,” citizenship which is lacking in civil rights, political rights and social rights – “the classic trilogy of basic rights of citizenship. Puerto Rican citizenship is distinct along all three dimensions.”
Deja Vu All Over Again
Each generation of Puerto Ricans is condemned to learn this over and over again.
During the early 1990s, when a status plebiscite was underway, congressional representatives conducted hearings in Puerto Rico, reiterating that Puerto Rican citizenship was “not permanent,” that Congress could take it away. The words generated a collective gasp. (I lived in Puerto Rico at the time. The Earth shook that day; it was a shocker.)
More recently, the island’s fiscal crisis demonstrated the limits of Puerto Rican citizenship and sovereignty. The island learned it had been excluded from a 1984 reorganization of the federal bankruptcy code, meaning Puerto Ricans couldn’t use the code – as citizens in the 50 states can – to alleviate public debt, then totaling $72 billion.
Puerto Rico’s creation of its own form of bankruptcy – la quiebra criolla – was shot down by the courts, stating Puerto Rico didn’t have the power to do so.
But it was deja vu all over again when Congress appointed a fiscal control board with powers over the island’s legislative and executive branches, harking to the years between 1917 and 1947 when Puerto Rico’s government was appointed by the U.S.
Puerto Ricans on the island do not enjoy a full-throttle citizenship – not even to abdicate it, as late Puerto Rico socialist party leader Juan Mari Bras unsuccessfully attempted. The U.S. State Department granted the expatriation but lower courts rejected it because Mari Bras returned to live in Puerto Rico, a U.S. jurisdiction.
In other words, he had to give up not only his American citizenship but his island as well.
Future of ‘Different’ American Citizenship
Where does that leave Puerto Rican citizens on the island? In a state of limbo about which the citizens of the 50 states are mostly unfamiliar, making it difficult for Puerto Rico-related issues to gain traction.
In a 2016 Economist/YouGov poll about Puerto Rico only 43 percent of Americans knew that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. About 41 percent said Puerto Ricans were citizens of Puerto Rico, while 15 percent replied they were unsure. (In the current deportation roundup, a Puerto Rican was detained for several days then freed.)
Gov. Rosselló is laying the groundwork for a new plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status for June of this year, which would make it about the fourth one over the last six decades.
Politicization of Latinos
The increasing population and politicization of Latinos in the U.S. offers a glimmer of hope – but no guarantee – that Hispanics (about 16 ethnicities) would be inclined to address issues of Puerto Rican citizenship or status.
Which is a main reason Puerto Rico increasingly looks to the over 5 million Puerto Ricans comprising the diaspora – higher than the 3.4 million residing on the island – to agitate and exercise their full citizenship rights to pressure elected officials about Puerto Rico.
Said Judge Torruella: “I think this is ultimately a Puerto Rican issue that has to be resolved with our brothers and sisters in the United States.”
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor