Nationalism is hiding in plain sight today in almost every corner of the globe, coming at us fast as global economies and governments seek to protect “their own,” whatever that means.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump‘s brand of nationalism has come into focus – economic nationalism. Companies and jobs stay in the U.S. to benefit American workers. Immigrants and outsiders are bad and must be kept out of the country. America should not concern itself with other nations’ problems. America First!
There is another type of nationalism loose in the land that’s not as recognized or lamented – Puerto Rican nationalism, which has been growing for years after a lapse in the 1940s, considered its hey day.
Puerto Rican Nationalism
Puerto Rican nationalism has much in common with Trumpism. Puerto Rico comes first, last and always. Puerto Rico does it better. (This was a tourism slogan until the island’s economy collapsed). ¡Alza la bandera! Puerto Rico can do no wrong, not even in its current economic debacle.
Under the thumb of the United States for over a century, the territory of Puerto Rico has limited agency, which accounts for some – but not all – its nationalistic instincts. These are instincts whose boasts obscure a lack of confidence not an abundance of it, that demands Puerto Rico’s purported uniqueness or singularity be proclaimed every hour on the hour.
They sound a lot like Trump’s trademark claims, aimed at those who have lost confidence in the nation and need much affirmation. As if saying so makes it so.
But if nationalism is bad for America – as both the right and left state – it must be bad for Puerto Rico as well. If Trump is allegedly gaming voters, who are Puerto Ricans gaming? If Puerto Ricans can identify nationalism in Trump, how is it that we cannot identify it in ourselves?
“Puerto Rican nationalism throughout the 20th century has been characterized by Hispanophilia, anti-Americanism, Negrophobia, androcentrism, homophobia, and, more recently, xenophobia,” writes Jorge Duany, the author of several books on Puerto Rico.
All are hallmarks of nationalism. How can this be helpful in forging Puerto Rico’s future?
Quest for Equality
For instance, the quest for Puerto Rico statehood or equality often is built on Puerto Rico’s supposed uniqueness, as lawyer Anthony Suárez argues here in a recent Orlando Sentinel column marking the 100th anniversary of American citizenship for Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rico is “a perfect bridge” to Latin America. It is “strategically placed.” The island can “lead the charge in American values and institutions.” And on and on, Suárez states.
Which is irrelevant. The island ought to be admitted as a state or cut loose not because it is special but because second-class citizenship is untenable in the United States, where equality supposedly rules. Period.
In a counterargument, law student Phillip Arroyo states, “The island has been exploited by corporate America for decades through exotic tax loopholes.” Because, of course, Puerto Rico is a passive vessel for American greed.
True up to a point. Puerto Rico and Congress collaborated for decades – with the full consent of the island’s political establishment – on a number of federal tax schemes to bolster the island’s economy whose engine has never generated sufficient activity for its people.
One such “loophole” poured billions of corporate dollars into the island’s banking system, enabling Puerto Rico banks to reinvest the cash in mortgages, auto loans, small business loans and more, benefitting locals (often at usurious rates).
Not a Victim
Then Congress, stalking additional revenue, took it away. Puerto Rico was not a victim. It was a partner that preferred rapid development to creating its own entrepreneurial class, which would have taken longer to develop. As a U.S. territory it took full advantage of the U.S. bond market – Wall Street – borrowing billions to fill budget holes rather than make needed reforms. Until it could no longer borrow.
Puerto Rico was not a victim. It was a partner in its own financial demise. (But Puerto Rico is not a partner in federal programs, in which It is treated unequally.)
Pride in ethnicity or identity results in cultish behavior, a religiosity about anything related to Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans. An egregious example: the 2016 Kissimmee race for mayor which pitted Cuban-American José Alvarez against Puerto Rican Art Otero, who pulled out all the stops to remind voters to “vote Puerto Rican.” As if shared ethnicity were sufficient qualification for elected office. (Imagine a campaign that urged people to “vote white.”)
Fortunately, voters did not play along, supporting the better qualified candidate – Alvarez – with the help of many non Hispanic voters, to be sure.
How can Puerto Rican nationalism help the island? How can nationalism help Puerto Ricans in Florida and other states, where nationalism often is even more pronounced, as in the previous example?
More to the point, has Puerto Rican nationalism helped in any way? No.
Infantilizing Puerto Rico
Insistence on Puerto Rico victimhood infantilizes the island, shooing away unpleasant truths in which Puerto Rico apparently has no agency, no ability to act. Which is not entirely true.
Cries of nationhood are hollow when Puerto Rico itself has professed little desire to be independent.
Talk of Puerto Rico’s greatness does not bolster confidence but makes it suspect, helping to create faux heroes such as ex-terrorist Oscar López Rivera. Or mythologizing our indigenous past or revolutionary resistance. Having “confidence in confidence” doesn’t mean you possess it.
Alza la bandera, if you will. But for Puerto Ricans faced with economic and migrant crises aquí y allá the way to harness the future is to unfurl the flag with less rah-rah and more realism grounded in an actionable agenda. Or continue to suffer the consequences of shoddy sovereignty.
˜˜Maria T. Padilla, Editor