Puerto Rico and its people have endured a long history filled with colonialism and ambiguous rule. It is a nation whose citizens have endured years of imperial rule, enslavement and forced dependence on other countries for its existence. It is a nation which has changed drastically from the days when Tainoes were the exclusive inhabitants of the island. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico can no longer stand alone as its own country. Years of Spanish colonization have kept many Puerto Ricans at a “blue collar” level. Industrialization of the island, begun when the United States acquired Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War, has gradually forced Puerto Ricans to abandon their way of life, a way of life which once allowed many Puerto Ricans to reap the agricultural benefits of the island. Now, what was once an island where Puerto Ricans produced more than they could consume, has been reduced to an environmentalist’s nightmare. Fields which once produced tropical fruits and vegetables as well as sugar and coffee have now been nearly destroyed by the harmful effects of industrialization. “The heat from the petrochemicals . . . ate away at the roots and in four years killed the plants and baked the dirt. That is not sand you see, it’s dirt clay baked white. If you were to try to walk up that mountain, the soles would burn off your shoes.” (Lopez, 1987: 75) Industrialization brought jobs which earned Puerto Ricans higher wages than they could earn in the fields. Thus, many abandoned the fields for factories, creating a shift to dependence on American industry in Puerto Rico for survival. Islanders could no longer feed their families on the fruits of the land. The promises of Operation Bootstrap had now forced Puerto Ricans to use American food stamps to buy imported American goods, for “even when industrialization was in place, ‘Bootstrap’ never generated the number of jobs eliminated by the death of agriculture” (Lopez, 1987: 95), ever increasing Puerto Rican dependence on the United States for survival. With the passage of the Jones-Shaforth Act in 1917, Puerto Ricans were now US Citizens and could travel freely between the island and mainland United States. The US Government made it easy for Puerto Ricans to relocate to New York City by offering very cheap transportation on “Marine whaler” boats. The government also gave tax breaks to companies who would hire the new wave of immigrants mainly located in three areas: “the Brooklyn Navy Yard where cheap labor was in demand; to the Bronx, where an impressive development of small factories sprung from postwar industrialism; or to New York’s garment center, where needle trade jobs were being abandoned by the previous generation of immigrants.” (Lopez, 1987: 97) Gradually Puerto Ricans spread to other communities in the United States, especially to other areas of New England such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. There are also significant Puerto Rican communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Alaska, Hawaii and other western states, formed partly as a result of Puerto Rican soldiers remaining in those areas following their military tours of duty. However the Puerto Rican population in New York City today is larger than the Puerto Rican population of San Juan, one of Puerto Rico’s largest cities. Now, the Puerto Rico of a hundred years ago has drastically changed from the Puerto Rico of today. It is considered an unincorporated territory as the result of the Supreme Court decision in Downes vs. Bidwell in 1901. Under this decision, Puerto Rico is owned by the United States but is not a part of the United States. Thus Puerto Rico remains in an ambiguous state, labeled as a commonwealth. Out of this tumultuous history of colonialism and conquerors, a debate has risen among Puerto Ricans both on the island and on the mainland which is now first and foremost in importance: the status question.
The status debate involves three main opinions on what the fate of Puerto Rico should be supported by three respective political parties. The first of these, the Partido Nuevo Partista (PNP) advocates statehood as the future for Puerto Rico. About 45% of the Puerto Rican population in is support of statehood. The US government is historically notorious for stalling this issue for a number of reasons. In 1963, Kennedy promised Munoz a Status Commission which, after three years could only decide on a plebiscite in 1967. Every state in the US has a white, English-speaking majority, and the US government does not know how to make a 98% Spanish-speaking territory a state. Those who side with the PNP are conservative, anti-Communist, and antiunion, and members include intellectuals, politicians and industrialists. [They] shared a concern about the situation on the island: the increasing activity among university students demanding reforms, the constant strikes and the flowering of the independence movement, and corporate flight and the difficulties in recruiting new business to the islands. Out of these concerns the fulcrum of the PNP platform was developed: statehood for Puerto Rico. (Lopez, 1987: 121)
The PNP wants to implement the status of Puerto Rico as the fifty-first state of the United States by convincing their Resident Commissioner to draft a bill with a lawmaker in Congress for statehood. As a state, Puerto Ricans would get more representation in Congress and the right to vote for President of the United States. Unfortunately, there are bumps in the road to statehood which provide support for the maintenance of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth as supported by the Partido Popular Democratico whose members are referred to as Populares.
Members of the Partido Popular Democratico, which consist of 47% of the Puerto Rican population, are in support of autonomy for Puerto Rico by means of an enhanced Commonwealth status. Autonomy does not involve a complete liberation or sovereignty, but rather advocates self-rule over local affairs and nothing else. According to Lopez, “almost all of the PPD’s efforts and activities have revolved around the development of a series of ‘new proposals’ which do little more than rephrase the concept of Commonwealth.” (Lopez, 1987: 120) Though it may seem to those not involved in the status debate that the PPD is simply “running in place,” the fact remains that there is much evidence that Puerto Rico has not yet achieved Commonwealth status. According to Trias Monge, former Chief Justice of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court who helped draft a constitution for the Puerto Rican Commonwealth, the United States cannot claim that Puerto Rico has reached Commonwealth status, for Puerto Rico’s status “as it is at present does not meet the decolonization standards established by the United Nations.” (Trias Monge, 163) Puerto Rico is perhaps the only country in the world which is not officially a colony and in which one government exercises such control over another government.
The final side to the status debate at the most extreme end of the spectrum is the Partido Independencia Puertorriqueno (PID). Members of this party, which constitute about 5% of the Puerto Rican population, feel that Puerto Rico should be completely independent of the United States. This solution to the status debate seems as though it would be the most difficult to implement. Puerto Rico in its present condition cannot stand alone. It receives more federal aid from the US government than any state in the union, and the United States has a deeply rooted investment in the island. Not only is the island an economic amenity, but it is also very valuable from a military point of view. Vieques, a satellite island off the mainland of Puerto Rico has functioned for years as a crucial military base. The US military has practiced maneuvers at Vieques before implementing them in many Latin American countries. Puerto Rico (and Vieques) also provided US military forces with an important position in the Cold War. The lifestyle of Puerto Ricans has changed drastically since the implementation of the Treaty of Paris in 1898. The state of affairs on the island could not be reversed by Puerto Ricans alone. The United States created many of the problems that exist there today through industrialization, and it would take an investment, if not from the United States then from some other resource, to reverse the damage that Puerto Rico has suffered as a result of the death of their agricultural way of life.
For decades the US territory of Puerto Rico has been caught up in the politics of nationalism, the question of their final status, and the protection of their local languages. Now, many Puerto Ricans both on and off the island believe that the most important issue facing them is the status question. However, if examined closely, one can find evidence of the reflection of Puerto Rican interest in Nationalism in the politics of the status debate. It can be said that Nationalism is a sense of a loyalty to a nation; however, upon stating such, one must attempt to define the concept of a nation. A nation is generally an “imagined political community” with artificial constructs. That is to say that a nation is an entity created by its members. Too often entire histories can be virtually invented by a nation to establish a feeling of unity among the people. Puerto Ricans are unique in that, on the level of local politics, that is politics on the island of Puerto Rico, participation in politics among residents hovers around 80% participation. However, once one looks at the figures for Puerto Rican participation in politics on the mainland United States, one can see that the level of participation drops to a staggering 44% participation. However if one looks at the Grassroots level of politics among Puerto Ricans one can see that virtually every Puerto Rican has strong opinions about the status debate. It is the ability of this issue to transcend the proximity of these Puerto Rican communities that allows it to have such nationalistic effects, thus carrying with it a sense of unity among Puerto Ricans both on the island and especially on the mainland. For Puerto Ricans on the mainland, having such strong opinions and staying involved with this issue and seeing other fellow Puerto Ricans do the same creates a feeling of identity, a sense of belonging to a nation. In many cases nationalism is an unanticipated reaction to the exclusionary attitudes and policies of one group against another, and in this case all sides disagree with the way the US government has treated Puerto Rico. Thus all sides can feel a united sense of betrayal from the United States and its policies. Now we see a nationalistic political consciousness emerge, eventually forming a collective. And it is for many reasons that Puerto Ricans and other Latinos function as a collective in the United States today.
According to Hardy-Fanta, “collective methods overcome fears, insecurities, and self-doubts.” (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 77) These are major issues to Puerto Ricans who, when arriving on the United States mainland, are still in their own country, but feel alienated by language, class, and American attitudes toward minorities. Many Puerto Ricans feel that they can be involved in their local politics relating to issues within the Puerto Rican community. However, when given the opportunity to participate in politics relating to US issues will not simply because they do not feel they can make a difference, just as was the case back on the island of Puerto Rico. Doing things together as a collective can strengthen confidence in the accessibility of the American political system and can ease the apathetic citizen into political awareness by introducing the system in a more familiar social situation. The most common requirement to create a sense of political awareness in an otherwise apathetic voter, especially among Puerto Rican and other Latino communities, is to bridge the gap between private concerns and public issues by showing citizens how to make the shift from the former to the latter. “Latinos, like most people, resist being coerced into voting or going to endless meetings to serve someone else’s agenda; a reciprocal relationship is crucial. And the development of a political consciousness is part of this relationship.” (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 134)
Significant strides have been made in the efforts of some to create a political awareness in the many. Many organizations at the grassroots level have begun the long and tedious process of political mobilization throughout their communities. Through instilling a nationalistic or collective political consciousness many Boston agencies have been created by Latinos to allow their voices to be heard. What is unique to Latino political mobilization is the difference in approaches taken by Latinos and Latinas. Male concepts of power in general, according to Hardy-Fanta, “seem to be defined as the ability to augment one’s own force, authority, or influence and also to control and limit others — that is, to exercise dominion or to dominate.” Females on the other hand tend to believe that “power is linked to empowerment, the ability to act with others to do together what one could not have done alone.” (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 30) Thus, Latina women generally have been known to function as a group at a Grassroots level. Grassroots politics puts emphasis on bridging the gap between everyday survival and political action, for it generally focuses on the bond which forms between people as they collectively struggle for social change. However, in Hardy-Fanta’s opinion:
It is the Latina women–not the Latino men–who stress group-oriented, collective methods to stimulate political participation in the Latino community in Boston. Latina women discussed the need for “doing things as a group,” “doing politics together,” “participando como grupo,” and “a more collective way.” Latino men, on the other hand, consistently ignored the role of group ties in political mobilization methods, and they generally operate with in hierarchically structured organizations. With their focus on the politics of elections, positions, and power, Latino men did not discuss collective methods or collective organizational structures at all. In addition, their political methods often displayed a hierarchical structure. (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 79)
There are many examples of this gender differentiation in Latino politics in Boston. Tito Morales, for example, formed a hierarchical organized group of campaign workers for his election work and developed personal connections in City Hall to get ahead. On the other end of the gender spectrum, members of the Mujeres Unidas en Accion, which provides many services to Latina women, are all equal, receive the same salary, and come to decisions collectively rather than on a hierarchical level. When Maria Luisa Soto, a first-generation Puerto Rican, came to Boston from New York in the 1970’s and saw that out of 1003 public housing units in Boston only 250 were occupied and went through the struggle of trying to find housing in Boston, she took a typical Latina approach to the problem. When the Boston Housing Authority ignored her voice on the issue, she gathered together a group of women and cleaned 275 units to prove that there was a solution to the issue of a lack of public housing. “By cleaning up the apartments themselves, these women cut through the bureaucratic excuses and reclaimed the apartments.” (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 44) Julio Herrera was another Puerto Rican who moved to Boston in the 1970’s, however, he was not of la gente del pueblo, rather, he was a product of an Ivy-League education and a financially stable family. When hired to be director of Comunidad Boricua en Accion, the Latino agency which grew out of an urban renewal struggle in the South End of Boston, he believed his role to be that of a bridge between the community and downtown in a typical male-oriented, hierarchical, political fashion. Though Herrera got results especially with the struggle to retain Villa Victoria for its Latino residents, he relied heavily upon Latina women
for political mobilization at the community level through Grassroots politics such as going door-to-door and handing out flyers within the Latino communities. Latina women were also mainly responsible for bringing the community to the rallies, meetings, and the voting booths. Thus, one can see that both styles of political mobilization are effective, but these methods are stronger when used together toward a common goal than when used independent of each other. The Latino men need the Latina women to reach out to the community and draw members into political consciousness, and the Latina women need the Latino men to facilitate the communities’ voices being heard “downtown” through connections to legislators and politicians in City Hall.
Puerto Ricans as well as other Latinos are unique in this political system, for they tend to follow a pattern of circular migration which in turn affects their political participation. Circular migration “describes the back and forth flow of Latinos between the United States and Puerto Rico, Mexico and other homelands.” (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 177) Some Puerto Ricans maintain that perhaps the low participation rates among Puerto Rican voters are due to the fact that many Puerto Ricans’ “hearts and thoughts are really back on [their] little island south of Florida.” (Hardy-Fanta, 1993: 177) Some even conjecture that if Puerto Rico were to ever become the fifty-first state in the United States there would be a huge wave of Puerto Ricans returning to the island. Both of the most popular sides of the status debate, which include those in favor of autonomy and those in favor of statehood, seem to agree that if certain reforms were to take place on the island as dictated by their party’s agenda, they would return to the island and gladly leave mainland life behind. Thus, many Puerto Ricans see their daily struggles as temporary burdens to bear while waiting for their dreams of their reformed homeland to come true so that they can return. In this present situation, it is difficult for the process of naturalization and assimilation to occur when many Latinos and especially Puerto Ricans want no part in a permanent commitment to the United States.
In the past decade, Latinos have become the fastest growing minority in the United States. Latinos are already the majority in Miami, which includes a large Cuban population, and the issue of political participation is sure to be an important one in the near future. Presidential candidates are paying more and more attention to this group of the population, and political mobilization of Latinos across the United States is sure to become crucial to attending to concerns particular to this group of people. Though naturalization is unlikely to be successful in attaining this goal of increased Latino political participation, Nationalism may be the key to recruiting more and more Latinos into joining the collective voice to create necessary reforms. Through the creation of “imagined political communities” characteristic of Nationalism, members of the community may feel that together their voices can be heard, and, as a collective, the community can bring about reforms. The ability of the status debate to create among Puerto Ricans a sense of community and Nationalism just shows that perhaps nationalist politics could be the answer to mass political mobilization among Latinos.
2. Lopez, Alfredo. 1987. Dona Licha’s Island: Modern Colonialism in Puerto Rico. Boston: South End Press.
3. Trias Monge, Chapter 14: 163.