The Puerto Rican Identity

The Puerto Rican Identity
The Generational Divide

What do recent trends
reveal about younger Puerto Ricans and their identities?

Like in many cultures, language is imperative to the expression of a group of people. Through it, older generations can tell stories, share virtues, and teach beliefs that they hold dear to younger generations. It also fosters a sense of belonging and community among people and help them remember their roots.

But in recent years, the generational divide among Hispanics, including Puerto Ricans, is abundantly clear when looking at the difference between their dominant tongues.

According to Pew Research Center, nearly 78% of today’s third-generation Latinos are English dominant even though 85% of parents say they speak Spanish to their children. This number tends to drop with each generation born in the U.S., averaging 71% among second-generation parents.

This observed preference for English originates from many different places. For one, some parents encourage speaking English more to make assimilation easier for their families while others may be afraid of the backlash they could face if caught speaking Spanish in public.

“I do not speak Spanish because my mom did not feel like we needed it in the states,” said Orkeidia Velez, a senior sociology major at Stony Brook University. “But I do appreciate the language.”

Another student, third-year english major Jescielys Rivera, has a similar experience. 

Two graphs showcasing the decline in Spanish-speaking amongst second and third-generation Hispanics.

“I can speak a little bit of Spanish, but not as much as I used to,” she explained. “It was my first language, but after I learned English, I forgot most of it.”

Puerto Rico is no exception. It is the only country in Latin America whose two official languages are Spanish and English and students are taught English as soon as elementary school. It was first introduced in 1900 the U.S.’ occupation of the island as a form of indoctrination but, following major opposition by instructors, was eventually mixed into bilingual curricula and have since made the resulting dialect their own: Spanglish.

A hybrid of Spanish and English, Spanglish combines various idioms and words from both languages. For example, some Spanish words may be swapped out for their English equivalents mid-sentence like in “Juan es en el navy – Juan is in the navy (la marina).” 

Some intellectuals argue it is a form of code-switching done by early Hispanics (Mexican-Americans) in an attempt to better interact with the Anglo population. Among the older generation, many view Spanglish as improper and uneducated while more radical thinkers say it is downright unpatriotic.

“Language is constantly changing, as do people’s preferences with language,” said Lori Flores, Director of Stony Brook University’s Latin/x American and Caribbean Studies Center and Program. “Because the island has had a history of circular migration, it makes Puerto Ricans as a whole a lot more complex.”

But surprisingly, younger Puerto Ricans (especially on the island) are more

Protestors on July 25, 2019, celebrating the resignation of then Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Taken by Daryana Rivera.

patriotic than ever.

​Pro-independence sentiment grew to its highest point since the 1980s following the resignation of Rosselló, with thousands turning out in protests across the country. Most of its participants were younger islanders fed up with the corrupt system they were raised under. 

“Honestly, it’s ultimately up to what the people want,” says Rivera. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure the United States will ever lift its fist enough for the island to get what they want.”

Where exactly does Puerto Rico stand on the Congress floor?
Where exactly does Puerto Rico stand on the Congress floor?
The Puerto Rican Question

In December 2022, a bill swept its way through Congress, making headlines as progressive House Democrats made yet another move to potentially welcome in a 51st state.

The bill, the Puerto Rican Status Act, is meant to give islanders an overdue choice on their status. Created last May, it combines two elements of two opposing bills: the pro-statehood bill presented by Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and non-voting Puerto Rican Republican representative Jenniffer Gonzalez and the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act presented by New York Democrat Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez. 

Rep. ​Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s 3rd congressional district circa 2019 in his official House portrait. He helped sponsor the Puerto Rican Status Act.

“Our bill, H.R. 8393, guarantees a full information campaign so Puerto Ricans know what they are voting for,” Representative Ocasio-Cortez said during a remote congressional hearing. “It does not say no to statehood, it does not mandate independence. What it mandates is a fully informed and just process that Puerto Ricans deserve.” 

If passed, the Status Act would allow Puerto Ricans living on the island to vote between three options: give up its commonwealth status and become the 51st state, join into a free association with the United States (like the Marshall Islands), or completely break away and become a sovereign nation. 

Since Senate leaders did not act on the bill within a month of its passing, the bill has since expired and will make its way back onto the congressional floor for yet another vote. Given that the House is now in the hands of Republicans, it is unlikely to be reintroduced.

This is not the first time the island has tried to define its status. For decades, Puerto Rican voters have participated in plebiscite after plebiscite, trying to agree on what the future would hold for their “Isla del Encanto” (Enchanted Island), the most being in 2020 where voters were asked yes or no on the issue of statehood. Over 50% of islanders chose yes. 

A detailed map of the 2020 Puerto Rico Status Referendum by municipality. According to the referendum, 52.34% of Puerto Rican voters voted in favor of statehood.

A similar outcome happened in 2017 when 97% of voters were in favor of statehood. However, that referendum only accounted for 23% of the island’s voters (with turnout normally totaling around 75-85%), 

“Those proportions have not changed,” said Dr. Carlos Vargas-Ramos, the director of CUNY Hunter’s Puerto Rican Studies’ Public Policy, Development, Media and External Relations, in a 2021 Zoom interview. “There has been a change in the questions asked, and when all status options are presented, you are going to have results similar to the one we had in 1993 where none of the above won.”

Pedro Pierluisi, the current governor of Puerto Rico, in 2009 while serving as the island’s Resident Commissioner.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, meaning it is mostly self-governing, can authorize and create new laws with US approval, does not pay federal income tax, and votes in its governor. As U.S. citizens, all Puerto Ricans also participate in Social Security and Medicare, but as of April 2022, they are not eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits because of certain tax exemptions. 

However, islanders are unable to participate in U.S. federal elections nor do they have a voting representative in Congress. It is also unable to declare bankruptcy like states can.

The island’s split opinions on the issue of status, however, are much more complex than a few recent plebiscites. Rather, it is completely ingrained in their identity as Puerto Ricans which is just as intricate. 

What exactly is the genetic makeup of an average Puerto Rican? The answer is complicated.
What exactly is the genetic makeup of an average Puerto Rican? The answer is complicated.
The Racial and Ethnic History of Puerto Ricans

Quick Facts
  • Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taíno natives, an Arawak subgroup, for more than 1,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish and spread across multiple countries in the Caribbean (including Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Haiti). 
  • The Taíno lived in hunter-gatherer communities and by the 15th century, about 20,000 to 50,000 natives called the island their home, which they called Boriquén. 
  • Their first encounter with Europeans was in 1493 during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage and was formally colonized by the Spanish in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Leon. 
  • Shortly after their (the European) arrival, the Taíno population declined due to diseases like smallpox and the mistreatment they experienced under the encomienda system. About 90% of their population had died by 1519.
  • To account for the decline in their labor force, the Spanish replaced the Taíno workers with African slaves. As more Taíno, Spanish, and African slaves intermarried, the Spanish created the Casta system to account for the new sets of genetic mixings present in the population, effectively implementing a racial hierarchy). 
  • Decades later, Chinese indentured servants emigrated to the island following the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the U.S. as more Chinese Americans fled to avoid deportation. Today, there are more than 1,000 people of Chinese descent on the island according to the 2018 U.S. Census.

An 18th-century painting depicting the Casta System. It portrays just 16 of dozens of racial groups as well as their social standings under the Spanish.

The post-colonial intermixing present on the island is where the story begins. 

No longer were the islanders “pure” natives. Now, the blood of Spain and West Africa (and later Asia) also flowed through them. Newer generations of islanders were born with a wider array of different features than before, a melting pot of genetics: different skin tones, hair textures, and facial bone structure to name a few. 

“I identify as a Black Puerto Rican,” said senior sociology major Orkeidia Velez. “I believe race is more cultural and social, and since I grew up around my own people, it’s been ingrained into my head.”

But it was not just their physical attributes that made them the “new” Puerto Ricans. Along with their labor, arriving African slaves also brought their culture and intertwined it with that of both the Spanish and the surviving Taíno.The post-colonial intermixing present on the island is where the story begins. 

No longer were the islanders “pure” natives. Now, the blood of Spain and West Africa (and later Asia) also flowed through them. Newer generations of islanders were born with a wider array of different features than before, a melting pot of genetics: different skin tones, hair textures, and facial bone structure to name a few. 

“I identify as a Black Puerto Rican,” said senior sociology major Orkeidia Velez. “I believe race is more cultural and social, and since I grew up around my own people, it’s been ingrained into my head.”

But it was not just their physical attributes that made them the “new” Puerto Rican. Along with their labor, arriving African slaves also brought their culture and intertwined it with that of both the Spanish and the surviving Taíno.

Titled “Baile De Loiza Aldea,” this painting portrays the instruments, the garments, and the dances associated with Bomba.

Even today, these cultural mixings remain prevalent in everyday life for every Puerto Rican. 

Take Bomba, for example, a popular musical genre and traditional dance in Puerto Rico that emerged from the very plantations the slaves worked on and incorporates both traditional Taíno instruments (like maracas) and West African percussion (like bongos and marimbas), as well as their dance steps. 

Even their unique dialect, a mix of the now-extinct Arawakan language and West African tonal shifts, dates back to their colonial period. In modern Puerto Rican Spanish, consonants are either deleted (like an s or an n at the end of a word) or alternated (common with l and r). From chévere (cool) to gandules (beans), Puerto Ricans carry their roots with every breath. 

But it was not always this way. Many Puerto Ricans never even identified themselves as Puerto Rican. Rather, it was more cultural than that. 

“The idea of a nation-state is a European invention,” said José A. Laguarta Ramírez, a Research Associate with the Centró for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.  “There was not necessarily a sense of people identifying as Puerto Rican. Most people (back then) saw themselves, in a very loose way, as Spaniards or in more religious terms as Christians.”

Haiti was just a giant slave plantation.”

— José A. Laguarta Ramírez


So, what changed? The answer, according to some scholars, is found only a few miles away on another, much smaller Caribbean island: Haiti. 

A watchtower carved into the side of El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Fortresses like El Morro were built along the coasts of the island to prevent invasions. Photo taken by Alissa Pabon.

Years prior, the “Us vs. Them” mentality was building between the local elites and the Spanish crown, exacerbated by the empire’s insistence on racial hierarchy within the island’s governing body that prohibited said elites from holding high office across the colonies.

It was that same revolution that sparked a wave of revolutionary thought across countless other nations, including Puerto Rico. Islanders were no longer content with accepting the treatment and restrictions that came with colonialism. Rather, they asked themselves one thing: if one colony can band together and rise against their oppressors, why can’t we? Why not be ‘real’ Puerto Ricans?

“It essentially stimulated the imagination (of Puerto Ricans),” said Laguarta Ramírez. “It was in the sense that people realized ‘Well, we can have a nation-state too.’” 

But some, like University of Connecticut Associate Political Science Professor Charles Venator Santiago, disagree with this sentiment.

In Puerto Rico, this sentiment came to a head with El Grito de Lares in 1868, a short-lived rebellion led by Ramón Betances for the island’s independence. Various other uprisings occurred throughout the 19th century but were also squashed rather quickly by Spanish forces.

Some researchers, however, say Haiti was the piece to the ever-confounding puzzle of a successful revolution and a national identity.

Unlike Puerto Rico, which was primarily used as a military outpost for most of its occupation under the Spanish, Haiti was an important economic colony for the French because of its network of sugar plantations. And unlike Puerto Rico, Haiti’s revolution was built off the grievances of enslaved people against French colonialism, which ultimately succeeded in 1804 and made Haiti the first nation-state in the Caribbean. 

José Julián Acosta y Calvo, the leader of El Grito de Lares, and his co-leader Dr. Ramón Betances.

“There is no monopoly on what it means to be Puerto Rican,” he said. “The problem with cultural debates is that they are somewhat disconnected from political reality. Anybody can have a sense of cultural identity, and they define it however they want to define it.”

“My own identity is definitely more of a cultural thing,” said third-year english major Jescielys Rivera. “My dinners usually consist of Puerto Rican dishes, but we aren’t religious or political in the way that other Puerto Ricans are.” 

But this struggle to define Puerto Rican identity does not stop here. Rather, it became even more complex by the end of the 19th century following the arrival of the United States.

When we talk about Puerto Rican nationhood, we have to see it as a project under construction that is still evolving today.”

— José A. Laguarta Ramírez

What was the Nationalist Party and how did it create the modern-day commonwealth?
What was the Nationalist Party and how did it create the modern-day commonwealth?
The Clash of Identities

Quick Facts
  • Spain’s rule came to an end in 1898 following the sinking of the USS Maine, a naval battleship, sparking the Spanish-American War. It ended a few months later with the draft of the Treaty of Paris, where the Spanish agreed to cede all of their territories in the Western Hemisphere (and the Philippines) to the United States.
  • It was not until 1917 that Puerto Ricans were given full American citizenship under the Jones Act. 
  • Following the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico experienced a massive industrialization project called “Project Bootstrap,” transforming the island from an agriculturally-based economy to an export-based one with the bulk of production aimed at American markets. It also helped build more roads, hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure on the island.
  • To further industrialize the island, American businesses were offered tax exemptions under Section 936 if they opened factories in Puerto Rico. This new surge in work caused many field workers to abandon their jobs and move to nearby cities for the better wages said factories offered.
  • Agrarian-based industries (like sugar) declined, and with fewer jobs available in the factories, many Puerto Ricans were forced to leave the island and move to the mainland, which was facing a labor shortage caused by WWII. 
  • A majority of the diaspora moved to New York, specifically places like Northeast Manhattan (known as Spanish Harlem), the Chelsea area, West 14th Street, Williamsburg, Columbia Street, Red Hook, and parts of the South Bronx. 
  • Other Puerto Rican independence movements, like the Young Lords, were active around the same time as the Nationalist Movement, but resorted to more peaceful forms of protest and community activism. 

The spirit of rebellion and nationality carried on and continued to develop in the hearts of some Puerto Ricans, but it was not until the 1930s that it started to gain more traction with the creation of the Nationalist Party.

“The Great Depression was really a key in the rise of the nationalist party: people were going on strike, they were being repressed, and they were struggling,” says José A. Laguarta Ramírez, a Research Associate with the Centró for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “And with the dawn of the World Wars, where you have soldiers from different nations fighting each other, they began to see the world in the lens of nationality.”

They’re asking themselves, ‘Well, where’s my nation? What’s my nationality? Why am I fighting for this country where I’m treated with disrespect and seen as racially inferior?”

— José A. Laguarta Ramírez

Pedro Albizu Campos raising his hat to a crowd of onlookers in 1936.

Led by Pedro Albizu Campos, the Nationalist Party advocated for the island’s independence from the United States and aligned themselves with the transnational identity as one Hispanic nation (given their shared culture and knowledge with former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean). And this message was fairly popular, with crowds of people gathering around him, curious as to what the first Puerto Rican Harvard graduate had to say. 

“Puerto Rico is not just fighting for Puerto Rican nationalism; we are also fighting for Mexican, Dominican, and Nicaraguan nationalism because we are the same people,” Campos reportedly said in a speech later published by the now ceased political newspaper “La Democracia.” “We are one homogeneous people.” 

However, their insistent push for independence and outright rejection of Americanization was met with countless instances of suppression by police and government officials alike. Time and time again, they saw protesters as violent revolutionaries equal to those in Cuba and eventually came to persecute anyone found harboring nationalist beliefs, both on the island and the mainland.

​One of their more deadly attempts was the Ponce

The most famous photo of the Ponce Massacre. Photojournalist Carlos Torres Morales was covering the march for the newspaper El Imparcial and took this photograph when the shooting began, March 21, 1937.

Massacre where 19 islanders were killed and 200 more were injured following a peaceful protest held on Campos’ behalf that was attacked by local police. Later, they would attempt to spin the narrative by claiming that they were acting in self-defense.

Other violent instances followed, like the Salon Boricua gunfight and various other rebellions dotted across the islands in different towns now known as the 1950 Revolution. 

But as Albizu’s party grew in popularity, so did the U.S.’ surveillance. In 1987,  the Puerto Rican Police Department and the FBI were found responsible for conducting a mass, secret surveillance program that spanned five decades known as “Las Carpetas”. Their goal was to track anyone associated with pro-independence movements and at the end of their reign, over 150,000 Puerto Ricans had been extensively watched and recorded.

Lolita Lebrón, one of the five nationalists responsible for the 1954 Capitol shooting, being carried out in handcuffs.

Back on the mainland, another sector of Puerto Rican nationalism was at large and was responsible for one of the most jarring domestic attacks of the 1950s: the 1954 Capitol shooting. Five congressmen were shot and injured after four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the visitor’s gallery, reportedly shouting “Free Puerto Rico” as they were taken away.  Just four years prior, two Puerto Rican Nationalists attempted an assassination on President Harry S. Truman’s life, resulting in one death and one life imprisonment between them. 

They even went as far as to suppress not just the Nationalist Movement, but any pro-independence symbol with the Gag Law, which was enacted in 1948 and made it a crime to display a Puerto Rican flag, sing pro-independence songs, or associate with the pro-independence movement. It was later repealed in 1957.

​“We have never been respected in the eyes of the U.S.,” said Claudia Cecilia, a content creator for the Instagram page ‘freedomforpuertorico,’ in an Instagram DM interview in 2021. “We have been exploited and killed simply for being Puerto Rican.”

​Cecilia’s comment is no gross exaggeration. Over the course of the United States’ time in Puerto Rico, numerous cases of abuse against the Puerto Rican people were recorded.

A soldier takes down a Puerto Rican flag circa 1950 following a nationalist uprising in Jayuya.

“The United States is currently treating the island as a tax break,” said senior sociology major Orkeidia Velez. “We do not receive much help from the US and instead are taking our land.”

Even today, supporters of independence use the past transgressions of the United States to support their opinion: from untested birth control trials on unsuspecting women to military airstrikes on nearby islands that continue to contaminate the environment, there is certainly enough ammunition. It’s especially popular among younger people. 

“The United States is currently treating the island as a tax break,” said senior sociology major Orkeidia Velez. “We do not receive much help from the US and instead are taking our land.”

Despite the growing fervor for independence in recent years, the movement, unlike decades prior, lacks a unified party or goal and fails to make any substantial gain in recent plebiscites.

“There is simply not enough support for it. Advocates for independence account for 1-2% of the electorate, and I do not see any future growth,” said University of Connecticut Associate Political Science Professor Charles Venator Santiago. “The independence movement has not done enough to explain how it would sustain itself outside of this relationship (with the U.S.).”

The United States’ Gross National Product hovers around 80 billion a year. Compare that to the Dominican Republic, which has twice the territory and population of Puerto Rico, whose GDP averages 4-5 billion a year.”

— Charles Venator

Around the same time the Nationalist Party was introduced, so too was another idea for status but this one won out in the end and remains the status quo.

The Popular Democratic Party (also known as El Partido Popular Democrático or the PPD), was founded in 1938 by Luis Muñoz Marín and was the earliest advocate for a state-like autonomy over the island in collaboration with the United States, now known as a commonwealth. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico would have full autonomy over its local affairs and select their governor while the U.S. still controlled more state-wide initiatives (i.e currency, trade, diplomacy, etc.) 

A painting of Puerto Rico’s former governor Luis Muñoz Marin. He served for almost two decades, from 1949 to 1965.

“A lot of people argue that it was never really an expanded local power. To me, it is quite clear that the current status quo is just as colonial as the previous arrangement,” says Laguarta Ramírez. “In legal terms, Puerto Rico is as much an unincorporated territory (according to the Supreme Court) as it was in the early 1900s.” 

The PPD was not always in support of this new form of semi-self-government. Originally, it favored independence but gradually moved away from that position and began to make economic reform its main priority following the Great Depression. The proposed commonwealth was the answer to those reforms, allowing the island to benefit from American businesses and trade while dual-functioning as a transitional stage before full autonomy. 

But Marín made some strategic moves to earn enough momentum to sell his commonwealth idea to the Puerto Rican people and aligned himself with the more patriotic sectors of the United States.

“At some point, he was told independence was not an option,”  Laguarta Ramírez says. “He presented the commonwealth as the people’s lack of interest in independence for his success but that was always just a convenient explanation.”

But this turnaround ultimately worked in his favor as more Puerto Ricans experienced a new kind of life, one full of name-brand foods and benefits they seldom had under the Spanish.

Islanders were enjoying the benefit of paved roads and electricity, relishing in this higher standard of American living. The government itself saw potential in American businesses and their trading exports to keep an already unsteady economy afloat and with the added benefit of an American passport and the free mobility it offered, many were hesitant to break away completely.

“The commonwealth is the easiest answer for the government and for a lot of politicians because it guarantees the continued flow of federal resources without having to compromise the status among Republicans,” said Venator. 

Mainland Puerto Ricans were also experiencing what American culture could bring them. In New York, Puerto Ricans were heavily influenced by the surrounding black and brown communities that scrambled their identities into a more urban-inspired one. Latin Jazz, for instance, mixed Afro-American jazz with traditional Caribbean rhythms, creating a uniquely urban-American sound that went on to produce some of the biggest names in Puerto Rican history. 

“Marín’s initiatives effectively separated political from cultural debates,” said Venator. “To this day, you ask the Independence Party (or any political party) if they want to give up your U.S. citizenship, and even they are not willing to give it up.”

Even today, some Puerto Ricans share Marín’s sentiments regarding the well-being of the country.

“The commonwealth is unfortunate,” says Velez. “-but it’s completely necessary for our current state as an island.”

The growing support for Marín’s new status solution, and the addition of Puerto Rico’s new American identity, eventually led to the island being declared an official U.S. commonwealth in 1952 under a newly ratified constitution called “El Constitución del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.”

In 1917, when given a choice on becoming US citizens, 288 out of 1 million citizens opted to remain Puerto Rican citizens.”

— Charles Venator

But this official title came at a cost.  As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is unable to participate in presidential elections, vote in representatives into both the Senate and Congress, or file for bankruptcy like other states can. 

And in today’s world, the status has run its course and many are calling for a more permanent solution: statehood.

What are the current views on status and why has the Independence Movement made a comeback?
What are the current views on status and why has the Independence Movement made a comeback?
Modern Views and Grievances

Quick Facts
  • As of the 2022 Census, Puerto Rico’s poverty rate averages 40.5% with the median household income barely reaching over $20,000. Its unemployment rate also averages around 14%.
  • Other unprecedented events, like Hurricane Maria and the 2008 Recession, further escalated the growing debt crisis on the island. With the cost of the damages caused by Maria, island officials estimated they would not be able to pay off their U.S.-owed debt for five years. 
  • PROMESA (or the Puerto Rican Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), signed into law back in 2016, was Puerto Rico’s answer to its inability to declare bankruptcy and receive federal aid from the U.S. as states can. It allowed for the ‘restructure its debt and helped to achieve fiscal responsibility’ by establishing an oversight board that intended to lower the island’s debt by 80%.

The current logo for Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party.

Originally founded in 1957, the New Progressive Party (in Spanish the Partido Nuevo Progresista, or PNP) quickly became another leading contender in the island’s political games.

As of 2023, the PNP not only holds the seat of Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, but it also has a minority of seats in both the Senate and Congress just below the PDP. They also managed to repeatedly secure spots atop the gubernatorial chair for almost a decade.

“In the 1990s, Pedro Rosselló (of the PNP) won two elections back to back with a huge margin of the vote,”  Research Associate with the Centró for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College José A. Laguarta Ramírez says. “He was the first to break the million vote mark.” 

Though reasons for statehood support abound, two of its strongest continue to plague the island’s economy and have done so for decades: corruption and the ongoing debt crisis.

A pie chart created displaying the distribution of Puerto Rico’s debt in 2013.

Estimated to cost more than $72 billion, the origins of the debt crisis can be traced back to the tax-exempt corporations that established themselves on the island in the early 20th century. The municipal bonds issued to many investors were over-supplied, forcing the Puerto Rican government to borrow funds and balance its budget back out. However, following the repeal of Section 936 in 2006, these same companies fled the island and effectively gutted the island’s previously service and technology-oriented economy.

Even today, modern tax laws like the Jones Act, which states that goods shipped from one U.S. port to another must be sent on an American ship and manned by an American crew, makes affording basic products prohibitively expensive for most islanders. 

“If we had better support from the US we wouldn’t be in this situation, but now it has gotten so bad that we cannot survive on our own,” explained senior sociology major Orkeidia Velez. “It truly is sad.”

And while almost half of their residents struggle to make ends meet, several high-ranking officials stuffed their pockets with misused or illegal funds. Most recently, former Gov. Wanda Vázquez was charged with financing her 2020 campaign with money obtained from a bribery scheme.

A street-view of La Fortaleza, known as the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. Taken by Alissa Pabon.

Before her arrest, she took over for former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned amidst inappropriate group chat messages and bribes from private contractors in a scandal now known as Telegramgate. Even his father’s administration, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, was also clouded by dozens of their own scandals.

Unfortunately, corruption is not new to the island. From mayors to the governors themselves, countless agents of the state continue to carry out the misuse of public funds, embezzlements, extortions, and other crimes against their people. And it costs them their trust.

“In the case of Puerto Rico, there has been very little effort by the federal government to hold Puerto Ricans accountable,” said University of Connecticut Associate Political Science Professor Charles Venator Santiago. “Everyone’s participating in this corruption, and everyone benefits from this flow of money.”

But despite the support it garnered over the past few decades, the issue of statehood remains at a standstill. 

The big joke in Puerto Rico is ‘Who is going to manage federal funds?’ Do you give it to local politicians or do you ask the U.S. to impose administrators? But really, there is just as much corruption under president-appointed leaders as after.”

— Charles Venator

Over the years, more than 70 different status bills were introduced onto the Capitol floor, all deliberated and passed by the Senate, only to eventually be sent back by Congress (the only governmental body with the power to admit states) within their 30-day decision period, forcing the cycle to repeat. 

Some congressmen, many of whom belong to the Republican Party, point to the island’s debt as a reason for their hostility towards statehood. If admitted into the Union, not only would Puerto Rico become the poorest state (which would then require more aid and social welfare), but the U.S. would also be charged with taking on the island’s growing tab itself.

This economic weight, coupled with the island’s more left-leaning stances, have other Republicans worried about the political ramifications statehood could bring by potentially tipping the scale towards Democratic seats in both the Senate and Congress. 

However, some professionals, like Venator who has studied the legal language behind many of these statehood initiatives and the Third View, say they never intended Puerto Rico to break away from its commonwealth status in the first place. 

“The problem is, there is no transition language in these debates,” he says. “If Congress is serious about a bill, then you would have language that explains what happens after statehood.”

Venator also argues that the use of a Third View when discussing Puerto Rico’s status is another way to keep the island at arm’s length. 

If you read these legal documents by the Supreme Court, the racist language is very clear.”

— José A. Laguarta Ramírez

“The Third View basically says ‘When it is convenient, we treat it like a state or a foreign country or something else.’ It is a way for the United States to integrate Puerto Rico without having to incorporate it,” he explained.

If it were up to Congress, Puerto Rico would remain indefinite.”

— Charles Venator

Among islanders, statehood can mean the difference between struggle and survival, a harbinger of safety and stability that the island desperately needs. Their identity, as influenced by Marín, is no longer tied to the political basis of the country. But the generational shifts observed in recent years have raised questions on whether the identity is still steeped in tradition at all.


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