There seems to be much confusion out there about who Puerto Ricans are politically speaking, what their immigration status is in the United States, and what language they speak. It’s very easy to blame Republican hate speech and ignorance and fail to look at the bigger picture of the big c word most people don’t want to mention when talking about la isla del encanto : colonialism.
So as a Rican, not claiming to speak for all of Ricankind, I wanted to clarify a few points.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens
Members of the Southern Mississippi University band chanted, “Where’s your green card?” at a Puerto Rican Kansas State player during their NCAA Tournament game against Kansas State University (source)
Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States no matter if they are born within the 50 states or on the island of Puerto Rico. In 1917 the Jones–Shafroth Act collectively made Puerto Ricans citizens as well as giving us a very useful (sarcasm) Resident Commissioner who is a non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. We do not need green cards. We have social security numbers and US passports. If we live within the 50 states we can vote for president. If we live in Puerto Rico we cannot. This make our immigrant experience unique in a number if ways, but it clearly does not protect us from racism or xenophobia. My own grandparents’ apartment in New York was raided by la migra in search of papers and our community has been impacted by the criminalization of Latino immigrants as demonstrated by the deportation of a Puerto Rican in 2008.
(Most) Puerto Ricans Speak English
As the GOP presidential candidates campaign in Puerto Rico, where residents can vote in primaries but not in the general election, recently Rick Santorum made a statement regarding the island’s political future.
Now put aside for a moment the English only nativist subtext and acknowledge that Puerto Ricans on the island are taught English. Do most Puerto Ricans on the island speak Spanish? Yes and they are well within their right to do so. As of 2007, the American Community Survey states that 95.1% of island residents speak Spanish and 81.5% of Puerto Ricans speak English less than “very well”. 4.7% of people on the island speak English only. It should be noted that there has been previous backlash in Puerto Rico against the idea of an English language requirement for statehood or an English language requirement in general. Puerto Ricans are extremely proud of their culture including their unique version of Spanish just as a NYRican I am very proud of my official language of Spanglish.
While it has been wonderful to see people in the media correcting the misconceptions about Puerto Ricans. I have yet to see anyone put these misconceptions within a colonial context. It needs to be acknowledged that the reason so many candidates stump on the island is not out of interest in changing the political status of the island, a commonwealth aka colony and recognized as such globally including by the United Nations, but rather as a way to earn Puerto Rican voters inside of the United States. Many are pointing to the upcoming plebiscite or non-binding vote on the island’s status that will occur while the U.S. presidential elections are happening. It’s hard not to choke on the irony of the exercise of democracy, however flawed, inside the 50 states while a farcical glorified opinion poll happens inside a country occupied by the U.S. for over 100 years.
I understand the confusion. When Puerto Rico is taught about in U.S. schools, it is not called a colony and it is not explained how the relationship between the U.S. and the island actually works in terms of political representation, voting rights, taxes, language, and culture. It isn’t explained how Puerto Rican migration happens nor how Rican bodies served as guinea pigs for the birth control so many women in the US are fighting to maintain access to.
One cannot look at the high unemployment numbers inside Puerto Rico, the poverty, the drug trade, police brutality and corruption without looking at how the local economy was decimated during Operation Bootstrap to give U.S. companies tax breaks on the backs of Rican men and woman, many who were forced to migrate to the United States. That is how my family arrived in NY.
But let’s keep ignoring the fact that the US has a colony and let’s engage in the joke of the GOP campaign, egged on by Tea Party island Governor Luis Fortuño. That’s a punchline that requires no papers and no translation.