A Brief Reply to American Supporters of Puerto Rican Statehood
On March 3, two members of Congress introduced the 2021 Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act. It’s the fourth piece of legislation in the last decade aimed at making Puerto Rico the 51st state, and this most recent effort likely has as little chance of passing as the previous attempts. But one thing’s different this time around: Puerto Rican statehood has become a bit of a cause célèbre among some American liberals—some out of a well-intentioned desire to heed “the will of the Puerto Rican people”; too many hoping that a pair of Puerto Rican Senators would give Democrats a political advantage.
But their support for is misguided, and they’d do well to rethink whether statehood is really a liberal position and a just outcome for Puerto Rico.
It’s true that a slim majority (53%) of Puerto Rican voters supported statehood in the 2020 plebiscite. If you put it up against the other options (which that plebiscite did not) it may be that a plurality of Puerto Ricans want statehood instead of independence or the status quo. If that’s enough for Americans to think it’s a good idea and advocate for it to their elected officials, they have my blessing and I wish them luck. They’re gonna need it.
However, it’s imperative to consider not just *what* Puerto Ricans want but *why* we may want it. Many Americans are now rightfully committed to understanding how decades of discrimination and injustice continue to reverberate in the lives and experiences of Black people, but they fail to apply this kind of analysis to Puerto Rico, whether because they don’t know the history or because there’s no sociocultural pressure for them to do so. Or both.
A good first step is wondering why Puerto Ricans—a distinct people, with our own language and culture that would at the very least be partially subsumed by ‘Americanness’—would want statehood as opposed to independence, which we should consider the default alternative since it’s what 99% of former colonies throughout history have achieved. Why should we want it now most of all, when the United States continues to struggle with racial injustice and remains, in no small part, in the grips of Trumpism and white supremacy—with all that would mean for a state made up almost entirely of an ethnic minority?
The simplest (and not totally untrue) answer is that we are a small, weak, poor country, the U.S. is very rich and powerful, and statehood would allow us to share in more of that largesse. But how did Puerto Rico get so poor and weak? The United States has more-or-less been in charge for 120 years, and you don’t need to know all the details to make an educated guess that it hasn’t always ruled with Puerto Rican prosperity as its guiding purpose. Think of an orphaned boy, adopted by often neglectful and sometimes abusive parents, who then inevitably considers himself (and is considered by everyone else) too vulnerable to stand on his own two feet, and instead hopes to be permanently adopted by this less-than-loving family.
So, support Puerto Rican statehood if you will. And, if you do, I implore you to go fight for it. (Forgive my skepticism that you’re actually going to; and, if I’m right and you’re not, I’d encourage you to reflect on why.) But, if you are, do so with this all this context in mind; interrogate the notion that it’s at all “liberal” for the United States to invade a nation in an imperialist frenzy, exploit it, suppress its independence movement… and then get to keep it—and to keep it, in no small part, motivated by the promise of a couple of Senators to help repair the democracy you haven’t had the decency to extend to us.
Alberto Medina is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. He tweets from @AlbertoMedinaPR.
This is an updated version of Alberto Medina's January 7, 2021 blog post available at https://albertomedina.medium.com/a-quick-and-dirty-reply-to-american-supporters-of-puerto-rican-statehood-cb95bb62fb95.