As many Americans already know, on Monday, June 12, the United State’s Commonwealth of Puerto Rico “voted” for statehood. One of 16 American territories, the falsely advertised Estado Libre Asociado (ELA), translated as Free Associated State, is suffering a major debt crisis that many Americans believe to be the result of Puerto Ricans’ own self-inflicted demise. While this small, but relevant, portion of Puerto Rico’s history has been heard multiple times from a colonialist perspective, no one has brought attention to the cycle of abuse by the United States.
As with the forcible acquisition and Americanizing of Hawaii, in 1898, the already autonomous island was colonized by the United States, with the intent of capitalizing on Puerto Rico’s booming agricultural industry. In order to ensure that the Puerto Rican people would not attempt to fight back, the United States criminalized independence symbols, like the national anthem, flag and any discussion of Puerto Rican independence. As a result of their imprisonment, the United States partook in their first genocidal act against the Puerto Rican people: murdering the independistas by purposeful radiation exposure in their cells.
To follow, in 1917 Puerto Ricans became American citizens as a byproduct of the Jones Act. On the surface, this presented itself as a benevolent act on behalf of President Woodrow Wilson, though citizenship solidified more than meets the eye. By providing citizenship during the height of World War I, the United States strategically ensured that more black and brown bodies were used as mules of war, preserving their own. This would be the United State’s second genocidal act against Puerto Ricans. Moreover, granting citizenship guaranteed that Puerto Ricans/American citizens would be excluded from independence while cornering them in their territorial status.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the United States extended their eugenic tactics of black women through the forceful sterilization of Puerto Rican women. “A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican residents found that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20-49, were sterilized. To put this figure in context, women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico in the 1960s were more than 10 times more likely to be sterilized than women from the United States,” Kathryn Krase wrote on the ourbodiesourselves.org website. In essence, the colonialist relationship between the United States and its Puerto Rican citizens has always been a strategic cycle of abuse with the intent of capitalistic extraction and methodological white-washing and genocide.
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How does this relate to Puerto Rico’s current “vote” for statehood status? Many American citizens are questioning why the United States should even consider making Puerto Rico the 51st state, believing that Puerto Rico’s debt is only Puerto Rico’s business. Let me be the first to ease your concerns with the fact that the United States will never make Puerto Rico a state, because if it had wanted to, it would have already occurred. The United States has nothing to gain from statehood, but much to withdraw from vague territorial status.
With this in mind, we shouldn’t be concerned with Puerto Rico’s potential statehood status or whether the United States should take responsibility over the current debt crisis. Rather, we should be concerned with the current state of our fellow Americans who are suffering, and question why we continue to keep this abused commonwealth our prisoner, with half-rights and selective attention. Why don’t we allow Puerto Rico to be independent, entirely separate from the United States, if it’s such a burden? Why do we allow for the white-washing and cultural and physical genocide of Puerto Ricans, if we think we should have no relation to them? More importantly, what kind of Americans are we that we ignore the millions of Puerto Ricans being denied education, health-access, employment, and the right to vote for their own president (essentially, basic American and human rights), when we are fighting for these same rights on the mainland? If you don’t want to island to be the 52nd state (as it should not be), then do your part as an American to make it independent. Otherwise, do your part as an American to fight for the rights of your fellow citizens.
Alexandra Sánchez Rolón is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and Mi Gente vice president at Duke University. She is scheduled to graduate in 2019.