Why Did Non-Partisan @LULAC Attend a Partisan Puerto Rican Statehood March in DC Today?

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is one of the oldest and most respected Hispanic civil rights organizations in the United States. Formed in 1929, it has an exceptionally notable history, and as part of its mission statement reads, LULAC’s goal “is to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, housing, health and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States.”

LULAC is a also a non-partisan organization. That is why tweets from @LULAC’s official Twitter profile earlier today promoting a pro-statehood rally in Washington organized by Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (PNP) caused many LULAC supporters (including myself) to do a double take. Why would a non-partisan civil rights organization tweet events from a very partisan event without revealing who is organizing the event? The PNP pushed the event as a celebration of American citizenship (96th anniversary of the 1917 Jones Act), but it was all about promoting one specific political option: statehood for Puerto Rico.

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Here are just some samples of tweets that were shared:

This was the first tweet:

This was a tweet that LULAC RT’d. The Twitter profile shows the classic “palm tree” logo of the PNP.

Here is a tweet that cc’s a profile called @trueblue51:

Even though the rally was billed by everyone as a pro-statehood rally, why did LULAC seem to couch that reality with tweets like these?

When one of our Latino Rebels admins tweeted what LULAC was doing, we got this reply:

Then when we questioned why a non-partisan organization was at a political PNP rally, we got these replies:

Here is the problem with all these tweets and responses. This gathering, which drew about 150 people in DC, and which was coordinated with other events in Orlando and San Juan, was NOT about equal rights for Puerto Ricans. It was a PNP political partisan gathering about pushing the statehood agenda. It was about saying that comprehension immigration reform should be tabled until the rights of Puerto Ricans get addressed (actual sign seen at event, which really won’t win you any favors).

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A quick glance of what the Puerto Rican media reported so far about the DC event confirmed this and even the Associated Press reported two weeks ago that the rally was being organized by the PNP.

The pro-statehood gathering followed the hashtag #TakeActionPr51State and were more about pushing statehood and the recent non-binding plebiscite November 6 results that talking about equal rights. A true “equal rights for Puerto Ricans” rally would have expanded the tent. It would have included Puerto Ricans who also reject the island’s current colonial status, want equal rights, demand that Congress and the President resolve the issue and make Puerto Rico a legislative priority, but don’t favor statehood. That is the objective right now. Different points of views. One united Puerto Rico.

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The problem is a simple: everyone who is concerned about the status question in Puerto Rico is still working in silos. They have their partisan glasses on, and fail to see the big picture. We as Puerto Ricans must first WORK TOGETHER to raise awareness about the island’s complex identity issue. Instead of Saturday partisan “rallies” that draw only a few hundred people on a day when the federal government is closed, when will Puerto Ricans begin to act like Puerto Ricans and not like bitter political rivals? When will we put the division aside and demand solutions or take action themselves, instead of waiting for the USA to respond? The optics of today’s “rally” were second-class and amateurish. We can’t think in the hundreds any more. We need to think in the thousands. And in the millions.

Which brings me back to LULAC and why they were there today in Washington at a PNP rally. Because that’s not what they were told, according to Brent A. Wilkes, LULAC’s National Executive Director. When I spoke to Wilkes, he told me that the event invitation presented to the LULAC board came from a Puerto Rican veteran of the armed forces who requested that LULAC attend it. There was no mention of any association with the PNP.

“If you are saying that the event was organized by the PNP, that definitely was not conveyed to us,” Wilkes said. “We have a letter that was sent to our president from an individual who does not say that he was a representative at all of the pro-statehood party, but instead as part of a veterans group talking about the march that he is organizing and asking LULAC to participate. That is where it all started.”

Wilkes also added, “The problem with Puerto Rico is that those parties are closely aligned to one issue, and that unfortunately creates the types of impressions that you are coming across.”

In my conversation with Wilkes, I agreed 100% with the fact that Puerto Rico’s situation is about trying to resolve its colonial status, which has been that way since 1898, and even when the 1917 Jones Act was passed that granted U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans, those Puerto Ricans on the island do indeed lack full rights given to U.S. citizens on the mainland. However, like I told Wilkes, being at a political rally that is being organized by one political party creates a problem for LULAC. There are many Puerto Ricans who value their U.S. citizenship, who have also proudly served in the U.S. armed forces, but also value a different type of a status relationship with the United States. To equate statehood with equal rights is a bit too simplistic, in my opinion, and it does not bring in other points of view that speak to this issue. Whether it is a different type of commonwealth association or full independence, those issues should be part of the dialogue when it comes to LULAC’s core mission to educate the country about Puerto Rico.

The last thing LULAC would want is to side with just one point of view, since the issue is so complex and has a long way to go. Puerto Rico should be a legislative priority for sure, and we as Americans should indeed be talking about the best way to shed the island’s colonial structure, but THAT is the conversation we should be having first. We should be asking elected Puerto Rican officials like Raúl Labrador (R-ID) and Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) to work across the aisle on Puerto Rico, just like they are trying to do so when it comes to immigration reform.

I have said it countless of times, to anyone who wants to listen: push for one final binding plebiscite that Congress must follow within one year of voting. Present a united front across all Puerto Ricans. The time for partisan rallies is over, and I think LULAC can play a key role is promoting that, but as a non-partisan organization, it needs to step outside of the old partisan ways of Puerto Rican politics.

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  UnivisionForbesand The New York Times.

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