This weekend, statehooders in Puerto Rico will be celebrating the 4th of July and the independence of the United States. There will be American flags all over and fireworks will light up the sky like every town in the 50 states. I think there is something deeply wrong with that. Some have called it the Stockholm Syndrome.
During the development of the film The Last Colony, I got to learn a lot about the history of Puerto Rico and it’s bizarre and often unfair relationship with the United States.
If you ask me which status option should Puerto Rico choose in the next plebiscite, I would personally vote for statehood (not an endorsement for the statehood party). I completely understand the things that are at stake if Puerto Rico becomes a state. The main one being losing the Puerto Rican national identity. With the current territorial status, Puerto Ricans have been able to maintain a sort of gray area of national identity—sometimes we are Puerto Ricans first, sometimes we are Americans. It all depends on who you ask.
Some of the arguments that have been used to maintain the current territorial status (commonwealth) has to do with our national identity. Language is a key factor when talking about national identity. Through our language we are united as a nation of Puerto Ricans. We speak in a way that no other Spanish-speaking country does. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Unites States tried to change our national language, even the island’s name was changed from Puerto Rico to Porto Rico. Make no mistake, the United States made every attempt to change Spanish on the island and tried to make Puerto Ricans speak English. However, in the 21st century, I don’t think the United States will make another direct attempt to assimilate Puerto Ricans in such a grotesque and forceful manner if statehood is requested.
Other arguments about national identity that have been used are Olympic representation and beauty pageants. I have no problem in losing our Olympic representation—I personally don’t watch or care much about sports. Furthermore, not being able to participate in the Miss Universe pageant is now even less important than ever, thanks to Donald Trump’s recent comments. We should all rally against his dubious beauty pageant.
For a great part of the 20th century, federal tax incentives and the notion that Puerto Rican’s don’t pay federal taxes were long used as a pro-commonwealth argument. Those arguments have now disappeared. Tax incentives such as Section 936, which was used to attract mostly pharmaceutical investment on the Island, are long gone. Worse, these incentives were never under Puerto Rican control. Congress gave them to the territories and Congress took them away. That left Puerto Rico without any tools to attract investment on the Island and without the ability to negotiate with other countries without the approval of the United States.
However, this is not about what Puerto Rico would lose or win if statehood is ever achieved. This is a reminder to all of those Puerto Ricans who will be celebrating the independence of the United States this weekend, that we have nothing to celebrate.
Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States. All efforts to make Puerto Rico an independent nation were blocked by the United States for over a century. Puerto Ricans have been mistreated by the United States in many aspects of life, very directly by unfair Medicaid treatment (we don’t get the same amount we put in), by not having representation at the highest levels, and not being able to elect our commander-in-chief, amongst other colonial problems and disparities.
The current economic turmoil in Puerto Rico that has been making headlines around the world was created by direct policies of the United States, such as unfair cabotage laws which restrict Puerto Rican commerce to the rest of the world.
What defines our relationship with the U.S. is a short phrase written by the Supreme Court: “Puerto Rico belongs to, but it is not part of the United States.” Let that sink in for a moment.
For the next plebiscite, I would vote for statehood and I hope that statehood finally and legitimately wins a plebiscite in Puerto Rico and we will be able to force Congress to assume a position on the case of Puerto Rico. Maybe they will give us statehood, maybe they won’t. But as a colony of the United States, Puerto Ricans have nothing to celebrate on the 4th of July.
Juan Agustín Márquez is a two-time Emmy-winning director. His recent feature documentary The Last Colony is a multifaceted conversation about the status issue in Puerto Rico. You can follow him at @JuanMarquezFilm or @LastColonyMovie.