Opinion: Puerto Rico’s Diaspora “Problem”

Oct 21, 2013
8:16 AM

Recently there has been discussion as to whether or not descendants of Puerto Ricans living in the mainland should be allowed to participate in any future federally-sponsored plebiscite to determine the island’s political future. Even within Latino Rebels, we disagree on this topic. Some of us believe that that those Puerto Ricans living outside the island (especially those who were born on the island) should vote in any future plebiscites (a position supported by Rep. José Serrano of New York), while others (like me) do not.


Here is my case for why they should not. It is based more along the line of social and historical reasons.

The questions are the following:

  • Are the descendants of Puerto Ricans born in the States capable of understanding the current hardships facing the daily lives of those residing in Puerto Rico?
  • Are the descendants of Puerto Ricans in the States even considered cultural Puerto Ricans?
  • Has the emigration from the island created two similar yet different cultures, or is the diaspora a sub-culture that stayed frozen in time of the imaginary and memories of those whom migrated during “the Great Migration?”

According to Jorge Duany in his article “The Nation in the Diaspora: The Multiple Repercussions of Puerto Rican Emigration” (2008):

Puerto Ricans in the United States have reiterated their desire to participate in the definition of the political future of their country of origin (Delgado, 2006; Falcón, 1993, 2007). Judging from the available evidence, the ideological preferences of stateside Puerto Ricans are similar to those of Island residents. For example, a public poll sponsored by the newspaper El Nuevo Día (2004) found that 48 per cent of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida favored the current Commonwealth status, while 42 per cent preferred the Island’s annexation as a state of the union and 5 per cent supported independence.

Angelo Falcón in his essay “The Diaspora Factor: Stateside Boricuas and the Future of Puerto Rico” (2007) states that “a Latino National Politics Survey (LNPS) poll of 1989-90 found that 69% of stateside puerto ricans favored commonwealth.” But Falcón also states that a 2006 survey among the political and activist elite leadership found that 45% favored independence. We must keep in mind that the web survey was limited only to an elite group, and is not a valid tool used to accurately measure a poll sample.

The conclusion that can be based off the polls is that as the emigration of more and more native-born islanders has progressed to the States, support for Statehood has grown within the diaspora, while commonwealth has remained the same, and independence has decreased or remained the same; just like in Puerto Rico.

Therefore, the political argument that most descendants living in the diaspora would favor Commonwealth, or Independence is a myth, and must not be used in a factual examination of the topic at hand. Whether the diaspora supports one formula over the other should not be a valid argument when determining if they should be allowed to participate in a federally-sponsored plebiscite.

Even though the recent influx of Puerto Ricans to the mainland —escaping the worse economic recession since the Great Depression— has brought a new generation to the mainland, these new arrivals come with a different view of Puerto Rico. A vision of Puerto Rico different to the memories of the parents and grandparents of the descendants of Puerto Ricans that migrated during the years of hegemony of the Popular Democratic Party.

In my personal experience, while I was studying my BA in History at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, I had the opportunity to meet Luis Chaluisan, one of the original urban poets of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Chaluisan spent around a year in Mayagüez, living in his family’s house in the urban center of the city. I remember quite vividly one conversation I had with him, in which he stated that “this isn’t the Puerto Rico that my father talked to me about.”

I have two cousins whom were born and raised in the States, and neither of them cares for the realities and problems of the every day life in the island. Puerto Rico is more of a tourist destination, to visit family, but that’s about it.

How can these descendants whom have absolutely no idea of how it is to live under a colonial regime be able to vote in a plebiscite that is foreign to them? I’m not saying that there are exceptions, but the general diaspora of those whom are descendants, in not just the enclaves in New York, Chicago, and Orlando, cannot fathom the basic realities of living in Puerto Rico.

Now whether or not the descendants of Puerto Ricans can be considered cultural Puerto Ricans is an ongoing debate. Culture depends on the individual family nucleus. Just like there are descendants of Puerto Ricans who “feel very much” Puerto Rican, there are other whom do not. But should culture be a determining factor to participate in any binding vote? I think not.

The unique colonial nature of Puerto Rico makes it impossible to compare with the electoral process of foreign nations, like the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela, who have included their diaspora in the constitutional arrangements. Puerto Rico’s constitutional arrangement is limited to the island’s physical limitations, and the federal Constitution is still above the local Constitution. Our citizenship has been American since 1917, and even for international sports, the passport used is the American passport.


Therefore, culture is not a determining factor that should be used to decide whether or not the diaspora should participate in a binding vote.

Finally, in regards to the third question I raised earlier, it depends on the different group one identifies within the diaspora. Descendants, have indeed created a different sub-culture of the diaspora. This is a normal defense mechanism due to the anti-immigration and xenophobic attitudes some other Americans have against Latino American citizens and non-citizens.

That reaction and defense mechanism is not needed in Puerto Rico, were the majority are native-born, and where immigrants tend to assimilate to Puerto Rican culture more often than not. Puerto Rican culture in the mainland is highly nationalistic, when compared to the culture and attitude of those of us who live in the island.

In conclusion, it is up to the residents of Puerto Rico, and only the residents, to decide the future of the island, and not the citizens who left for whatever reason they may have had.