When I was an undergrad at the University of Tampa, one of my Latin American History professors made the point that the wars of independence in the 19th century were not so much popular rebellions as they were one social class (the Criollos, or direct Spanish descendants born and raised in the Americas) fighting another (the Peninsulares, or Spanish-born appointees who were more trusted by the Spanish crown).
The “independence wars” were not meant to benefit entire societies but rather solely those who were already in power. The wars accomplished one level of bureaucracy being eliminated, while maintaining the rest of the colonial power structure. The institutions that ran the country were not made for common people, and the struggle in Latin America ever since independence has been one of successive governments seeking legitimacy in the absence of a monarch. Some countries, such as Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay, for a time in the mid-1800s, actually created new Latin American monarchies.
My professor went on to point out that the Mexican Revolution was the true Mexican War of Independence, because it was a popular revolt, which ended with a government being formed with the intention of serving the general population rather than a single class. In Latin America, Fidel Castro’s war against Fulgencio Batista is called the Cuban Revolutionary War, and the original idea behind it was to establish a government by the people, for the people.
Whatever you may think of the outcomes of those two rebellions is not the point, my professor said, what matters is the intent and why that conflict existed in the first place.
In Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, he states that the American Revolution was really no different: a group of American-born aristocrats no longer wanted to take orders the British-born ruling class who they felt had no legitimate power over them.
Anyone who knows American history knows that the phrase “All Men are Created Equal” was never meant to apply to anyone who wasn’t a white, land-owning male. The Founding Fathers never imagined an America without slavery, women’s rights, gay rights or non-whites inevitably becoming the majority. However, as Galeano points out, what the American revolutionaries did differently than their Latin American counterparts, was that the ruling classes made the effort to convince the general population that they had a personal stake in the country’s future. The American aristocrats actually created the myth that there were no social classes in the United States, a myth which has only been questioned occasionally, and supposedly “fixed” when in reality the capitalist machine was only tweaked, rather than destroyed.
The myth has survived as long as it has because that aforementioned phrase creates the expectation that ultimately, those in power have the best interests of the general population in mind, and the public has a say in the direction of the country. That expectation creates trust in our most basic institutions, so much so that even in times of great corruption, as we are currently in, the American public loses faith in the people in those institutions, rather than in the institutions themselves.
Not so in Latin America, and not so in Puerto Rico, where the ruling classes exchanged one empire for another back in 1898. We had governors selected by U.S. Presidents for 50 years, and then when we were given the opportunity to vote for a governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, he too was selected by the U.S. The Puerto Rican people did not demand the creation of the “Commonwealth” (ELA). An act was presented in the U.S. Congress in 1950 before Puerto Ricans voted for the”Commonwealth” in 1951. This is what Congress passed in 1950:
The current status was designed in the halls of Washington, with the intent of satisfying American business and political interests. The ELA was then trumpeted by the U.S. government’s chosen puppet, whose “public support” was purely manufactured at the expense of the demonization and persecution of Nationalists, all for an illogical system still colonial in nature even though Muñoz claimed in 1954 that Puerto Ricans were “deadset against colonialism.”
One of Muñoz’s most noted accomplishments was the creation of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, an organization whose dedication to promoting and preserving Puerto Rican culture depends on which party is in office. Fellow Boricua author and friend Norma Burgos has talked to me about how she has to hide her political affiliations in order to keep state jobs, which amount for more than 60% of the employment opportunities for Puerto Ricans.
Our institutions are what provide unity to a people. They are the physical manifestation of culture, well-being and good governance, and for Puerto Ricans and many other Latin American people, those institutions are widely seen as political machines whose purpose is the perpetual empowerment of the upper classes and foreign interests. The stories of mass exodus from the island focus heavily on the economic realities and sense of hopelessness for those on the island. The country is experiencing a brain drain as our best and brightest go to university in the States and remain there not because they necessarily prefer the U.S., but rather because they cannot in good conscience take their families back to a place where no opportunity exists.
The mass exodus is not due to Puerto Ricans loving the U.S. more than the island.
It is not because they feel greater patriotism toward the U.S. than toward Puerto Rico.
It is because the island has demonstrated, through its institutions, that common people are merely tenants.
The owners are absentee landlords and the Puerto Ricans who remain are only there out of their owner’s good graces. You cannot expect national unity when there is no sense of ownership amongst the general populace. The United States may not be our homeland, and the sense of ownership may be based on false myths, but more often than not, the myth holds. Americans have that sense of dignity and worth about the lives they are living, while Puerto Ricans are left to feel like foreigners in their own land.
So as the crisis develops, and metastasizes, the mere changing of laws or political status will only offer superficial relief. We Puerto Ricans need to believe in the good governance of our leaders, we need to believe the institutions in place to protect us will do so the majority of the time, and more than anything else, we need to believe that without our participation, there will be no future for our country. Only then can we create our own myths and the expectations that come with upholding them.
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books, Traveler’s Rest and The Feast of San Sebastian, deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.