Puerto Rican Statehood: Uncharted Territory

Aug 3, 2015
7:07 AM

Pro-statehood activists often tout about how the quality of life in the 50 U.S. states is superior to Puerto Rico’s. Pundits cite stateside per capita income, school retention rates and the lower cost of electricity of the mainland U.S. as reasons why Puerto Rico should become a state. About a year ago, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) launched “The Commonwealth Costs You” campaign, which referred to these numbers in an attempt to praise the alleged benefits of becoming a state. This has been a frequent tactic of the PNP, whose discourse insinuates that the only thing stopping Puerto Rico from doubling its average family income per capita is the making the island the 51st state. Nevertheless, the past and present of the current members of the U.S. cannot be used as a prediction for the viability or success of Puerto Rican statehood.

(A flag with 51 stars?)

(A flag with 51 stars?)

Comparing U.S. socioeconomic statistics to Puerto Rico in an effort to sell statehood is like comparing apples to plátanos. No matter how enticing stateside statistics are, the PNP has failed to cite anything other than increased social welfare dollars and federal fund parity as a recipe to fix Puerto Rico’s social and economic ills. Nor can statehood be perceived as a fast-track magic wand or a cookie-cutter model that would put Puerto Rico on par with stateside standards. The truth of the matter is that the U.S. has never admitted a state such as Puerto Rico. Especially in the cases of Alaska and Hawaii —the last two states admitted to the Union— the demographics, interest, administrative realities and contexts were worlds apart.

The growth of statehood beyond the original 13 colonies was based on federally mandated expansionism, encompassing vast lands with little opposition and small Native populations. Settlers flooded the territories, fought off, pushed aside, subjugated or massacred the local non-White populations, and requested membership as states of the Union. New Mexico, with its sizable Mexican and Native populations, featured only 32 of 100 Hispanic delegates in the constitutional assembly leading up to its admission as the 47th state. In Arizona —the 48th state of the Union— the state constitutional assembly of 1912 featured only one Latino, who ultimately refused to sign the completed constitution. It is estimated that Arizona’s Native and Mexican population ranged from 5% to 20% in 1850. These states had populations of 335,000 and 217,000, respectively. In summary, U.S. colonists, settlers, workers, farmers and business barons pushed for statehood in vast, underpopulated lands for their own respective interests.

Alaska and Hawaii are no different. Alaska —already heavily populated by U.S. settlers put there for the most part by the U.S. federal government— had only 19% native Alaskans of the total 226,000 population in the 1960 Census. In Hawaii, only 16.2% of the total population of 632,772 in 1960 were classified as Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian. Not only did many native Hawaiian groups boycott the statehood referendum, but the majority of Hawaiian natives and Japanese immigrant population did not participate in the vote. The Hawaiian statehood vote permitted Americans living there for less than a year as well as servicemen and their families the right to vote. So blunt the steamrolling of the local Hawaiian population that the U.S. government approved Public Law 103-150 of 1993, known as the “Apology Resolution.” Said resolution not only formally apologized for U.S. atrocities in Hawaii, but recognized that Hawaiian natives had never relinquished their sovereignty.

Support for statehood among the White-dominated territorial populations was also widespread. A 1906 statehood referendum in New Mexico was approved by 64% of its voters while the pro-statehood constitution was ratified in 1911 with 70% of electoral approval. In the 1946 Alaskan statehood referendum, the statehood option won on a three to two basis, with 68% of voters later approving the pro-statehood constitution of 1956. In the 1959 Hawaiian statehood referendum, 93% of voters expressed support for making Hawaii the 50th state. In Puerto Rico, the statehood option has failed to gain an absolute majority of supporters, struggling to pull in 39%, 46%, and 47% in the 1967, 1993, and 1998 referendums, respectively. In the controversial 2012 referendum, despite having 61% of voters expressing their support for statehood, when factoring in protest blank ballots casted, only 44% of the electorate had voted in favor of the statehood option.


The political and public administration differences between Puerto Rico and the most recent U.S. states also merit highlight. Prior to their admission as states, these U.S. territories were already being administered with every intention for them to become eventually become members of the Union. A joint statehood bill for Arizona and New Mexico was approved by the U.S. Congress in 1906, years prior to each states’ respective referendums and constitutional assemblies. Hawaii was controlled by martial law until 1944 and even afterwards had its governors and judges appointed by the U.S. government. The U.S. Congress approved the bill for the admission of Hawaii prior to its voters asking for admission. With Democrats fearing the admission of Republican Hawaii and Republicans fearing a Democratic Alaska, the simultaneous admission of both states was carefully orchestrated to neutralize any unnecessary political conflict. In contrast, a Puerto Rican statehood bill was submitted in 2013 and resubmitted in 2015. As of this posting, nothing significant has happened in the U.S. Congress.

Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has had a sturdy public administration for decades, with its own complex tax code, fiscal autonomy, enduring state legislature, judicial norms, tradition, debt and codified laws. The Commonwealth government —even under pro-statehood administrations— does not function as a U.S. territory in incubation while awaiting statehood, as demonstrated by its reach and extent. So developed and sizeable the government, Government Accounting Office reports hint towards the need for governmental reform in order to more closely match the size and tax burden of current U.S. states. Puerto Rico is far from the lawless plains or military colonies administered by provisional colonial Whites.

In summary, never has the U.S. admitted a state so populated and dense, particularly without the presence of a large, dominating Anglo-American population. Nor has the U.S. admitted a state where 56% of voters oppose statehood, with a robust and matured state apparatus such as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. These demographic realities and colonial contexts produce a far different reality than those of previously admitted states. U.S. expansionism was fuelled by oil and gold, free and generous farm land titles, federally mandated railroad routes, pacific militarism and most importantly, colonial settlements. Puerto Rican statehood, on the other hand, has struggled unsuccessfully for a century to gain the interest and willingness of the U.S. Congress. Though the above facts and histories do not necessarily mean that statehood for Puerto Rico cannot be achieved in today’s’ more tolerant, civil-rights minded world, statehood advocates are poking through uncharted territory.


Luis Gallardo is a municipal legislator from Puerto Rico. He has an MPA from Valdosta State University and a JD from the University of Puerto Rico. You can connect with him at @LuisGallardoPR.