Heroes of Another Flag: The Use of Puerto Ricans as Colonial Troops (OPINION)

Feb 17, 2021
6:20 PM

Members of Puerto Rico National Guard (PRNG) deploying to Washington, D.C., in January 2021 (Public Domain)

On January 15, 2021, the Puerto Rico National Guard (PRNG) announced that it was sending a contingent of PRNG soldiers to support the protection mission of the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

The PRNG is the Puerto Rico-based military force within the U.S. armed forces, so in an emergency situation, the U.S. armed forces can activate and direct any and all National Guard forces under its command. When the PRNG invited the press to their media event with various soldiers present, the commanding officer is heard saying to the soldiers, in Spanish, that they were headed to Washington in support of the security mission and to help combat the Proud Boys. Thankfully, no violent attacks occurred during the inauguration.

As with anything regarding Puerto Rico, the PRNG deployment became political, as many pro-statehood politicians and online statehooder trolls tried to take advantage of the situation as a way to advance their pro-statehood agenda.

Their reasoning goes that statehood means “equality” and having Puerto Ricans in the military (many having lost their lives) is not fair or just. They believe that the only way Puerto Rico can have “equality” is through statehood. Statehooders, by using what I call the “Emotional-Military Appeal,” attempt to imply that if one is pro-military or serving in the military, then you must naturally be supportive of statehood for Puerto Rico. This appeal is based on the false premise that Puerto Rico somehow deserves and is entitled to statehood just because Puerto Ricans, as colonial subjects with second-class American citizenship, have served and died in U.S. wars.

In the Puerto Rican colonial context, when you peel away the aura, insignias, and fanfare, the PRNG is historically nothing more than a colonial militia organization made up of Puerto Ricans to protect the colonial government, many times from their fellow Puerto Ricans. This is nothing new, as colonial governments the world over are known to use divide and conquer their subject in order to consolidate their power, as is Puerto Rico.

The historical record demonstrates this quite vividly. For example, France drafted thousands of Arabs and Black Africans into its Army of Africa (Armée d’Afrique) and Colonial Army (Armée coloniale). In fact, these Africans were deployed and used not only to fight to protect France’s freedom in WWI and WWII, but also to expand and hold on to the last remnants of French empire in Indochina and Algeria. The Portuguese also drafted thousands of Black Africans into their African Commando Battalion (Batalhão de Comandos Africanos) to subdue other Africans and attempt to hold on to their colonies in Portuguese Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique. The British even used colonial-era Americans to fight in the British Army against other Americans in the Revolutionary War.

Prior to and during WWII, Japan forcibly drafted thousands of Koreans and Taiwanese into the Japanese Imperial Forces to fight and also to control their own people in Japanese-occupied Korea and Taiwan. The Dutch even recruited thousands of West Africans, called the Zwarte Hollanders (Black Dutch) for colonial service in the East Indies (modern Indonesia), particularly Java and other Dutch colonies. This colonial story is repeated over and over again.

The United States (just like other countries) saw fit to use colonial peoples, like Puerto Ricans, as troops to stamp out rebellion and to use abroad when needed. There is nothing patriotic about that—it’s just what countries with colonies do. What differentiates Puerto Ricans from all these other colonial peoples made to serve in these armies? Absolutely nothing because Puerto Ricans are also made to serve as colonial soldiers. Just like other countries, the U.S. has used Puerto Ricans for its own interests. They didn’t marry them and bring them into their family.

Although the PRNG is made up of Puerto Ricans, it doesn’t serve Puerto Rico nor takes orders from a Puerto Rican President—it serves the colonial regime, and people need to understand and internalize this fact. Puerto Ricans have bravely served for centuries in the Spanish armed forces, and even fought against the United States during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Thousands of patriotic Puerto Ricans have also fought for the armies of many Latin American countries. Today, thousands of Puerto Ricans have served the U.S. armed forces in various wars and tours since WWI, when the United States imposed U.S. citizenship in 1917 on all Puerto Ricans.

And yes, Puerto Ricans have served under a U.S. flag and have not supported statehood. At the outbreak of WWI, Pedro Albizu Campos, Puerto Rico’s’ preeminent Nationalist leader, was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. During the 1950 nationalist uprising, it was José Antonio Negrón, a Puerto Rican U.S. Army veteran, who led the Nationalist forces in Naranjito against the PRNG. Also, Major General William Miranda Marín, after a long career with the PRNG and the mayor of Caguas, was openly in support of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty, particularly of Free Association.

Even today, there are Puerto Ricans serving in the U.S. armed forces who support sovereignty, not statehood. These Puerto Ricans know that Puerto Rico is their nation and their association with the U.S. armed forces is only a work contract or maybe a career, nothing else. These Puerto Rico join the PRNG for the benefits and perceived career opportunities highlighted in PRNG recruitment ads (Need Tuition Assistance? Join the PRNG!), not because the United States is their “nation.”

A recent PRNG Facebook recruitment ad in Puerto Rico appeals not to “nation and American patriotism,” but to monetary benefits. Such ads are heavily used in poor colonies (like Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and American Samoa) and in poor U.S. communities to entice young people from these areas. In a place like Puerto Rico, where the average yearly salary for about 50% of workers is $19,700, a $20,000 sign-up bonus is very attractive. Poverty, desperation, lack of opportunities, and structural economic under-development create a steady stream of young military recruits.

Puerto Ricans who sign up to join the PRNG do so for many personal reasons (career, financial, experience, paying the bills, etc.), but they also understand the responsibilities and duties required of them while they serve their contract obligations. I for one wish them well and hope for their safe return to Puerto Rico and their families.

Hopefully. statehooders in Puerto Rico and in the United States, like non-voting resident commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez (a pro-Trump Republican), will stop using Puerto Rican soldiers as political pawns to advance their own agendas on the backs of Puerto Rican soldiers and the thousands of Puerto Rican veterans who live in poverty.

Whether today or in a future sovereign Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican soldiers and veterans deserve to be appreciated, recognized, respected, and rewarded for their service to the Puerto Rican nation.


Javier A. Hernández is a Puerto Rican writer, linguist, sovereignty activist, and small business owner. He is the author of “PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty” and can be reached via Twitter: @PRexitBook.