I recently caught a glimpse of the headline “Heroes of Another Flag” posted on Latino Rebels’ website, and after seeing that it was authored by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera, I knew that it was a must-read. In the opinion piece, Dr. Franqui offers a critique of an opinion piece written by Javier Hernández about Puerto Ricans who served in the U.S. armed forces.
I have known the good doctor for several years. He and I have spent many a night saddled up at the bar with glasses in our hands discussing and debating a wide array of topics that fall under the purview of Puerto Rican studies: the legacy of Albizu Campos, the impact of Muñoz Marín’s governorship on the political trajectory of the island, and whether Ron de Barrilito makes a better rum than Don Q. (We decided that more research is needed to resolve that last one.)
Dr. Franqui is well-respected in the field and well-versed in his area of expertise. This is not an attack on him or a questioning about his area of expertise. This is a correction to something that the good doctor got wrong, and it is important that the record be corrected, and a clear understanding provided for those unsure of their standing. Puerto Ricans are most certainly second-class citizens.
It is understood that a second-class citizen is a person belonging to a social or political group whose rights and opportunities are inferior to those of the dominant group in a society. The United States has a longstanding history of struggling with providing equal rights to its citizens. Separate but equal was a policy codified by law. Denying women the right to vote had to be rectified by legislation.
The problematic policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the government’s response to a ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans serving in the military. Codification into law is one avenue through which second-class citizenship is brought to fruition. It is also done so by practices put into place which are then reinforced with a tacit agreement by the authorities. So, while Don’t Ask Don’t Tell provided an avenue for gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans to serve in the military, during the time the statute was in place, more than 12,000 officers had been dismissed for refusing to disguise their sexuality.
Where we find the mechanism for second-class citizenship is in the practices of a separate set of rights and privileges for one set of citizens while denying others those same rights. And the driver of that mechanism is the Supreme Court.
The Insular Cases are a series of Supreme Court decisions from the early part of the 20th century that outline the relationship of the United States with the island of Puerto Rico and with its citizens. Although those decisions were decided a century ago, they are very much still relied upon by judges, legal scholars and professors as the precedent by which policies should follow. In one of them, Balzac v Porto Rico, the defendant, an island resident who held U.S. citizenship, petitioned his case to the Supreme Court. citing a violation of his 6th Amendment rights.
Chief Justice Taft’s opinion was clear that not all constitutional rights were extended to Puerto Ricans. “The Constitution… contains grants of power, and limitations which… are not always and everywhere applicable and the real issue in the Insular cases was not whether the Constitution extended to the Philippines or Porto Rico… but which ones of its provisions were applicable.” Later in the same opinion is this, “It is locality that is determinative of the application of the Constitution… and not the status of the people who live in it.”
The U.S. does not use heritage as a determinant of conferred constitutional rights where the question of Puerto Rico is concerned. You are categorized according to where you live. A person of Puerto Rican descent and living on the island, in the eyes of the government, is Puerto Rican. Once they uproot themselves from the island and transplant themselves in Orlando, or in Chicago, or in New York, they are no longer Puerto Rican. They are a Floridian, an Illinoisan, or a New Yorker. They cease to be Puerto Rican.
The reverse is also true. Any U.S. citizen who moves to Puerto Rico by default becomes Puerto Rican. Hern´åndez is absolutely correct when he states that Puerto Ricans do not have the right to vote for President. By Dr. Franqui’s own admission, once a citizen takes residence in Puerto Rico, (at which point they become Puerto Rican), they no longer have the right to vote. And when the full implications and historical legacies of this racialized policy that motivates Indigenous peoples to abandon their land and their culture and be absorbed and assimilated into the colonial power are realized, the imposition of second-class status on the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is fully achieved.
I expect that once the bars open for social activity again that the good doctor and I will have much to discuss. I hope that they have enough rum on hand.
Ivan Waldo identifies as a Black Puerto Rican who resides within the borders of the Bronx. He is a graduate of CUNY Lehman College, holding a Bachelor of Arts degree in Puerto Rican Studies, and is currently a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where the focus of his studies centers around the political relationship and colonial realities of the island of Puerto Rico with the United States.