A local population frustrated with the rule of a colonial power, seeking control over their economy and political decisions, developing a cultural identity distinct from that of their overseers—if you were in their shoes, how would you feel? Wouldn’t you want control over your own destiny?
Puerto Ricans have demanded fair representation since the time of Spanish colonial rule, when a unique identity and political direction emerged among the locals in the early 1800s. They became frustrated as the crown mismanaged the economy while repressing political and social organization—even imposing a feudal-style libreta system onto Puerto Rican laborers.
The United States took control of the island in 1898, but little changed. An American-led and imposed government began making decisions, consolidating businesses and transferring ownership to U.S. entities, and curtailing civil liberties. Although Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917, this did nothing to help life on the island.
In 1950, Congress authorized Puerto Rico to develop its own constitution and be given the status of “Commonwealth.” Despite increased autonomy, Puerto Ricans are still unable to participate in presidential elections —nor do they have a voting member of Congress— and Puerto Rico remains a territory, so the U.S. has final authority over the island. This was evident with the 2016 PROMESA legislation, which installed a U.S.-appointed oversight board tasked with restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt.
The board, referred to as La Junta, has final say over the island’s budget and long-term financial planning, and can invalidate laws passed by Puerto Rico’s democratically elected leaders. The board has backed the privatization of the power company, leading to more expensive and less reliable service, plus pension cuts for teachers, a decision that brought thousands into the streets to protest. Beyond La Junta’s expansive powers, its mere existence is a symbol of colonialism and a painful reminder to Puerto Ricans that their fate is controlled by outsiders.
Finally —though a century too late— leaders in the U.S. Congress are envisioning a new future for Puerto Rico. H.R. 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, is a bill introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), with a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), that will finally allow the people of Puerto Rico to choose their political fate: determine their available status options (statehood, free association, or independence), debate those options in an inclusive assembly, launch a fair and impartial education campaign around those options, and finally, vote on their desired option.
I don’t have any personal ties to the island, but with an influx of free time during the pandemic and an obsession with Puerto Rican Reggaeton artist Bad Bunny, I began to channel my stircrazziness into a new interest. My room overflowed with books like Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World and Voces de la Cultura, while I binged podcasts from Chente Ydrach and La Universidad de Puerto Rico’s Negras or YouTube videos by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and Puerto Rican independent journalist Bianca Graulau. I followed stateside activism organizations like Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR) and Power4PuertoRico. This instilled in me a knowledge base and admiration for Puerto Rico while understanding the injustices that the American government has committed on the island.
I am proud to be an American, but pride is not limited to relishing our successes—we must also acknowledge when we fail to uphold freedom and justice. Our country’s grip over Puerto Rico is such a failure. The United States is a nation whose very birth came in reaction to colonialism, so how can we continue to perpetuate the same philosophy ourselves? H.R. 2070 is our best opportunity to change that.
If this mission resonates with you, I encourage you to find out more about the bill, as well as the U.S.’s historical treatment of the island, from a range of Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum. Go a step further and call your member of Congress, talk to your friends and family about the bill, or even find a diaspora organization to volunteer your time.
While our role will never be to lead or dictate the direction, Americans can play an important role in supporting Puerto Ricans fighting for their self-determination. With an informed perspective and measured approach, we can help drive meaningful attention to this landmark legislation and bring justice to the island.
Harry Laird is an aerospace professional and activist for Puerto Rican self-determination based in Washington, D.C., and a collaborator of the national advocacy organization Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR).