Every so often, Puerto Rico hits the front pages of newspapers in the mainland United States, usually because of some kind of perceived crisis (or, in the case of recent hurricanes, environmental and humanitarian crises). And in these fleeting moments of attention, the question always comes up: what exactly is Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States? The answer is, well, it’s complicated. This article will introduce you to the basics of Puerto Rico’s status and how it has changed since the island became a U.S. territory in 1898.
Puerto Rico is currently a commonwealth of the United States. The Office of Insular Affairs defines a commonwealth as “an organized United States insular area, which has established with the Federal Government, a more highly developed relationship, usually embodied in a written mutual agreement.” This is not to be confused with an unincorporated territory: “a United States insular area in which the United States Congress has determined that only selected parts of the United States Constitution apply,” an organized territory: “a United States insular area for which the United States Congress has enacted an organic act,” or just plain occupied territory, in which the U.S. military forcibly claims sovereignty over people who would really rather they didn’t. Since 1898, Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States has encompassed all the aforementioned definitions, each with its own set of ever-changing rights and responsibilities.
Are we confused yet?
We’ll start at the beginning.
THE END OF SPANISH COLONIAL RULE
Spanish colonial rule in Puerto Rico was many things, but it was not complicated. Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493. The people who already lived there, the Taínos, (Columbus ‘discovered’ them, too) called the island Borikén. Their population dwindled rapidly from exposure to European diseases and the harshness of imposed slavery. Spanish settlers, left with no labor force, began importing African slaves to work on their plantations.
In 1873, the Spanish National Assembly abolished slavery in Puerto Rico, but the island’s plantation economy persisted.
Over the centuries, the French, Dutch, and British all tried to take Puerto Rico from Spain. Looking at a map, it’s not hard to see why. As the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles, Spain thought of Puerto Rico as the gateway to the Caribbean and the rest of its possessions in the Americas. But, by the end of the nineteenth century, Spain had lost all its colonies, save Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and a few other Pacific islands.
During the nineteenth century, Puerto Ricans, inspired by Simón Bolivar and other independence movements in Latin America, pushed for independence from the weakened Spanish crown. Though unsuccessful, these efforts eventually led to change towards the end of the century. In 1897, the Spanish agreed to the Carta Autonómica, making Puerto Rico an overseas province of Spain. This allowed for Puerto Rico’s first semi-autonomous government (the Spanish-appointed governor still maintained the power to annul any legislative decisions).
- Read the Carta Autonómica: Translation: Constitution Establishing Self-Government in the Islands of Cuba and Porto Rico: Promulgated by Royal Decree of November 25, 1897 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899).
Governor-General Manuel Macías, a Spanish general, inaugurated the new government in February 1898. In March, general elections were held. Puerto Rico’s first autonomous government began to function on July 17, 1898, but by then the United States and Spain were already at war.
THE ORIGINS OF U.S. EMPIRE
While Spain’s American empire had been dwindling, the United States’ American empire had been growing. Throughout the nineteenth century, white settlers pushed westward, displacing and exterminating native populations to extend U.S. sovereignty across the North American continent. But “Manifest Destiny”—the idea that the United States was destined to expand—was not limited to the continent. White Americans also dreamt of expanding their country’s territorial holdings into the Caribbean and beyond. William Seward, for example, is remembered for purchasing Alaska in 1867, but he tried to arrange the U.S. annexation of Nicaragua and the Danish West Indies (which would eventually become the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917) that very same year.
While these early attempts failed to gain mainstream support, by the 1890s a combination of ideas had come together to justify the United States’ pursuit of an overseas colonial empire for the first time. In 1893, the U.S. economy entered an economic depression. That same year, historian Frederick Jackson Turner introduced his “Frontier Thesis,” which argued that the United States had achieved greatness because of westward expansion and the frontier experience. Since that period of expansion had ended, Turner proposed that the period of American greatness might have ended with it. For many Americans, this seemed a plausible explanation for the current economic downturn they were experiencing. Alfred Thayer Mahan offered them a way out: overseas expansion. In his hugely influential book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), Mahan argued that the United States could continue its rise to greatness by becoming a naval power with colonies with naval bases and coaling stations throughout the world—including in the Caribbean. His theories resonated with many leaders and strategists around the world, including President Theodore Roosevelt (read a letter from Roosevelt to Mahan that discusses Hawaii, an isthmian canal, and “big problems in the West Indies”).
In the late nineteenth century, European colonial powers were busy dividing the rest of the world amongst themselves. The United States was a latecomer to the imperial game, so Spain’s dwindling empire seemed like the perfect target. The U.S. Naval War College drafted plans for war with Spain as early as 1894. They finally got their opportunity in 1898.
- Read more about U.S. Spanish-American War Plans.
So, just two months after Puerto Rico’s new semi-autonomous government was inaugurated in February of 1898, the United States went to war with Spain (spoiler alert! Puerto Rico, although technically not a belligerent, loses).
OCCUPIED TERRITORY (1898-1899)
The Spanish-American War began in April 1898. The impetus for war was Cuba. Americans had become incensed by sensationalized stories of Spanish cruelty, which eventually culminated in the sinking of a U.S. naval ship, the Maine, in Havana Harbor. Although the cause of the explosion remains unknown, it became the justification for the coming war with Spain. On July 17, Puerto Rico’s semi-autonomous government began to function, led by Governor General Manual Macias; eight days later July 25, the U.S. military invaded Puerto Rico.
General Nelson A. Miles, Commanding General of the United States Army, led the U.S. forces that landed in Guanica in July 1898. Upon landing in Puerto Rico, he proclaimed that the United States was going to be a different kind of empire. He assured the Puerto Rican people the U.S. military did not “come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves, but to your property, to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our Government.” With this speech, Miles introduced the official justification for U.S. empire: spreading the “advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.” ((Annual Reports of the War Department for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1900. Part 13. Report of the Military Governor of Porto Rico on Civil Affairs, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902), 20.))
On August 12th, 1898, Spain and the United States agreed to terms of peace, which officially ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. During this time, the United States was, according to its own War Department, “a belligerent, who, under the laws of war, maintained hostile occupation, his army seeking by every means in its power to further the aims of its own government and to overcome by every lawful means the resistance and power of the armies of Spain.” ((ibid, 23))
Signing the Treaty of Paris
Military occupation continued until the Treaty of Paris came into effect in April, 1899. The new American Governor was hopeful: “If all classes of the inhabitants, native and foreign, will work together for the common good Porto Rico should soon be the gem of the Antilles—the best governed, happiest, and most prosperous island in the West Indies.” ((ibid))
However, not all Puerto Ricans were pleased with the manner in which the United States assumed and maintained power in the isla
nd. José Julio Henna and Manuel Zeno Gandia, Puerto Rican Commissioners, wrote several letters voicing their unhappiness at being “under the military control of the freest country in the world.” ((José Julio Henna and Manuel Zeno Gandia, The Case of Puerto Rico, (Washington DC: Press of W.F. Roberts, 1899), 7)) They lamented that in negotiations between the United States and Spain, “the voice of Puerto Rico was not heard” and “the island and its people were conveyed from one sovereign to another as a farm and its cattle are conveyed from a master to another.” ((ibid, 9)) Henna and Gandia exposed the hypocrisy of the United States’ new colonial venture by quoting the Declaration of Independence: “…that these governments only derive ‘their just powers FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED.’ The Puerto Rican people, in asking from the people to whom they have been aggregated that these principles of the first enactment to be found in their statute books be applied to them, are not looking for favors. They are demanding justice.” ((ibid, 10))
Since the United States denied them independence, Henna and Gandia believed Puerto Ricans should at least enjoy all the rights of proper citizens of the United States. They pointed out that Louisianans, Floridians, Mexicans, and Alaskan
s were all given citizenship rights when their territory became part of the United States, but the same privilege was not extended to Puerto Ricans. ((Henna and Zeno Gandia, The Case of Puerto Rico, 24.)) For the Puerto Rican people, the outcome of the Spanish-American War was a far cry from the idealized justifications that led the United States to war in the first place. Henna and Gandia realized that the acquisition of Puerto Rico marked the beginning of U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico, and that it would always be inherently contradictory.
UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY (1900-1917)
On April 12, 1900, President William McKinley signed the Organic Act of 1900. More commonly known as the Foraker Act for its sponsor, Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker, the main author of this legislation was Secretary of War Elihu Root. The Foraker Act ended military rule and established civil government in Puerto Rico. Already, things were complicated. The Act stated that the U.S. President would appoint Puerto Rico’s governor and executive council. But Puerto Ricans would elect their own 35-member House of Representatives and enjoy a judicial system with a Supreme Court. A Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico would be sent to the U.S. Congress, but they would have no voting power.. And the act declared the inhabitants of the territory citizens of Puerto Rico, not citizens of the United States.
On May 1, 1900, the civil government began to function following the inauguration of Governor Charles H. Allen. Federico Degetau went to Washington D.C. to fulfill his duties as Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner. During this time, Americans on the mainland became more interested in their nation’s new island possession:
- Albert Gardner Robinson, The Porto Rico of To-day: Pen Pictures of the People and the Country (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899)
- Charles H. Rector, The Story of Beautiful Porto Rico (Chicago: Laird & Lee Publishers, 1898)
- William Dinwiddie, Puerto Rico: Its Conditions and Possibilities (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1899)
- Marian M. George, A Little Journey to Puerto Rico: For Intermediate and Upper Grades (Chicago: A. Flanagan Company, 1900)
- Frederick A.Ober, Puerto Rico and Its Resources, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899)
ORGANIZED, UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY (1917-1952)
In 1917, President Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law. The law amended the Foraker Act, and changed Puerto Rico’s status to an organized, but unincorporated, territory. One of the law’s most ardent supporters was Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera. Muñoz Rivera originally favored Puerto Rican independence, but eventually changed his position. He instead began to push for autonomy for Puerto Rico under U.S rule. In 1916, he stated his demands in the House of Representatives:
“Give us now the field of experiment which we ask of you, that we may show is it easy for us to constitute a stable republican government with all possibly guarantees for all possible interests. And afterward, when you acquire the certainty that you can find in Porto Rico a republic like that founded in Cuba and Panama, like the one that you will find at some future day in the Philippines, give us our independence and you will stand before humanity as the greatest of the great, that which neither Greece nor Rome nor England ever were, a great creator of new nationalities and a great liberator of oppressed peoples.” ((Congressional Record, House of Representatives, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (May 5, 1916): 7473.))
Luis Muñoz Rivera asked the United States to be a new kind of empire, different from those of the old world. If Puerto Rico remained a colony with all the trappings of the Old World, that meant that the United States was no better than England, Greece, or Rome. But, as Muñoz Rivera pointed out, the United States had a chance to be extraordinary, even exceptional if it allowed Puerto Ricans to create their own government so that they might someday be independent republics like Cuba and Panama. At this time, many Americans were still grappling with how they could resolve having an empire of their own while still claiming to be a nation founded on ideals of liberty and self-determination. Muñoz Rivera’s appeal to Congress fit in nicely with the rhetoric surrounding the new empire that spoke of benevolent uplift, spreading freedom and democracy, and helping the formerly oppressed by bringing all the benefits of American civilization. Muñoz Rivera argued, successfully, that autonomous government was one such benefit.
The Jones-Shafroth Act (1917) created a more autonomous government for Puerto Rico, with three branches, much like that of the United States. However, the U.S. federal government still maintained control: the Governor, Attorney-General, and Commissioner of Education were still appointed by the United States president. That governor appointed the remaining heads of executive departments (justice, finance, interior, agriculture, labor and health). Puerto Ricans directly elected the members of a bicameral legislature, although Puerto Rican women, like most women in the United States, were not allowed to vote. The Act also created a bill of rights for Puerto Rico, which extended many, but not all, U.S. constitutional rights to the territory (like much of the new empire, the right to trial by jury was not included). Perhaps most importantly, the Jones-Shafroth Act revoked Puerto Rican citizenship and stated that all Puerto Ricans, “are hereby declared, and shall be deemed and held to be, citizens of the United States.” ((The Statutes at Large of the United States of America from December 1915 to March 1917, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1917): 953)) President Woodrow Wilson said to Congress that granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship would help “satisfy the obligations of generous justice towards the people of Porto Rico by giving them the ample and familiar rights and privileges accorded our own citizens in our own territories.” On the eve of World War I, he reminded Congress that giving Puerto Ricans citizenship rights could save the United States “embarrassment” on the international stage as well. The most immediate result of the extension of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico was the extension of military conscription—the Selective Service Act (1917) drafted 20,000 Puerto Rican soldiers into World War I.
CALLS FOR INDEPENDENCE
When the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed, Pedro Albizu Campos (then still a student at Harvard University), initially hoped that the United States would live up to its ideals of “democracy and justice” and “find a just solution for our relations” (Read Albizu Campos, “Porto Rico and the War,” Harvard Crimson, April 14, 1917). When he returned to Puerto Rico in the early 1920s, however, he saw that this was not the case. Puerto Ricans were in the middle of trying to oust the new American Governor, who was pursuing a harsh “100% Americanism” campaign. (Read about Governor E. Montgomery Reily’s and Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila’s efforts to remove Reily from office here). It was clear to Albizu and others that the conferral of U.S. citizenship had not actually given Puerto Ricans “a just solution.” He was elected President of the Nationalist Party in 1930 and began to pursue immediate independence for the island of Puerto Rico.
The Great Depression severely affected Puerto Rico due to its colonial economy’s dependence on the United States. Most Puerto Ricans had hoped that President Roosevelt, in choosing a new Governor, would appoint a New Deal reformer that would bring economic recovery to the islands. Instead, they got Blanton Winship—a man bent on destroying the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.
In October of 1935, conflict began when police shot and killed four nationalists on the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus. As revenge for the killings, two Nationalists assassinated Police Chief Colonel E. Francis Riggs in February of 1936. The two men never faced trial; they were killed while in police custody.
The consequences for Police Chief Riggs’ assassination were swift. Pedro Albizu Campos and several other leaders of the Nationalist Party were arrested on April 3, 1936 and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. Albizu would remain imprisoned in Atlanta until 1947. The assassination of a white U.S. colonial official caught the attention of people living in the mainland United States and people began questioning Puerto Rico’s status for the first time since the turn of the century.
In an unlikely turn of events, the Riggs assassination actually put legislation for Puerto Rican independence on the table for the first time, even if it was fueled by revenge. On April 23, 1936 Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland introduced S. 4529, a bill for Puerto Rican independence. Tydings, a personal friend of the deceased Colonel Riggs, was offering independence, but at a price: Puerto Rico would receive almost no transition aid, and a 25% tariff would be placed on all goods exported from Puerto Rico to the continental United States. Tydings made it clear that his friendship with Riggs was his motivation for proposing such harsh terms. Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias, who favored statehood over independence, argued that “the great American Government would ask our people to commit suicide. That is what independence, as it has been offered, means.” The Tydings Bill failed, but conflict over Puerto Rico’s status continued (Read more about the Tydings Bill here).
Governor Blanton Winship ordered a crackdown on all Nationalist activities in Puerto Rico after Riggs’ assassination in 1936. On March 21, 1937 this came to a head in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Police had initially authorized a Nationalist Party parade, and then opened fire on the crowd, leaving eighteen people dead. Winship was largely blamed for what became known as the “Ponce Massacre.” Two Nationalists who were present at the Ponce Massacre in 1937 attempted to assassinate Winship at the 40th anniversary celebration of the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico on July 25, 1938.
[See a photograph of Relatives of Nationalists killed in the Ponce massacre in front of Nationalist Party headquarters. Machine gun bullet holes in the wall. Ponce, Puerto Rico. December 1937 – Library of Congress]
By the end of the 1930s, nothing had been resolved in Puerto Rico. But the United States government’s priorities had shifted. On the eve of World War II, President Roosevelt wanted, above all, to have a peaceful Puerto Rico that could contribute to the war effort. So, he finally removed the repressive Blanton Winship from office and replaced him with the more palatable William Leahy. Luis Muñoz Marín, head of the Popular Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, formerly pro-independence, also changed his tune on the eve of World War II and began to support the United States. With Nationalist leaders like Albizu imprisoned, and former independence leaders like Muñoz Marín singing a different tune, resistance to Americanization in Puerto Rico would be put on pause for the duration of the war.
On February 10, 1943, the Puerto Rican legislative assembly, under President of the Senate Luis Muñoz Marín, unanimously adopted a concurrent resolution, “to lay before the President and the Congress of the United States of America the right of the people of Puerto Rico that the colonial system of government be ended and to decide democratically the permanent political status of Puerto Rico as expeditely as possible, immediately if feasible.” ((Tony Martin, The Economic Future of the Caribbean, (Dover: The Majority Press, 2004), 47-48))
The third principle of the Atlantic Charter (prepared by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill) read: “They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live, and they wish to see sovereign rights of self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” On February 10, 1943, the Puerto Rican legislative assembly, under President of the Senate, Luis Muñoz Marín, unanimously adopted a concurrent resolution, “to lay before the President and the Congress of the United States of America the right of the people of Puerto Rico that the colonial system of government be ended and to decide democratically the permanent political status of Puerto Rico as expeditely as possible, immediately if feasible.” ((Tony Martin, The Economic Future of the Caribbean, (Dover: The Majority Press, 2004), 47-48))
In 1943, President Roosevelt formed a commission to evaluate the Jones-Shafroth Act; it included the new Governor of Puerto Rico Rexford Tugwell and Luis Muñoz Marín. ((Trías Monge, Puerto Rico, 103)) The Commission heard Muñoz Marín’s grievances, but did not recommend the vast changes Muñoz Marín had hoped for. They instead endorsed Tugwell’s original recommendation—giving Puerto Ricans the right to elect their own governor. ((ibid, 104)) The first formal change to Puerto Rico’s status since the Jones-Shafroth Act came with the 1947 Elective Governor Act. In 1948 Luis Muñoz Marín became Puerto Rico’s first popularly elected Governor.
Muñoz Marín was still determined to redefine Puerto Rico’s status and relationship to the United States. And he decided to join forces with Senator Millard Tydings, who by 1945 was preparing to file his third bill for Puerto Rican independence. On October 16, 1945, President Harry S. Truman sent a special message to Congress concerning the status of Puerto Rico calling for legislation that would become the Tydings-Piñero bill (named for Jesús T. Piñero, then governor of Puerto Rico).
The Tydings-Piñero bill called for a referendum on Puerto Rico’s status. Puerto Ricans were to choose from three options: (1) independence, (2) statehood, or (3) an Associated State or dominion. ((ibid, 105)) The Tydings-Piñero bill died in committee, but it was an important moment in the history of U.S.-Puerto Rican relations. The provisions for an “Associated State” laid the foundation for the eventual commonwealth status that Puerto Rico would assume in 1952.
On July 3, 1950 President Truman signed Public Law 81-600, which allowed Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution. The Constitution of Puerto Rico (1952) officially established the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Following amendment and ratification by the United States Congress, Governor Luis Muñoz Marín enacted the constitution on July 25, 1952.
Puerto Rico’s status had changed to a “Commonwealth.” But what did that really mean? Internationally, it allowed the United States to claim that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony—the United Nations removed Puerto Rico from its list of Non-Self Governing Territories in 1952. But many Puerto Ricans Nationalists did not feel that the official change in status changed much of anything. Puerto Ricans had been living, since 1948, with a Gag Law (Public Law 53) that made it illegal to speak out against the U.S. government, speak in favor of Puerto Rican independence, or even possess a Puerto Rican flag—Francisco Matos Paoli, who was later nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, was one of the people arrested for violating the Gag Law in 1950. With this new constitution and new Commonwealth status leading people to believe that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony, Albizu Campos, now out of prison and back in Puerto Rico, began to make plans for a revolution. In October of 1950 Nationalist uprisings took place around Puerto Rico—most famously in Jayuya. Governor Luis Muñoz Marín called in the Puerto Rican National Guard to put down the uprising. They destroyed Jayuya and started arresting Nationalists en masse. In November of 1950, two Nationalists made an attempt on President Harry Truman’s life across the street from the White House.
The Gag Law remained on the books after the transition to Commonwealth in 1952 and continued to be used to arrest Puerto Ricans who spoke in favor of independence. In March of 1954, two years after the status change, four Nationalists led by Lolita Lebron decided they would bring mainland attention to the issue once again. They opened fire in the House of Representatives, wounding five U.S. congressmen. To the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, the right to elect their own Governor and the transition to Commonwealth status had not changed the fact that Puerto Rico was still a colony of the United States.
- Explore a timeline of the March 1, 1954 House shooting here
Today, Puerto Rico remains a Commonwealth. But, Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States remains hotly debated. Puerto Ricans voted on their status in 1967, 1991, 1993, and 1998. In 1967, 60% of Puerto Ricans voted to maintain their commonwealth status, while 39% voted for statehood and 1% for independence. In 1991, Puerto Ricans voted not to review their commonwealth status. The 1993 vote yielded the following support for each option: 48.6% for commonwealth, 46.3% for statehood, and 4.4% for independence. In 1998, 46.49% of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood while 2.54% wanted independence, 0.29% voted for a “free association” with the United States, and just 0.06% voted to maintain the commonwealth. The problem with the 1998 vote was the 50% of the population that voted “none of the above.”
- From the Congressional Research Service: R. Sam Garrett, “Political Status of Puerto Rico: Options for Congress,” June 7, 2011 & R. Sam Garrett, “Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions,” October 2, 2012.
In the 2012 election, Puerto Ricans once again voted on their status. For the first time, Puerto Ricans were asked about their wishes in two parts. The first plebiscite would determine whether the Puerto Rican people wanted to remain a U.S. territory. The second, depending on the first, would either provide for Puerto Rico’s statehood or independence, or make arrangements to regularly consult Puerto Ricans as to their territorial status. 54% voted against continuing as a territorial commonwealth in the first 2012 plebiscite. Puerto Ricans were given three choices: statehood, independence, or “sovereign free association”—which would give Puerto Ricans more autonomy. 6% voted for independence, 33% for the sovereign free association, and 61% for statehood. For some, this vote yielded the first decisive result—statehood. In June of 2017, a new vote seemed to confirm the desire for statehood even more clearly. But while 97% of those who voted favored statehood, only 23% of registered voters participated. Plebiscites, while in theory a useful way to gauge public opinion in Puerto Rico, have at best produced mixed results.
It’s important to note that even if 100% of Puerto Ricans did vote for the same change in status, a plebiscite could never actually be a path to statehood or independence. In their current status, the people of Puerto Rico do not have the legal authority to decide their own fate. That power still rests with the United States Congress.
So where does that leave Puerto Rico? Still in limbo—for now. Mainland interest in Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States seems to crop up surrounding crises like natural disasters and economic downturns. But for Puerto Ricans in the island and the mainland, it is a constant concern. The current terms of the status debate are as complicated as its history. Some Puerto Ricans favor statehood because they feel that if Puerto Rico is going to stay under U.S. rule, Puerto Ricans deserve to have the same rights as other U.S. citizens—Puerto Ricans today still cannot vote for the President, have no voting representatives in Congress, and yet can be conscripted into military service. However, others fear that statehood would result in a loss of Puerto Rican identity and culture—especially Spanish language. Some Puerto Ricans favor independence in theory, but think it would certainly mean failure since they believe Puerto Rico’s economy is too fragile and its politicians too corrupt to function without the help of the United States. In the mainland, opinions vary as well. Some welcome the idea of a 51st state. Others, despite the fact that the United States has no official language, oppose the idea of admitting a state with a majority Spanish-speaking population. Meanwhile U.S. corporations with interests in Puerto Rico prefer continued colonial status, because it provides more opportunities for profit than statehood or independence.
Puerto Rico may someday gain either statehood or independence. But for now, along with the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, it remains a U.S. colony.
- Classroom Activity: Debate the Status of Puerto Rico
- Have students take a position on Puerto Rico’s status: should the island become the 51ststate, remain a commonwealth, gain independence, or have some other association with the United States?
- Stage debates at crucial points in Puerto Rico’s history (1898, 1900, 1917, 1952, or in the future)
- Students may argue as themselves or assume the identity of an important historical figure in U.S.-Puerto Rican relations. If drawing on others’ ideas, make sure students still craft their own arguments using their own words.
- Explore Documentaries & Teaching Guides from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College
- Check out the Curriculum Unit “The Heritage and Culture of Puerto Ricans” at the New Haven Teachers Institute
For more information:
This article was originally published in February 2013, and updated on 5 July 2018.