One of the little-noticed results of the Nov. 6 elections was a plebiscite held in Puerto Rico on the island’s relationship with the United States. The outcome was murky, much like the last century’s worth of political history between Washington and San Juan, and the mainland’s confused or disinterested attitude toward Puerto Rico that abetted it.
Ever since the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and then was handed the island by Spain as part of the settlement for the Spanish-American War, the island’s people — American citizens since the passage of the Jones Act in 1917 — have been continuously put in situations where they are simultaneously auditioning for statehood, agitating for independence, and making the very best of living in limbo.
Despite what my name suggests, I am Puerto Rican. I grew up with a mother from the island and a Scots-Irish father in a small town in rural North Carolina, at a time when there were so few Hispanics in the area that my mom liked to go to a Mexican restaurant just to speak some Spanish. That was 20-odd years ago. The local Latino population has grown so much since then that my mom, who retired two years ago, was able to work for a decade as a translator for the local school system.
I was used to being “discovered” as Puerto Rican. Sometimes when this happened, I’d be called upon to explain things. In fourth grade, that meant being assigned to give the class — half black kids, and half white kids — a show-and-tell presentation on Puerto Rico and its strange status as a self-ruling commonwealth, with its own governor and legislature, the American president as its head of state, but whose residents lack a vote in national presidential elections or voting representation in Congress despite being American citizens.
I was asked, “Do you eat a lot of tacos?” The answer, “Probably not any more than you do.” I was also asked, by one of the two dark-haired girls that I had a crush on, this one a doctor’s daughter, “Why don’t we just sell it?”
Even fourth graders can be left speechless. It later occurred to me that I should have answered: “You can’t just sell it. It’s not your beach house!”
If Puerto Rico were our beach house, we’d pay more attention to it.
It has long been conventional wisdom among many Puerto Ricans that the status quo will hold because neither of the American national parties has decided that converting the island into a state would benefit them politically. Paired with this is the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party doesn’t actually want nearly four million more Hispanic voters, and their corresponding electoral votes, at play in national elections. (Both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum did pronounce themselves pro-statehood when courting votes — and fund-raising dollars — on the island during last year’s Republican primaries.)
When Spain granted Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, President William McKinley initiated a project that he defined as “benevolent assimilation” on an island filled with people who already had a strong identity of their own and who, of course, primarily spoke Spanish.
Some of the same people who had resisted rule by Spain, and who had even achieved an extremely brief autonomy — nine months — for the island before the American Navy’s arrival, continued to resist rule by the United States. Among them was a family member — the poet, journalist and statesman Luis Muñoz Rivera. It was during the Spanish reign that he had written, “Annexionism had always seemed to me absurd, depressing and inconceivable.” Though Mr. Muñoz Rivera continued to make the case for autonomy, he was also essential in the creation of some useful accommodations to American rule, like the Jones Act.
Luis Muñoz Rivera’s son, Luis Muñoz Marín, was the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico — and my grandmother’s first cousin. He was also a poet and a journalist, and collaborated closely with the United States Congress to have the island declared a commonwealth in 1952. I often think of two lines from his poetry, “I have broken the rainbow across my heart/as one breaks a useless sword against a knee,” especially when I encounter idealists who have summoned the will to force large, dramatic, practical accomplishments.
In 1949, Mr. Muñoz Marín told American officials, less poetically, that Puerto Rico was looking for “a new kind of statehood,” and that matters were evolving “more like phonetics develop than like Esperanto is constructed.”
And this story of language and its confusions continues. The Nov. 6 referendum consisted of two parts, the first of which requested a yes-or-no vote on the question “Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?” The second part instructed voters to “please mark which of the following nonterritorial options would you prefer.” Three choices were offered; statehood, independence or “sovereign free associated state.”
Each option had a definition attached to it, in both Spanish and English, and an icon associated with it: the number 51 emblazoned on a star, the word “libre” framed by a map of the island, and the silhouette of a gray kingbird, respectively. Statehood and independence are familiar concepts, but it’s worth quoting the definition of the less familiar sovereign free associated state: “Puerto Rico should adopt a status outside of the Territory Clause of the Constitution of the United States that recognizes the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico,” the ballot explained, “based on a free and voluntary political association, the specific terms of which shall be agreed upon between the United States and Puerto Rico as sovereign nations.”
On the first part of the plebiscite, 54 percent of those who voted disagreed with the “present form of territorial status.” On the second, 61 percent voted for statehood, 5 percent for independence, and 33 percent for sovereign free associated state. The current commonwealth status was not listed as an option.
Enough voters left the second part blank — some as a protest against the exclusion of the commonwealth option — that one could credibly argue that only 45 percent of the people voted for statehood. Indeed, a recent article in The Hill quoted an unnamed Capitol Hill staff member as saying that some in Congress considered the 61 percent vote for statehood to be a “statistical fiction.”
This is a common attitude in Puerto Rico as well. My cousin Vicky in San Juan — a politically sophisticated liberal and a good-humored pro-commonwealth patriot — called the plebiscite “una trampa” (a trap). In Vicky’s view — and many others’ — the departing governor, Luis Fortuño, who is pro-statehood, put the plebiscite on the ballot in an effort to draw his voters to the polls.
PEDRO Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, who acts as the island’s representative to the executive branch and in Congress — where he can vote in committee, though not on the House floor — says that action is needed.
On Nov. 14, he gave a speech on the House floor offering a compelling defense of both the process and the results of the Nov. 6 plebiscite. Mr. Pierluisi, who is pro-statehood, correctly called the island’s current status “colonial in nature” and made a forceful argument against those who would dismiss the election’s outcome. “Some wish to downplay the results of the plebiscite by citing the voters who left the second question blank, but this argument does not withstand scrutiny,” he said. “In our democracy, outcomes are determined by ballots properly cast. Power rests with the citizen who votes, not the one who stays home or refuses to choose from among the options provided.”
I had a long conversation with Mr. Pierluisi the day after he spoke on the House floor. He insists that either Congress or the Obama administration should respect the plebiscite and take action — perhaps by creating another, improved plebiscite that includes both the current commonwealth status as an option, and clearer, fuller explanations of what the alternatives would mean.
He hopes public pressure, including from other Hispanic voters, and possibly international prodding, encourages Congress or the White House to act. “If Congress doesn’t do anything with this,” he told me, “I don’t rule out going to the United Nations or the Organization of American States.” Mr. Pierluisi won’t do so immediately, he said, “because I have to believe in Congress doing its job.”
One of Luis Muñoz Rivera’s best-known poems, “Paréntesis,” ends: “I will not fall; but if I were to fall, amid the roar/ will tumble down, blessing/ the cause in which I melted my entire life;/ my face always turned to my past/ and, like a good soldier,/ wrapped in a shred of my flag.”
Puerto Rico’s history still exists in Mr. Muñoz Rivera’s parenthesis. And I don’t think we’re doing any better in a national discussion about Puerto Rico than we were doing in Mrs. Grant’s fourth grade class.
The congressman is right. American citizens — the people of Puerto Rico — have spoken. They deserve another, clearer, definitive ballot — and soon.
Once those results are in, let’s all figure out what to do about it.
David Royston Patterson is a literary agent at Foundry Literary + Media in New York.