May 7, 2008

El Día de Soy Americano - A Brief History of American Citizenship in Puerto Rico

So apparently the Puerto Rican legislature is trying to get a(nother) holiday celebrating American citizenship added to the calendar (for May 20th). Well, technically, it already existed, but they're reviving it. The other holiday celebrating American citizenship is March 2nd, "el Día de la Ciudadanía Americana", in case you were wondering.

El proyecto de ley indica que el 20 de mayo los puertorriqueños deberán “rendir tributo, observar y conmemorar públicamente la ciudadanía de los Estados Unidos”. Ins[is]ta, además, a las organizaciones patrióticas, cívicas y educativas a que hagan lo mismo.
The bill indicates that on the 20th of May, Puerto Ricans should "render tribute, observe and publicly commemorate United States citizenship". It also insists that patriotic, civil, and educational organizations do the same.

I do agree with a lot of the comments left behind by readers saying it seems like a waste of funds and legislative action (although what isn't...), however, it does also raise the question of the appropriateness of celebrating American citizenship.

American citizenship is a heavily contested issue. Most people don't realize that American citizenship was indeed imposed upon Puerto Rico with the Jones Act. While it was in a sense a "gift", as in it was optional, for all practical purposes it was mandatory, since anyone who didn't have it was sentenced to unemployment (after the switch American citizenship was required for jobs). So, although there were surely many dissenters (although there were many people excited about it as well, let's not forget), only a few hundred Puerto Ricans decided not to immediately become American citizens, about 400 if I remember correctly. This was 1917, after nearly 20 years under the United States.

Luis Muñoz Rivera, grandfather of Puerto Rican politics and father of an equally famous politician, Luis Muñoz Marín, the one who came up with the holiday being discussed now (and for whom the airport is named), left us with a quote that still is as thought-provoking for Puerto Rico today as it was in 1909 when he spoke to Congress:

If you wish to make us citizens of an inferior class--if we cannot be one of your States; if we cannot constitute a country of our own then we will have to be perpetually a colony, a dependency of the United States. Is that the kind of citizenship you offer us? Then, that is the citizenship we refuse.
The next large challenge to this setup comes from Juan Mari Brás in 1994, when he renounces his American citizenship in Venezuela in favor of a Puerto Rican citizenship. Because of the rules involved in renouncing citizenship, he would have to be deported to his birthplace, and yet he had just refused it. Therefore, in Puerto Rico he was both legally forced to be there and yet illegally in a land he wasn't a citizen of, a strange situation indeed. To add to the confusion, in 2005 the Puerto Rican State Department (finally?) awarded him with "Puerto Rican citizenship", which technically doesn't exist and is something that still hasn't been resolved with the U.S. government.

Anyways, history aside, what's most disconcerting to me is the need to celebrate American citizenship. Not that I think most people waste time and money celebrating, because I can't imagine they do (although I don't know, I've never been around for either of the dates). And I do think that Puerto Ricans benefit a lot from being American citizens, the many examples of which I don't think I need to recount here. But by making an official holiday it's kind of paying tribute to the colonial dependence and second class citizenship that Muñoz Rivera brought up a hundred years ago. After all, Puerto Ricans are Americans that are not protected by the Constitution; they can be drafted and yet have no vote in Congress to declare war; they have their own government but the U.S. has complete, if underabused, control over its every action. Statutory citizenship leaves Puerto Ricans in a strange place, where they are both the same and yet different from their fellow Americans.

I say, if Puerto Ricans want to celebrate American citizenship, let them celebrate it on July 4th with all the other Americans, as equals. There's no sense in celebrating inferiority.

1 comment:

José M. López Sierra said...

Should criminals be in charge of correcting the wrong they inflicted?

Puerto Ricans vote in elections every 4 years at an 80% level of participation. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States (US) government for the past 116 years. If the US government has the final say in what happens in Puerto Rico, what is the purpose of these elections? The purpose is to fool the world that Puerto Rico is a democracy.

The United Nations (UN) declared colonialism a crime against humanity in 1960. The UN has asked the US government 33 times to decolonize Puerto Rico immediately. The US government has refused. It says that Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States is none of the UN’s business. The US says that it is a domestic affair.

To appear that the US government wants to decolonize Puerto Rico, it promotes the use of plebiscites to determine what Puerto Ricans want. Doesn’t that sounds innocent and democratic? So what’s the problem?

To begin with, the international community already rendered its verdict and determined that colonialism is illegal. So to have a political status option in a plebiscite that favors maintaining Puerto Rico a colony of the United States is not permitted. To have a political status option of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the United States is also not permitted under international law. The problem goes back to the beginning of this article. In order to have free elections, the country must be free. So before these elections and plebiscite could be valid, Puerto Rico would have to first be an independent nation.

What people must realize is that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US because the US government wants it that way. That is why it has used terrorism to keep it that way. That is why it refuses to release the Puerto Rican political prisoner of 33 years Oscar López Rivera. That is also why it is ridiculous to believe that decolonization is a US internal matter in which the UN has no jurisdiction over. If we allow the US government to decolonize Puerto Rico, she will remain a colony of the United States forever!

José M López Sierra