The Puerto Rican dilemma. Latins keep one hand in mainland's strong economy, one hand in the Caribbean island's traditional culture
San Juan, Puerto Rico
The Eastern Airlines flight from New York City arrives late on this Tuesday night, and the first passenger off heaves a sigh of happiness as she nearly sprints into the terminal, a young child in tow. ``Ay, Puerto Rico,'' she says, blowing a kiss into the air. Her clothes and her son's confused look peg her as someone who has been living on the mainland. But it is clear that she is coming ``home.''Skip to next paragraph
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Her situation is common. Many Puerto Ricans go to the states for economic opportunity, but continue to return to the land of their birth. The airport scene is a reflection of the perennial question Puerto Rico faces: Should it push for statehood, remain a commonwealth, or become an independent nation? The unanswered question of Puerto Rico's status, always close to the surface, is both political and cultural.
On the mainland, feelings about this warm, tropical island are ambiguous. Many Americans know little about the country. And it takes a major disaster, like the recent tragic fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel that killed 96 people, to catapult Puerto Rico into mainland headlines.
For 89 years, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States. Its 3.3 million residents are US citizens. They have a right to vote in US elections, but they do not have full representation in Congress. They do not pay federal taxes. Puerto Rico is part of the US for purposes of international trade, foreign policy, and war. It has its own separate laws and representative government. The island also receives large amounts of federal aid, including $3.8 billion in food stamps in 1985.
In Puerto Rico there is a high voter-turnout rate and a nearly even split between the two main political parties. Thus power see-saws between those who want Puerto Rico to become the 51st state and those who champion commonwealth status - close ties to the US, but some measure of autonomy. Pro-independence supporters are a small group numerically, but are able to put candidates in office with regularity.
But at a time when the commonwealth supporters are in power, and some Puerto Rican economic initiatives have been questioned by the US State Department, even politics do not really tell the whole story.
Despite the presence of McDonalds and Burger King, roadside stands selling pasteles - fish, fruits, or vegetables ensconced in dough and then deep-fried - still abound. Immigrants who headed for the mainland during the great migration of the '50s return home, and today a large number of Puerto Ricans go back and forth regularly rather than put down roots in one place. Over 2 million Puerto Ricans live in the US in places like New York City. They keep one foot at ``home'' and one foot on the mainland, where there are more jobs.
``It's a strange situation - being an American citizen and not being an American,'' says economist Jos'e J. Villamil. ``Puerto Rico is really a nation culturally.''
But, like many here, he sees some of those cultural distinctions blurring with such influences as television. Even though most programs are in Spanish, they often reflect mainland culture. Just watch Julie Andrews in ``The Sound of Music'' saying ``Vamanos, queridos,'' (Let's go, dear ones) to the von Trapp children as they're about to go on a picnic.
There are other clearly mainland influences with a Latin touch. Outside of San Juan are ``Villas de Levitt,'' Puerto Rico's version of the Levittown housing developments that brought affordable housing to so many mainland Americans after World War II. The back windows of Puerto Rican cars often sport the yellow, diamond-shaped messages that are seen on the mainland, but instead of ``Baby on Board,'' they read ``Bebe a Bordo.''