The Puerto Rican dilemma. Latins keep one hand in mainland's strong economy, one hand in the Caribbean island's traditional culture

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.''

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.''

In an Old San Juan restaurant late on a Friday night, young Puerto Ricans - the closest one gets to yuppies on the Caribbean island - find old friends in a crowd that spills out into the narrow street. Most people in here would call themselves ``independistas,'' says one woman.

But go outside Old San Juan to a Burger King, and the mood changes. Here are statehooders, or those who support commonwealth status. The tension is always there, the debate always simmers, but except for occasional chances to support the three political parties that represent the different options, the compromise of living in between seems to prevail.

Even politics here defy mainland norms. Puerto Rican political parties have not developed along traditional conservative-liberal lines. The statehood party is an odd alliance of old-line elite business leaders, mostly Republicans, and the poor who depend on food stamps. They advocate generous US aid, and are somewhat suspicious of business development programs that have Puerto Rico acting almost independently from the US.

Gov. Rafael Hern'andez Col'on defends commonwealth status, in effect for 34 years. His party tends to be more liberal than the statehood party, but it also touts the benefits of entrepreneurship and economic development. They have championed the concept of Puerto Rico as a leader in economic progress in the Carribbean.

And the independence movement says that Puerto Rico is still in effect a colony, being taken advantage of and left adrift by its larger partner. An independence party has representatives in the Puerto Rican legislature. In addition, supporters of independence include the militant political group, Los Macherteros, which has been accused by federal authorities of being a terrorist group. Macherteros has taken credit for a $7.2 million Wells Fargo robbery in Hartford, Conn. Its members have also been implicated in several bombings and slayings on the island.

Dr. Villamil smiles when asked if Puerto Ricans don't get tired of living in limbo.

``Intellectually it's very hard,'' he says. ``But it is fairly convenient.''

Governor Hern'andez Col'on says, ``The commonwealth has maintained support for 34 years in spite of the statehood or independence movement.'' But there is mixed feeling about Puerto Rico's status, both in the US and at the United Nations. President Reagan has spoken in favor of statehood, and recent action by Secretary of State George Shultz in rejecting a Puerto Rican proposed tax agreement with Japan is seen by some as putting a damper on too much autonomy.

At the UN, there have been repeated suggestions that Puerto Rico join the body's decolonization process and become independent.

The debate continues to simmer close to the surface in most Puerto Rican souls. Jose Torres, a taxi driver, speaks with pride about the island's history. He brags to visitors about Puerto Rican institutions that have flourished much longer than those on the mainland.

But he also bemoans the fact that agriculture no longer flourishes, that the economy is so stagnant, that crime is high. Puerto Rico should do something for itself, he says.

Ah, is he an independista? Mr. Torres grins and shrugs. The United States, he says, has been in Puerto Rico for 89 years, but Puerto Ricans still speak Spanish and keep their own customs. There's an even subtler difference than language, Torres says. ``For good or bad, we are Latin.''

Next: Economics in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Basin.

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