Why Puerto Ricans Clash on Statehood

On 100th anniversary of US takeover, residents like benefits of ties to US but revel in their own Hispanic culture.

For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, the traditional parade of this small bayside town won't file on Saturday along the sea wall where US warships arrived 100 years ago. Guanica Mayor Edwin Galarza Quinones canceled the march to reduce "tension" surrounding this weekend's official centennial celebration.

But as workers this week scrambled to finish a stage and mount giant video screens for music and speeches, separatists across town who still believe Puerto Rico should be its own nation prepared for a rally and march of their own in the traditional spot.

"We are going to be on opposite sides of the town," says Mr. Galarza, explaining the parade's cancellation. "This minimizes and maybe eliminates the possibility for violence."

The developments illustrate the deep divisions and emotions that endure among Puerto Rico's 3.7 million residents about the future identity of the US territory.

One hundred years after General Nelson Miles led a fleet into Guanica Bay during the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico is still not sure it wants to become the nation's 51st state.

In the past few months, there have been violent labor strikes, bomb scares, and threats by radical independentistas. Last Saturday, in an interview with a radio station, the leader of the radical group Los Macheteros promised to make their presence felt at the July 25 centennial. The group has already acknowledged planting two bombs during the strike against the sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company.

"There has never been a majority of support for statehood in Puerto Rico," says Max Castro, senior research associate at the North-South Institute in Florida. "In all the other states in the union, there was a decided majority."

In the most recent vote, in 1993, 48.6 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for commonwealth, 46.3 percent for statehood, and 4.4 percent for independence.

Nationalism runs deep

Puerto Ricans are still decidedly nationalistic, enjoying the access to the American way of life that their citizenship affords while still preferring their flag, their Latin culture, and Spanish language.

As the independence movement has waned, many of its former supporters have joined sides with the Estado Libre Asociado established in 1952. The ELA, as it is commonly called on the island, gave islanders some, but not all of the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. Puerto Ricans are subject to the military draft, but cannot vote in federal elections and do not pay federal taxes as long as they live on the island.

Congress has been hesitant to give the islanders another chance to determine their future. A House vote to grant a referendum passed by only one vote in March. The Senate is slated to take up the issue this fall.

Some conservatives in Congress are bothered by the fact that Puerto Rico is a poor, predominantly Spanish-speaking island. Puerto Rico's per capita income of $8,509 is less than one-third the US average, and about one half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. About 43 percent of islanders were receiving food stamps in 1989. Unemployment, though it has improved under the administration of Pedro Rossello, still hovers around 13 percent, more than twice the US median of 5.1 percent in 1996.

The ambivalence is embodied in people such as "Willie" Oliveras Perez, a security supervisor for the telephone company who did not go on strike. Perez used his US citizenship to join the Army and work as a grade-school teacher in Florida for a few years. He is disinterested in US politics and is critical of the Rossello government's statehood efforts. When asked what he considers his nationality, he replies - as many on the island do - "Puertoriqueno" (Puerto Rican).

"I am able to survive and have learned how to live because the American way of life showed me," Mr. Oliveras says. "We have US money, but I still believe that Puerto Rico is a nation. We might be a poor nation but I feel very proud to be here."

The Rossello government, Oliveras says, is "blinded by the idea of becoming a state, no matter how expensive it is for the union. It doesn't matter to them how much we give to the union. What matters is how much we can get from the union."

Dollars and sense of statehood

In his Guanica office, Mr. Galarza calculates just how much statehood would be worth in federal funds for the town of 20,000 people. For example, he says, Guanica now receives $1 million in community block grants for new roads and parks. As a state, Guanica would be entitled to $15 million in such aid. And Guanica would certainly receive more than the public-housing vouchers it now receives, which are each worth $400 a month, he says.

"I don't want my children to live in a poor republic," Galarza says. "I want them to live in a state that has hope for development, where there are more opportunities to master English and have the same economic privileges for the poor, the sick, the handicapped, and for the elderly."

But despite their small numbers, the separatists haven't gone away. On Wednesday members of the Puerto Rican Independent Party moved a stage into place directly beside the large rock commemorating the US landing that rests along the sea wall.

The rock has an empty square space where a plaque once rested. It was stolen six months ago, probably by separatists protesting the celebration, Galarza says.

Oliveras says he understands the sentiment. "Down deep we are more Spanish than anything," he says. "Four hundred years of being a colony of Spain is very strong. After 100 years as a colony of the US, we think, 'Statehood is never going to happen.' "

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Why Puerto Ricans Clash on Statehood
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today