Like other representatives in the House, Jenniffer González-Colón vies for co-sponsors on legislation and party support. She addresses the crowd of politicians on an issue maybe 30 representatives will express interest in. But neither party wishes to claim her cause. She represents people who cannot vote in Presidential elections; they have no electoral votes.
González-Colón’s constituents are considered un-American for speaking the same language as they did when they became a US colony in 1898, and they receive less social security, Medicaid, and food stamps. And here’s the kicker. González-Colón champions her cause for disaster relief spending or a voice for her people, and at the end of the day, she cannot cast a vote in the House.
This is a day in the life of the resident commissioner for Puerto Rico, a US territory. Puerto Rico has a population of 3.3 million people, comparable to Connecticut or Iowa. Puerto Ricans are American Citizens, but not US residents. They may serve in the military, and a disproportionately high number of them do compared to US residents, but they cannot vote in US elections. Puerto Rico’s condition as a territory is a remnant of colonialism that we claim to have left in the past, but their status allows the US to use them as a cheap flow of labor and a corporate tax haven. They receive some federal funding, but are a lower priority for services like disaster relief than states. Partially due to the US government’s slow response to the recent hurricanes that hit the island, there has been a surge in pro-statehood activism, by both the recently deposed Governor of Puerto Rico and Jenniffer González Colón, their representative in the House. In June of 2018, González Colón filed a bill to begin the statehood process for Puerto Rico by 2021, and found support in a few dozen Republicans and Democrats. Still, Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state is an outlandish proposition to many Americans whose reasons range from fiscal qualms to barely masked racism.
Opposition to statehood comes from both parties and from within Puerto Rico itself. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it would be by far the poorest in the nation, with the highest unemployment rate and the slowest growing economy. Many see it as a repair project after the financial crash of 2008 and recent storms; it has even filed for bankruptcy, so far unsuccessfully. Debt is a buzz-word paraded around by those against statehood. By far the most purely racist argument is that inviting Puerto Rico into the United States is like allowing an undeveloped country into the union. This rhetoric usually goes hand in hand with the opinion that no majority Spanish speaking area (about 20 percent of Puerto Ricans are fluent English speakers) can be a state.
The United States has never had a national language, and most likely never will. Some states have made English their official language, but some, like Hawaii and Alaska, recognize indigenous languages as well. New Mexico even uses Spanish in official documents, and living in California, it is obvious that our country is multilingual already, not a bleached English monoculture. Puerto Rico’s debt totals about $74 billion, compared to Connecticut’s $35 billion. California racks up a good $150 billion in IOUs, and who are we to talk about debt in the land of the free anyway? According to the Pew Research Center, our federal government owes $22 trillion around the world, requiring nearly 8 percent of our federal spending to pay it off. Hurricane relief is nothing new, and the fight for “American Heritage” is dying off with it’s leading advocates. The mind of the Puerto Rican people is a more complicated issue.
Unfortunately, the majority of Puerto Ricans do not clearly favor statehood or the status quo. The issue has not yet been resolved in the four corrupted and unclear referenda the country has held since 1967. Throughout the referenda, only one to four percent of the voters have chosen independence. In post Hurricane Maria surveys, that has risen to 10 percent and statehood has been reported as the most popular course of action. Even so, the issue cannot be resolved without a clear majority in favor of statehood, so the next step must be a referendum overseen by the United States government to yield a decisive answer.
If they so choose, the people of Puerto Rico deserve the full rights and representation of a US state. It’s not as if we haven’t admitted new states in the last century. Both Hawaii and Alaska, two places with completely different cultures and histories than much of mainland United States, were brought into the Union in the last 60 years at the behest of activists in those territories. Activism like this is ingrained in our country’s values and must be respected.
There are many citizens in Puerto Rico fighting for statehood, and if the people decide to enter the Union, we should soon welcome a 51st state.