When Luis Fortuño, the governor of Puerto Rico, announced a few days ago that the island would hold a series of referendums to determine its political future, most people rolled their eyes. Given that Puerto Ricans have repeatedly—and inconclusively—voted on their status within the United States, it is easy to see why many believe that the governor’s efforts are doomed to failure. However, there is hope to believe that this time around Puerto Ricans will fully embrace the Stars and Stripes, and elect to become the 51st state of the union.
Currently, Puerto Rico falls under the category of “commonwealth,” a word that is basically a euphemism for “colony.” Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens at birth, but islanders are not allowed to vote for president, and do not have a voting representative before Congress. Since they have fought in every U.S. war since 1917, but do not have a say in choosing their Commander-in-Chief, it might seem only logical that Puerto Ricans would have long ago opted for statehood. So why have they not done so?
The foremost reason why some in Puerto Rico like being a commonwealth is that the island has low taxes. Although they are subject to payroll taxes, most Puerto Ricans do not need to pay an income tax. There is thus a considerable financial incentive to maintain the status quo. However, lower taxes are not compensation for fewer political rights. Although Puerto Ricans enjoy considerable political autonomy, and are able to elect their own governor and legislature much like any state, they are still subject to a greater authority whose decisions they have no influence in molding. The residents of the island are effectively second-class citizens—a fact that has no monetary compensation.
Some in Puerto Rico also feel that the unique political status of the island allows for a degree of remarkable cultural freedom. Perhaps because they are not formally a part of the United States, Puerto Ricans feel no need to conform to its prevalent cultural norms. For instance, they speak primarily Spanish rather than English, a situation some fear could change if the island joined the union. But who says that the predominant language of a state has to be English? The Constitution doesn’t even mention having an official language, let alone specify it. It is hard to see why there should be a relationship between the way Puerto Ricans communicate with each other and the legal status they possess.
But the argument that Puerto Rico is too culturally distinct from the 50 current states to ever join them extends beyond simply language. Some islanders fear that a switch from commonwealth to statehood would also entail a switch from reggaeton to rock, and from the traditional rice and beans to hamburgers. This belief is not only one that has no foundation; it is one that ignores the nature of the United States as a nation. Those who claim that Puerto Rico is not culturally compatible with the United States forget that culture is not a fixed set of norms and traits, but rather an entity that evolves dynamically over time, often for the better. Rather than fearing that statehood would mean importing culture from the outside, they should see it as an opportunity to export what makes Puerto Rico unique to the rest of the United States. There is no reason why Puerto Ricans should not be able to both proudly hold on to their customs and enjoy the same rights to which other citizens are entitled.
In two years’ time, the United States could see a new star rise on its flag. The first step in the process is up to Puerto Ricans themselves, but all citizens of the fifty states should actively encourage statehood for the island. In a country where children are taught from a young age that they belong to a “melting pot,” the cultural distinctiveness of Puerto Ricans would add a little more Latin salsa to the mix.
Jorge Araya is a Crimson editorial writer living in Pennypacker.
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