Puerto Rican Students Differ on Question of Statehood

Amidst the commotion of this month’s national election, Puerto Ricans voted in favor of becoming the 51st state in the United States of America. Puerto Rican students at the Claremont Colleges expressed a wide range of reactions to the prospect of statehood, while 5C politics professors said it is unlikely that Congress will take the action necessary for Puerto Rico to become a state.

Alexander Rosario PZ ‘15 said that he is sympathetic to the plea for statehood. Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Rosario lived there until he was five before moving to Chicago. He has never lost his ties to Puerto Rico, as he goes back often to visit family and spent the first two years of his high school career there.

“Like many Puerto Ricans, I both share patriotism for the island and the United States,” Rosario said. “I have pictures of me waving the American flag as I rode my tricycle down a street. When I first heard that there was a possibility Puerto Rico could become the 51st state, I immediately started bawling. I have never felt so happy.”

Anthony Gomez PO ’15 had the opposite reaction.

“When my friends first came up to me saying ‘You are going to be a state,’ I thought, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’” Gomez said.

The contrast between these reactions stems from many complexities in the implications of statehood. Rosario said he believes that Puerto Rico becoming a state would lead to many benefits, such as “a change in the economic situation, the creation of a better education system and the removal of tariffs.”

Gomez, however, said that the “true majority of the island,” including his family, does not support statehood.

“We have rejected the idea three times within the past 45 years alone,” he said. “I believe that if you go on any political website, you will see the voting was rigged and that the majority did not vote for statehood.”

While Gomez said that there are some inherent advantages, such as “getting money from the government and congressional representation,” the loss of Puerto Rico’s unique culture concerned him most.

“My culture is completely different from that of Americans,” Gomez said. “I am not saying one is better than the other, but I feel that if we were to become a state, over time Puerto Ricans would lose that azúcar that makes them boricuas. Hearing politicians like Rick Santorum saying, ‘I support your journey to statehood if you make your official language English,’ scares the crap out of me.”

The referendum presented to the Puerto Rican voters was a two-part question. First, 54 percent of voters responded “no” to the question “Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?” Second, voters were asked to “mark which of the following non-territorial options would you prefer,” from the options of statehood, independence and “sovereign free associated state,” with 61 percent choosing statehood.  

There is a long road ahead before there is a 51st star placed on the American flag. David Menefee-Libey, Professor of Politics at Pomona College, said that would-be new states face “two big challenges” in the “very politicized business” of admission into the U.S.

“First, every state is guaranteed two Senators. Since the Civil War, it has been a partisan affair with both Democrats and Republicans reluctant to allow two new votes in the chamber to their opponents,” he said. “In this case, the new Puerto Rican Senators would almost certainly be Democrats, so Republicans would be likely to oppose admission until a Republican new state prospect emerged.”

Mark Golub, Assistant Professor of Politics & International Relations at Scripps College, also said that Puerto Rican statehood is likely to be blocked for political reasons.

“I think it is safe to say that Republicans in Congress are extremely unlikely to allow Puerto Rico’s statehood in any event,” Golub said. “Rightly or wrongly, they assume that Puerto Rico would vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the result would be a dramatic swing in the congressional balance of power.”

Menefee-Libey said that Puerto Rico’s use of Spanish as its primary language could also be a major barrier to statehood.

“Language politics is a contentious thing in the United States,” he said. “I would expect strong conservative opposition to the admission of Puerto Rico unless and until the unlikely event that it declares English to be its primary language.”

For opponents of statehood like Gomez, the obstacles to Puerto Rico’s admission are cause for some comfort.

“I don’t think we have to worry about it becoming a state anytime soon,” Gomez said. “So I guess I don’t have to worry too much about going home to a grandma who is suddenly listening to Tim McGraw instead of Celia Cruz.”

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