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Puerto Rico's Uneasy Relations With the U.S. Mainland

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Spanish Harlem street art
It was spray-painted on the side of a building in big, white letters: "Free Puerto Rico." The sight of it made Stephen and me stop dead in our tracks. For the past hour, we had been strolling through the streets of Spanish Harlem, taking in the vibrant sights, sounds, and smells. Brilliant murals extended from sidewalks to rooftops; salsa and merengue blasted through window sills; heavenly aromas of beans, rice, and deep-fried plantains drifted through doorways. It was our first visit in this largely Puerto Rican neighborhood, and we were enjoying it immensely.

New York Puerto Ricans still dream of independence
The sign, however, gave us pause. What did it mean exactly? Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth of the United States for the past 50 years. As such, its residents receive military protection, limited social services, and U.S. citizenship. Did this sign mean they would rather be a fully independent nation? And just what would that entail? There was only one way to find out. Stephen and I asked everyone in sight. The journalists, artists, and activists we met that day gave us enlightening perspectives on U.S.-Puerto Rican relations.


Garlic juice! / Spanish and salsa are ricocheting off the walls ... Beans are burning on the grill ...

Puerto Rico's Past But before we get into that, let's take a look at our shared history, which dates all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. Puerto Rico had suffered under brutal Spanish rule for nearly four centuries by that point. In 1898 - after years of bloody revolts and acts of resistance - it finally gained its hard-won independence. The freedom lasted exactly one week. Then the U.S. military marched in.

The Spanish-American War was brewing in the area. Here's where the hypocrisy kicks in. The U.S. government contends that it entered this war out of sympathy for the Cuban independence movement. Using that logic, one would think that our government would be supportive of Puerto Rico's quest for freedom too, right? Wrong! Under the Treaty of Paris, Spain "sold" us Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico for the low, low price of $20 million (see Stephen's dispatch for details).

As you can imagine, this caused quite a rift in both nations. "Anti-imperialists" were furious that the United States was buying up lands without the consent of the people who actually lived in them. President McKinley and the majority of Congress, however, were "imperialists." According to them, the United States had an obligation to the "welfare of an alien people" - even if those "aliens" didn't want it.

Stephanie hangs with Luis Martin, the workshop coordinator for El Museo del Barrio
Once this transaction was complete, the United States set about "developing" Puerto Rico by improving its sanitation, constructing highways, and instituting a public education system. They also passed a series of stringent English-only laws. While grateful for certain improvements, Puerto Ricans began to fear they would lose their indigenous culture and Spanish language tradition if it continued. It's a question that indigenous groups have debated the world over: Is a cup-full of modernization worth the loss of even a teaspoon of culture?

Pros and Cons of U.S. Statehood In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson passed the Jones Act, which made all Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States. This may sound like a generous gesture, but it came with a catch. Citizenship meant that Puerto Ricans had to serve in the military - and at that moment, the United States was engulfed in World War I. Puerto Ricans have been fighting on behalf of the United States ever since.

Things started looking up for the island in 1946, when President Truman finally appointed a governor who was actually native Puerto Rican. Since 1948, all Puerto Rican governors have been elected by the people of Puerto Rico. In 1952, the island became a commonwealth and remains so to this day. This leads us to the $10,000 question: Would Puerto Ricans prefer to be a full-fledged state, or would they rather remain a commonwealth?

These were the questions Stephen and I asked people as we roamed through the streets of Spanish Harlem, the neighborhood that runs from about 97th Street to 116th in upper Manhattan. Interestingly, we didn't meet a single person who supported statehood. That option would give all Puerto Ricans the right to vote in the presidential election (at present, only Puerto Ricans who live in the United States can vote), as well as representation in Congress (at the moment, they only have a non-voting resident commissioner).

Stephanie interviews Negron Lenin, a long-term resident of Spanish Harlem
These pluses don't outweigh the minuses for people like 51-year-old Negron Lenin, though. He may have come to the United States as a child and lived here for the bulk of his life, but he identifies himself as 100 percent Puerto Rican.

"I definitely don't want statehood, because that would hurt my culture," he said. "We have already become assimilated enough as it is. I don't want to deal with people who are against things like bilingual education. I also don't want to have to pay federal taxes. I'd rather just not vote."

After visiting with Negron, Stephen and I stumbled upon an organization called Hermanos Fraternos de Loiza Aldea, which provides immigration services and ESOL classes to those in need. Its executive director, Blanca Irizarry, came to the United States after divorcing her husband nearly 37 years ago and has been here ever since. She would love to see her homeland fully independent, but doesn't think the United States would ever allow it.

"First of all, we're a play yard for American people," she said, referring to the island's luscious beaches. "But the main reason is that we're a very strategic military site."

The Young Lords fought for Puerto Rican independence
She had a potent point. In the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy seized nearly two-thirds of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Activists say the Navy's military exercises there have damaged the environment, stunted economic growth and endangered the lives of residents. The military denies these charges, but the latter charge proved true in April 1999, when Marines dropped two 500-pound bombs off target and killed a security guard. Demonstrators have protested the occupation of Vieques ever since.

Fighting for an Independent Identity English-only laws and the United States' unwanted military presence are two major reasons why nationalist groups have demanded Puerto Rican independence throughout this century. The '50s were a particularly volatile time - in addition to attempting to assassinate President Truman, a group of Nationalists also opened fire in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five.

Israel Torres Penchi is the director of Spanish Harlem's newspaper Siempre
While tempers have cooled since then, the dream of independence has not. According to Israel Torres Penchi, another long-term resident of Spanish Harlem, current U.S.-Puerto Rican relations are devastating at even the psychological level.

"It is like you are a child and you need a parent to decide what is good for you," he said. "It affects the way you see yourself. I am convinced that this is the reason why Puerto Ricans have so many problems with mental diseases, alcoholism, and drug abuse.".

Artist James De La Vega has transformed Spanish Harlem
Spanish Harlem's Tight-Knit Community That is why Penchi and many other Puerto Ricans we met are working so hard to create a tight-knit community in Spanish Harlem. Penchi recently started a 12,000-circulation community newspaper called Siempre ("Always") that includes local news and an open space for writers and poets to publish their work. Another group of advocates and educators opened a museum called Museo del Barrio, which works to preserve the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States.

The most visible contributor, however, is a 28-year-old artist named James De La Vega. Over the past seven years, Spanish Harlem has become his personal canvas. He has painted murals of revolutionary heroes like the Puerto Rican freedom-fighting "Young Lords," as well as urban interpretations of "The Last Supper," the Crucifixion, and Picasso's "Guernica." His inspiring philosophies - such as "Fate is moving you toward your destiny" and "Enjoy the day as if it were your last" -- are scrawled in chalk along the sidewalk. We found him hard at work in his studio at 1651 Lexington Avenue near 104th Street.

James De La Vega's philosophies line the streets of New York City
"I don't think human beings were meant to live in a society where they are separated by classes or races," he said when we inquired about his art. "I write lots of thoughts on the ground with chalk to get people to think about life. I want to get people to understand they can be what they want to be regardless of how bad their situation is."

De La Vega pointed at the throngs of Puerto Rican neighbors and families bustling about outside and said, "One of my main ideas is to get people to become their dream."

Stephen and I left Spanish Harlem feeling the same way.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jen - The first U.S. president of Nicaragua
Neda - A little taste of the Philippines - at the mall food court
Stephen - Cuba Libre! Freedom is intoxicating
Stephen - The Great Panama Canal Grab