By Nicole Collazo Santana
With the midterm elections coming up, everyone keeps reminding me to vote. The problem is, I don’t have that right. Although I presently live in New York City, I am officially a resident of Puerto Rico and like all my fellow Puerto Ricans, I am not considered an actual United States inhabitant, regardless of my citizenship status.
In 1898, as a consequence of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson decided to grant everyone who lived there the right to be a United States citizen. Since that time, we have proudly continued to fight in our country’s wars, actively contribute to the economy through different forms of commerce and pay federal taxes; all without the right to participate in the electoral process.
Puerto Rico is not a state or an independent country. In Spanish, we are Estado Libre Asociado, which literally translates to “Associated Free State,” a somewhat contradicting phase. To avoid any confusion of what we are in relation to the United States, we are referred to as a “commonwealth.” However, unlike the four other states in the U.S. that are also considered commonwealths (American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), we don’t get to enjoy even half as many of their privileges. Essentially, we are a territory that provides a lot of benefits to Americans and yet we continue to live under colonial rule.
Most of our affairs such as commerce, trade, federal taxes, laws, and immigration are controlled by the Federal Government. The local Puerto Rican government has control over minor issues. We also have a constitution but it’s simply for decoration because the U.S. Constitution takes precedence over all of our statutes.
Being left out of the decision-making process is a bitter pill to swallow. It is very hard on us when we watch new leaders get elected and who then go on to make policies that affect us as well. The closest we get to being represented is through our Resident Commissioner. Basically, every four years we get to vote on one person who has a very singular partisan point view that often doesn’t represent the thoughts of the entire island. This is the only elected official that can go to Congress and say “All Puerto Ricans want this, please consider it!” However, although able to attend hearings and participate, the official cannot vote in the final passing of bills. His/her role is simply to voice an issue and hope for the best.
Puerto Ricans do have some privileges that come with being citizens, such as easy access to enter the U.S., but we are still very much abused. The fact that we cannot simply vote in midterms or presidential elections is marginalizing. If we are going to be affected by something, we should all have the right to express what candidates we consider to be best suited for the job.
Many in the island would love to be the 51st state. Others consider independence the most viable option. Some even prefer that we remain a territory. Regardless, we deserve basic human rights now. We deserve to have an equal voice over our tourism, our financial well-being and most of all, our people.
Based in New York, Nicole Collazo Santana has also published work in The New School Free Press.