“Remember that you are a part of us even if you are not here. . . . Do not forget us. Just don’t forget us.” Those were the words of Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to NBC News in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which left the entire island without power and facing a gargantuan rebuilding task.
When I read “you are a part of us even if you are not here,” I thought that she was referring to the Puerto Rican diaspora, of which I am a part. But she meant all Americans, not just of those of us who trace our family origins back to the island.
For starters, she spoke in English. More importantly, the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living on the island—almost without exception, Puerto Ricans refer to Puerto Rico as “the island,” or “la isla” —and the 5.5 million Puerto Ricans living in the United States proper are native-born American citizens. As the New York Times put it, “Puerto Rico Is American. We Can’t Ignore It Now.”
Thus, it’s something of a category mistake to refer to people like Justice Sonya Sotomayor as the daughter of “Puerto Rican immigrants.” Her parents were U.S. citizens before they boarded the plane to New York.
Yet the mistake persists because the vast majority of Americans don’t understand and/or perceive the people of Puerto Rico as fellow citizens, much less fellow Americans. But legally speaking, we are definitely the former, and, in almost every way that should count towards feeling a sense of solidarity with those suffering in the wake of Hurricane Maria, also the latter.
First a bit of history. Puerto Rico is, like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands, an “unincorporated territory” of the United States. Like residents of Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Ricans are native-born American citizens. Like Guam, and the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory as a result of the Spanish-American War.
The Jones Act of 1917 granted U.S. citizenship to all people born in Puerto Rico after April 25, 1898. (Actually, the complete story is a lot more complicated, but irrelevant to this discussion.) This granting of citizenship has benefited everyone.
As a native-born citizen, a young woman named Laura from the mountain town of Utuado was able to move to Connecticut and attend the University of Connecticut in hopes of building a better life. There, she met a guy whose own dad had come from Panama. They married and had several children, including a son named George, who is pretty good at baseball, and can do things like this and this.
Another Puerto Rico native, Carlos J. Lozada, a native of Caguas, joined the U.S. Army. He was sent to Vietnam. On November 20, 1967, Lozada, serving as part of a four-man early warning outpost, spotted a North Vietnamese Army company rapidly approaching.
After “alert[ing] his comrades [Lozada] commenced firing at the enemy who were within 10 meters of the outpost, killing at least twenty of them and “[disrupting] their initial attack.” He “remained in an exposed position and continued to pour deadly fire upon the enemy despite the urgent pleas of his comrades to withdraw.”
When his company “was given the order to withdraw[,] Pfc. Lozada apparently realized that if he abandoned his position there would be nothing to hold back the surging North Vietnamese soldiers and that the entire company withdrawal would be jeopardized. He called for his comrades to move back and that he would stay and provide cover for them. He made this decision realizing that the enemy was converging on 3 sides of his position and only meters away, and a delay in withdrawal meant almost certain death. Pfc. Lozada continued to deliver a heavy, accurate volume of suppressive fire against the enemy until he was mortally wounded and had to be carried during the withdrawal.”
Lozada was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, one of five Puerto Rico natives to be so honored for their service in Vietnam. The above description is from his citation.
While Lozada’s dedication and courage was extraordinary to the point of superhuman, his willingness to serve wasn’t. Did you know that the first shots fired by the United States in World War I were fired by Puerto Ricans? Or that the commander of the First Marine Division during the battle of Okinawa was Puerto Rican? (Fun fact: troops from Puerto Rico fought against the British during the American Revolutionary War.)
During the Korean War, 43,434 Puerto Ricans (including my father) served in the U.S. military— 39,591 (again, including my father) of them volunteers. It was thanks to the cover provided by the 65th Infantry Unit that the Marines at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir were able to complete what’s been called the “greatest evacuation movement by sea in US military history.”
As General Douglas MacArthur said of el Regimiento 65 de Infantería, “I wish we had more of them.”
More recently, since 9/11 Puerto Rico “has contributed more troops in proportion to its population than any other state or territory but one—Nevada.” At least 52 islanders have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This doesn’t includes natives of Puerto Rico who moved to the mainland and were drafted or enlisted there, or their children. Since 1950, Puerto Rico, if it were a state, would rank near the top of the proportion of its children who have given the “last full measure of devotion” to the United States.
As I said, everyone has benefited.
If, say, Florida or Texas were facing the prospect of “months in the dark,” there would be no question that fixing that situation was a top national priority. If 3.4 million people in, say, Arizona were facing a “humanitarian crisis,” what the government was doing to prevent and ameliorate that crisis would dominate the news. And there would be no question that helping them rebuild their lives and their homes would be seen as the responsibility of all Americans.
Yet while the president “has pledged federal help for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands,” his administration has refused to grant those American citizens the same waiver on the use of foreign ships transporting cargo it granted in the case of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which, not coincidentally, struck the U.S. mainland.
And the coverage of what has happened to 3.4 million American citizens has been a kind of “disaster porn.” We gape, gawk, and then move on to the next story, such as who assumes what posture during the National Anthem or which celebrity is engaged in a social media feud with Taylor Swift.
I’m not holding my breath waiting for a multi-network telethon featuring Hollywood stars and other celebrities answering the phones for Utuado and Caguas, PR.
About 35 or 40 years ago, I watched a debate on the political status of Puerto Rico. There were people representing the three alternatives: the current commonwealth status (known in Spanish as “estado libre associado”), statehood, and independence.
After the pro-statehood representative gave the standard litany of reasons for why statehood would be the best alternative for Puerto Rico and its people, Rubén Berríos, the president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP in its Spanish acronym) gave a devastating rejoinder. He told the pro-statehood speaker that he had forgotten a very important fact: “No nos quieren” (“They don’t want us”).
I don’t know if Berríos was right, although I have my suspicions. I am sure that he could just as easily replied “No nos conocen,” they don’t know us. When people hear “Puerto Rico,” they most likely think of the piña colada, baseball, and its financial crisis, and much of what they think they know about the last one is, to borrow H. L. Mencken’s phrase, “neat, plausible, and wrong.”
They certainly don’t know that “since becoming U.S. citizens in 1917, Puerto Ricans have served in disproportionate numbers relative to their population within the U.S.,” despite the fact that, unlike other American citizens, the rights and privileges associated with that citizenship are dependent on where they choose to live.
Well, now you do know. So what can you do? In the short run, give generously to groups providing immediate assistance. The New York Times has some suggestions, as does Vox. Samaritan’s Purse also seems to be on the case.
That’s in the short run. The long run requires caring enough to insist that the people of Puerto Rico, who have earned the right to be regarded and treated like other American citizens many times over, be treated that way.
Image courtesy of Sergio Lacueva at iStock by Getty Images.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.