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A Look at Puerto Rico’s Colonial Status

By Carolyn Carradero

Puerto Rico is a vacation spot for many Americans, but little do they know about its history.

As history records: Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico as a Spanish colony in 1493, in the process killing all the natives and stealing the land’s gold.

Fast-forward 400 years to the 1898 Spanish-American war, otherwise known as the aftermath of the explosion of the USS Maine in Cuba. The United States won on Oct. 18, and as a result, Philippines was surrendered for $20 millions, while Puerto Rico and Guam were also “conceded.”

In 1900, the Foraker Act established a local government for Puerto Rico. In 1917, the Jones Act gave Puerto Ricans  American citizenship. In 1952, Puerto Ricans were finally able to vote to choose their own government.

But as of 2019, we still cannot vote for the U.S. President while living on the island. And while we can vote for our local government and legislation, federal laws affect us too — taxation without representation if you will. They can override our own laws and we have little say in the matter.

Growing up in a colonized country means having your own rich culture affected by the colonizing nation. Throughout the years, we have lost a significant number of traditions due to the modern Americanized culture that has infiltrated us.

To better understand the colonial situation in Puerto Rico, I interviewed Dr. Luis López Rojas (LLR), a Humanities professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao (UPRH), Ana Maria Moctezuma Cruz (AMMC) a Humanities student from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras (UPRRP) and a current UPRH Social Sciences student who would like to remain anonymous, JPSA. I started my interview with the basics:

What do you know about colonialism?

LLR: It’s the submission of a country whose source of power is not itself. Colonialism consists of the dominion of a country over another.

JPSA: It’s a crime, a relation of exploitation in which the metropolis uses the resources of the colony to its benefit; the colony does not have sovereignty.

AMMC: Colonialism is the oppression of a given country at the hands of another, whose aim is to overpower and gain several benefits in the process, such as key military assets, agricultural exploitation, geographical expansion, economical profit in the form of taxes, religious proselytism, and moral and cultural dominion over another culture deemed inferior.

Often, in the process, the colonized end up losing crucial aspects of their self-government, culture and general way of living, and assimilating into the colonizer’s ways. Although I’d argue it is not complete assimilation, and it is not a one-way exchange all the time either. There have been plenty of instances where the colonizers adapt aspects of the colonized culture into their own, and either borrow or forcefully steal things that they find interesting or valuable.

What are some non-political consequences of colonialism that are not immediately obvious?

LLR: How people perceive the world and its history from a perspective imposed by power. This means they see reality from the point of view of the person that dominates it. For example, in the beauty concept, white is accepted as pretty, while black and its aesthetics are not.

JPSA: The cost of living is much more expensive since we cannot negotiate with other countries, a dependency for the metropolis is created. We have gotten attached to the colonial life, and it is difficult to picture ourselves in a different way.

AMMC: Some less obvious consequences that manifest tend to do with the culture: when the language, clothes, hairstyles, music, architecture and artistical movements are heavily influenced by the colonizer’s standards of quality, instead of their own.

What is the other face of colonialism? What benefits has it had (if any), in your opinion?

LLR: It has had benefits, yes, for the master, for the colonizer because their objective is to create an imbalanced dynamic to obtain earnings, but this is done through exploitation. Colonialism only benefits one side.

JPSA: While we [P.R.] are a colony, there is no need to govern, to make difficult decisions, to learn how to manage a country or how to do public relations or diplomacy. Colonialism aided in Puerto Rico’s rapid industrialization, we could argue that it benefited both sides because there was cheap labor, tax exemptions and the Puerto Ricans had jobs.

AMMC: Colonialism has also been a way, I’d argue a main one, to spread, mix and create a variety of languages across borders. And the artistic remnants: colonial architecture, political propaganda in favor of the status quo or art made in retaliation and as a way of resistance, are always interesting from a linguistical, historical and artistical point of view.

Also, being an American citizen does come with some benefits like a U.S. passport, economic federal aid, grants for students and other assistance typically only reserved for American citizens, which are harder for foreigners to obtain. Although I can see why some islanders question the irony and the legitimacy of them.

How has it affected your daily life? Talk about the challenges when you travel or talk with other people.

LLR: In the day-to-day, every time I go out to do shopping, I’m benefiting the colonizer. This is because every product comes from them, it’s a closed market. Besides, it’s dictated by law that all the merchandise that arrives in P.R. must arrive in U.S. ships, which only raises prices to benefit the colonizer.

JPSA: There is climate of uncertainty, people do not know if they’re staying in P.R. or leaving to the U.S. to look for a better life. Something we do know is that in the next 10 years things will only get worse, mainly because unemployment is high.

AMMC: Where I come from, it is a constant struggle, because once you take the blindfold off and you realize the harsh truth that you are living in a colony instead of an “associated free state,” as you’ve been lead to believe your whole life, there’s no turning back. You start to see how the tentacles of colonialism touch upon almost every single aspect of your day to day life, sometimes in banal ways, others in not-so trivial ones.

For example: our dialect (Spanglish) is a result of hundreds of years of political dominance from one empire or another; our currency is not made in our own country nor is it really “our” currency; our citizenship has a second-rate value; our stores are mostly big chain stores that overpower local merchants, same thing with the restaurants.

when we fill a form online and click a drop-down menu, we never know if our country will be under “Countries” or under “States/U.S. Territories” something that might seem trivial but only adds to the confusion; we fight in another country’s army; the taxes imposed on our food and various other products are higher to account for marine mercantile laws; the laws of our country and our constitution only have so much power before the U.S. laws and constitution can override them, our national anthem is always sung in combination with another, and our flag always stands next to another country’s flag.

In short, you start to see yourself as a sort of in-between mongrel— one who is not entirely American, but also not entirely Puerto Rican. But the biggest challenge is trying to explain the situation to strangers you meet when you travel, be it American or otherwise (Americans tend to think we’re “illegal Mexicans” and other foreigners don’t quite know where to place us). And sometimes, I’ve even had to explain it to fellow countrymen, because not everyone is well-informed or even cares about the subject.

Do you think people in P.R. are aware of the political situation and they feel comfortable talking about it?

LLR: The people of P.R. are not aware of the unequal relation. This has a lot to do with the education system, since it is designed to favor the U.S. This prevents the citizens from being aware of the unequal relationship.

JPSA: They could be aware of the political situation but are not aware of the consequences that this presents. I could argue that they do not like it, but no one likes to admit that they live in mediocrity, we avoid the topic as much as we can to not have to deal with reality. We are experts in escaping reality to have a good time.

AMMC: I’m not sure that everyone in the country understands the precarious political situation we find ourselves in. And unfortunately, most get so caught up in the heated partisan debates and their petty issues that they lose sight of the bigger picture, and how the root of the problem is not one party or another, but a lack of total political and economic autonomy.

I’ve also noticed that people tend to think of the past as a fixed and remote thing that stopped having real consequences for us a long time ago. They only know broad strokes about their own history: there were native Taínos in the islands, then the Spaniards came and brought some African slaves, and the Spanish were finally kicked out over a century ago, but they seem to miss the information necessary to fill in all the gaps of what happened during those 400 years of Spanish colonization, how all of those events molded us into the people we are now, and how we’ve never really stopped being a colony, we just had a change of owner, so to speak.

On top of that, political movements for Independence tend to be shunned as leftist, Nationalist insurgents and they haven’t been afforded a platform to state their case. While they have made plenty of mistakes (perhaps I’m not the best person to speak about their history, their misfires and all the complicated dynamics they have) and they’re not a single, uniform, tightly knit group with a clear set of ideals -although almost every party or political band on the island suffers from that malady too. I do believe there’s an almost widespread recoiling upon hearing the word “independence,” and the average Puerto Rican tends to dismiss the term as a fantasy, even before being sufficiently well-versed on the subject as to form a more learnt opinion.

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Another important thing to put into perspective is the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. Throughout the years we have been subjected to tales of the so called “American Dream”. We grew up hearing how things were better in the U.S., and how lucky we were to have them “backing us up”. Because of this propaganda, a lot of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the U.S. throughout the decades.

The Nuyorican diaspora is one that’s well known, but Youngstown also has had a migration wave that became noticeable in the 1950s, primarily in order to work in the steel industry, which had a boom, and needed employees. There are currently 7,136 Puerto Ricans in Youngstown, which accounts for 60% of the Latino Community in the city.

In my case, I came to Youngstown in 2017 to study and I’m currently working on a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering. And it has had its fair share of challenges, starting with the language. P.R.’s official language is Spanish, and only about 20% in the island speak English. Lucky for me, I was exposed to a lot of English from a young age in both movies and music, and the fact that my dad was born in New York gave me an advantage when I had to move to Youngstown, but this is not the case with everyone.

Another challenge is the weather. Cold weather for Puerto Ricans is in the low 70’s, so Ohio’s freezing winter is definitely hard to bear.

And finally, the racism.

Being Latina, means I have two last names, an accent and dark(er) skin, yet, I’m an American citizen. A lot of Americans are unaware of this fact and we are often cataloged very crudely as Mexicans. The “funny” thing is Americans are immigrants and they may tell you how their family is Irish or Scottish, etc., so it is bothersome when they’re hypocritical with Latinos for trying to find better opportunities.

While we’re on the subject, the term “American” is wrong. America is the entire continent, the correct way in Spanish is “estadounidense” or United Statesian, which I realize is a finicky term, but for me, using the term American feels wrong. It is like taking the identity of the entire continent for yourself and particularly when there’s an ethnic cleanse going on.

As time passed, it became clear that Americans were not like Puerto Ricans in any sense. I interviewed a fellow YSU student, Yesarily Sánchez Rivera, about how she felt about the transition. I wanted to know how she came to live in Youngstown, considering the U.S. is more expensive.

“My parents got divorced when I was 8-years-old, and my mom came to live with my grandfather,” Sánchez said. 

Being in YO since a young age, I wanted to know how it affected her and if she liked it.

“I would have been happier in P.R. because I would have had more friends,” she said. “here I feel alone and since it’s hard to make friends I feel like an outcast. It’s too quiet here and I don’t like it. In P.R. there’s always things to do.”

I understood this because I have felt the same. Mostly because I have been subject to microaggressions; I have been asked for passport or visas in situations where a license is enough. I have had to constantly tell people about P.R.’s status, thus explaining I’m not an illegal immigrant, and I was even asked to shut up in a public place while speaking Spanish.

While I believe we have adapted for the sake of survival, I do not believe our cultures are exactly suited for each other. I normally don’t believe in cultural incompatibility, but I do think that for proper migration, the place we migrate to has to be accepting of anyone that comes to live in the land.

It is horrible to feel like an unwelcome foreigner. I recently traveled to Iceland where I met people who were more informed about P.R. history and status than many Americans (though I could write a whole other piece on why no one in Latin American uses that term). They knew where P.R. was, and were able to speak to me in Spanish, something that I haven’t come across in my two years in the U.S.

I have made it my mission to inform people about P.R. as best as I can. I am trying to make a difference and I’m trying to make our culture known because it is inconceivable that even Europeans know about P.R. and its status, while the people whose ancestors colonized our island don’t.