As we approached the friendly old man sitting on a ledge at Fairhill Park, a formerly quiet demeanor changed when we asked him what we had came there to ask. Angel Rosario, a Fairhill resident and Puerto Rican citizen, began an impassioned response to a simple question: What do you think about the status of Puerto Rico and what do you think it should be in the future?
The question stems from the recent bill proposed that would conclusively decide the future of Puerto Rico, which as of now remains a commonwealth of the United States, and end the dispute that most Puerto Rican people have known about since birth.
“We’re a commonwealth and that’s what the people want. We wouldn’t be able to keep an independence going,” said Angel as he explained what it meant to be a citizen of Puerto Rico. The economy has grown steadily unstable in the recent years, affected by the recession more harshly than the United States. For lack of benefits and ultimately, money, several universities have even seen some of their staff go on strike.
“This won’t be an end-all, be-all solution to Puerto Rico’s problems,” said Pedro Pierluisi, The resident commissioner of Puerto Rico to the U.S. Congress and primary sponsor of the bill. “What we have to acknowledge and realize is that Puerto Rico is in fact, a colonial territory. We can’t vote for president. We have no representation in Congress with a valid vote. And we are unable to vote in laws that affect us on a wide scale.”
HR 2499, or the Puerto Rico Democracy Act as it has been dubbed, was initially proposed on May 19, 2009, as a means of settling the contentious issue once and for all. Puerto Rico had undergone three previous plebiscites to determine the actual status of the island: in 1967, 1993 and 1998.
The problem with the plebiscites was a lack of decisive action. The first plebiscite ended in a desire to remain the same with a 60.4 percent majority voting for the commonwealth. The second, in 1993, ended in the same result, though with a plurality as the option only obtained 48.6 percent of the vote. The last plebiscite to take place was in 1998 and is considered by many the biggest failure. The plebiscite ended in Puerto Rico opting for a “none of the above option,” which effectively stopped the plebiscite in its tracks and led the U.S. Congress to consider it another inconsequential vote. While the numbers show support for a commonwealth, many Puerto Ricans see the faltering economy and institutions as a sign that the commonwealth needs to change and that that change may come in the form of independence.
“I’ve always believed that Puerto Rico is viable as an independent state,” said Francisco Sandoval, a local community arts manager in Fairhill. “There is a lot of confusion about what independence means. A lot of Puerto Ricans think it is like turning your back on the United States,” he added. “A few years ago, I actually had a conversation with a friend of mine where I discussed the idea that I supported independence. My friend was outraged and questioned me as to how I could want that after living in the U.S. for so long. I told her, supporting one thing doesn’t mean opposing the other. We would like to be independent but still work with the U.S.”
While Sandoval has faith in his native land and its ability to pick itself up and brush off misfortune, others believe that only through statehood can Puerto Rico rehabilitate itself.
“The time to decide what Puerto Rico is is now and always will be now. There is no better or worst time. Puerto Rico, as it stands, has vestiges of a colonial territory. Its status is at a halfway point. Statehood would mend a lot of the inequalities and imbalance, because Puerto Rico is honestly in a state of inequality,” said Pierluisi.
The state of inequality that remains detrimental to the island not only plagues the commonwealth itself, but the family and friends who live on the mainland. With one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in Pennsylvania, Fairhill is teeming with concerned relatives and colleagues of people who are stuck on an island that seems to be doing worse and worse everyday.
“Many of us are poor. We can’t afford much. And if we became a state, it wouldn’t solve anything nor would it bring anything that the people wanted,” said Angel as he affirmed his opposition to change. “We want this commonwealth. If we become a state, we’ll be paying sales taxes that we can’t afford!”
Rosario, who lives on Marshall Street in Fairhill, is an example of the elder demographic that is resistant to change due to what Francisco Sandoval previously described as a mentality of independence equating communism. According to Sandoval, Luis Munoz Marin, the first governor of Puerto Rico, instilled in the Puerto Rican people this notion and to many of the older generations, it rings true in their collective hearts.
Opponents of the bill, such as Republican member of the House of Representatives, Doc Hastings, have also cited a lack of information as to the options for the future status of Puerto Rico before even contemplating the bill’s passage. Hastings’ slogan during the follow up to the house vote was defiant. “Without knowing what statehood means, representatives should vote NO.” Despite Hastings’ wishes, the bill was swiftly passed in the House of Representatives with a 223 to 169 vote.
What Pierluisi affirms, as well as the Puerto Ricans of Fairhill, is that the issue of status is a topic well known for every Puerto Rican. “Our people know this issue through and through! It’s the one issue they’re all well-informed and well versed in,” said Pierluisi.
With the Puerto Rican community shifting from side to side in the pendulum swing that is the status issue, the outcome remains to be seen as the bill has been halted at the House of Representatives and must wait until the next senate session to be looked at.
“We have a lot to offer the world,” said Sandoval. “Now, it’s all just in the hands of the Puerto Rican people.”