Puerto Rico: Beyond 'West Side Story'

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Puerto Rico: Beyond 'West Side Story'


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THERE is a near constant discussion of the current state of the 'American Empire'. [1] The US is now the global superpower, having taken on that role in World War II, largely as the UK's replacement. [2] Additionally, like any imperial power the US is allegedly now being extended too far, such as in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

This article examines the history and political status of a territory acquired in an earlier US push to global power: the former Spanish colony of Puerto Rico. This is now a 'free associated state' or a 'commonwealth' within the US (the only territory with that political relationship with the US). But some claim that it is just an American colony. Meanwhile, for many Americans the territory's status remains hazy.

The territory is probably most well known because of the musical and film West Side Story (a remake of Romeo and Juliet set in a New York City centring on a Puerto Rican gang). This classic production is now well over four decades old but it remains very popular. It has a theme that resonates through the ages: young people want to be in love and not to be bothered by the squabbles of older people and their traditional feuds. Ironically history hangs heavily over Puerto Rico.

The story of how the US acquired it is in itself a study of the US's reinventing itself in international politics. Puerto Rico was taken from Spain in 1898 in the final stages of the four-hundred-year-old Spanish empire. Having acquired it in the Spanish-American War, the US has not been sure what to do with it and there are continuing debates over its future political status. Meanwhile, the territory is connected to other controversies in US domestic politics.

The author of one popular book on the territory has pointed out: 'Within American jurisdiction, as reflected in a common citizenship, flag, currency, and numerous applicable Federal laws, Puerto Rico often seems in everything but name a State of the Union. And on the other side of the dichotomy, [it has] a culture and society profoundly different from that of the mainland'. [3] For example, if Puerto Rico were to become a full State within the Union then it would be the country's first officially Spanish-speaking state.

This Spanish language speculation is then linked through to another controversy in domestic US politics: the growing impact of the Spanish-speaking population. The US political scientist Samuel Huntington in 2004 triggered a controversy with a book claiming that Latinos entering the US were undermining the traditional Anglo-Protestant work ethic with a Latin culture based more on enjoying a lazy life. [4] On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I was struck by how 'Spanish' the city is becoming in the use of that language, for example, in official signs. Ironically with a million 'illegals' entering the US each year--often from Central and Latin America--they are employed to do the dirty, low-paid jobs that US citizens will not do: this is hardly a form of laziness. But the Huntington book has sold well.

Puerto Rico's political status is full of ambiguities. Puerto Ricans can vote for US presidential candidates if they are resident on the mainland but not on Puerto Rico. They have US citizenship but they have no voting representation in Congress. They have a non-voting 'resident commissioner' in Congress but he or she has only the right to speak and not to vote. They have no power to make ultimate decisions to change their own constitution. They have their own legislature but it can only decide on internal affairs (and so they have no control over their foreign policy) but they can be drafted to serve in the US armed forces. They do not pay Federal income tax but they do receive Federal welfare and other assistance. Puerto Ricans have US citizenship but they also have their own Olympics team. They are in the Caribbean but they are not Central Americans.

As it says in West Side Story:

    Nobody knows in America
    Puerto Rico's in America. … 

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