Academic journal article Centro Journal

".Acting like an American Citizen": Discursive and Political Resistance to Puerto Rican U.S. Citizenship Anomalies in the 1930s

Academic journal article Centro Journal

".Acting like an American Citizen": Discursive and Political Resistance to Puerto Rican U.S. Citizenship Anomalies in the 1930s

Article excerpt

The Deportable Colonial Subject, and Narratives of Citizenship

In early July 1939, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, the representative from East Harlem from 1934-36 and 1938-50 and a key supporter of the Puerto Rican people, stood before a Labor Department panel personally arguing a rather unexpected case (Marcantonio 1939b).1 Julia Vasquez-Cortes, a sixteen-year-old migrant, had been detained at Ellis Island along with several members of her family on the grounds that she was not a U.S. citizen.2 The daughter of two Spanish parents, Vasquez-Cortes was born on Puerto Rico some six years after the passage of the Jones Act, which ostensibly gave all islanders U.S. citizenship, and roughly twenty-five years after the North American occupation of the island.3 The 1917 law provided, in Section Five, that "alien residents" of Puerto Rico- including children with at least one parent who did not hold Puerto Rican or U.S. citizenship-would have to declare their intent to take up U.S. citizenship under the Jones Act and renounce their presumed foreign citizenship. Specific provisions were also included in Section Five for Puerto Ricans residing "abroad," that is, not on the island or the mainland U.S. (Venator-Santiago 2013, 66-67) In the years following the Jones Act's passage, these and other inconsistencies in the provisions and implementation of the law were revealed, leading to a number of amendments. In 1927, Puerto Ricans who had rejected Jones Act citizenship (instead retaining a distinct Puerto Rican citizenship) were given the opportunity to naturalize under the same procedures as boricuas with foreign parents. A 1934 amendment allowed Puerto Rican women who had married foreigners, thus forfeiting their U.S. citizenship, to re-claim it. The addition of Section 5(c) in 1938 expanded indefinitely access for retroactive naturalization for Puerto Rican children of aliens who had not yet done so through an oath of allegiance. (Venator-Santiago 2013, 69) As a sixteenyear-old, Vasquez-Cortes had likely not availed herself of this provision and claimed U.S. citizenship, and as such she was found to not be eligible for free passage between the island and the mainland (Marcantonio 1939a).

Despite changes in citizenship law put forth by the Jones Act and subsequent amendments, the Vasquez-Cortes case bears some important similarities to an earlier precedent. In the case of Gonzalez v. Williams (1904), Isabel González faced deportation to Puerto Rico under a policy implemented after she had already departed the island by ship in the summer of 1902. Thus, rather than landing in Lower Manhattan and disembarking from her ship freely, Gonzalez landed at Ellis Island and was subject to the same inspection as immigrants from countries over which the United States had no claim of sovereignty. Among the inspection protocols was a provision that unmarried pregnant women (such as González) be treated as "aliens likely to become a public charge." González and her family launched a defense (which would ultimately reach the Supreme Court) that "touched on traits to which Puerto Ricans and mainlanders attached negative honor, class, and race connotations [...]" (Erman 2008, 11-12). In his oral arguments in the case, attorney Frederic R. Coudert, Jr., posed a choice to the Court: either re-enact the Dred Scott decision and create a class of U.S. nationals who owed allegiance to the nation but do not enjoy full rights, or to provide Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship which, in any event, had been drained of much of its content in terms of offering rights (Erman 2008, 18-20). Though Vasquez-Cortes did not herself face the stigma of unwed motherhood, the scrutiny she faced as a young, Puerto Rican woman was made possible by the Gonzalez ruling. The Court made clear that Puerto Ricans were not included in the category of "alien" under the Immigration Act of 1891, and were thus entitled to free passage to and from the U.S., but it refused to act on the question that logically followed: whether Puerto Ricans had been collectively naturalized by the yielding of Spanish sovereignty to U. …

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