The way Carlos Romero Barcelo sees it, this tiny, crowded U.S.
commonwealth is like a gangly youth - all knees and elbows - afraid
to cross the dance floor and invite his beloved to swing.
She might say no.
For 95 years, the object of Puerto Rico's affection - and a
good part of its disdain - has been the United States of America:
the engine of its progress, guardian of its shores and source of
its paralyzing identity crisis.
Yet today, Puerto Rico's 3.6 million residents are closer than
ever to popping the question. As campaigns heat up for a Nov. 14
island plebiscite, more and more Puerto Ricans are poised to ask
Congress to embrace their island as the 51st state.
For the first time since the United States swallowed Puerto
Rico as war booty in 1898, the United States might find itself
forced to respond.
It could get ugly.
Puerto Rico is an impoverished suitor; its per-capita income is
half that of the poorest state, Mississippi, and at least 40
percent of its residents receive food stamps. Despite claims of
bilingualism, most of its people speak only Spanish and resent
efforts to promote English.
The state of Puerto Rico - economically dependent, culturally
and linguistically distinct - would be unique to the nation, a
modern challenge to Americans' notion of the union.
In this respect, Puerto Rico's bid for statehood evolves into a
debate over America's own identity. Some survey the U.S. landscape
and see only rejection for Puerto Rico.
"Three million mulatto, Spanish-speaking poor: That's three
strikes," said Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, an author and
political analyst. "Three strikes, and you're out."
But statehood advocates cite the historic momentum they say
places their goal within reach. Their party leadership is vastly
popular, while local rivals are adrift; a federal attack on a key
tax break for industry has left islanders craving the security that
statehood would bring; Washington is in the hands of Democrats who
could benefit from another heavily Democratic state.
Convinced that statehood would upgrade a U.S. citizenship they
call "second class," advocates plan to run with the slightest
encouragement from the November vote. Party leaders are prepared to
spend tens of millions to lobby and, if necessary, embarrass the
U.S. Congress into giving them an answer.
"We are not pleading. We are demanding our rights," said
Romero, a former island governor who hopes to lead the charge from
his position as Puerto Rico's sole, non-voting representative in
Washington. If the majority of Puerto Ricans vote for statehood,
Congress cannot ignore it, Romero said, or "in the world, they will
be laughed at whenever they talk about democracy."
However ripe the conditions in Puerto Rico, the statehood bid
comes at a difficult time for the American public. With a
lackluster economy, Americans are in the throes of what lawyer Luis
Davila-Colon calls a "nativist rush" - worried about free trade
with Mexico, distressed by porous borders and concerned about the
"The statehood issue is going to force the U.S. to look inward
at a time of great demographic changes in the fabric of our
nation," Davila-Colon said. "It's going to force us to define what
type of nation we want to be in the 21st century."
Davila-Colon predicts that statehood will fall short of an
outright majority, perhaps postponing the confrontation for several
years. But he is one of many who see a civil-rights battle looming
as the statehood movement gathers steam. …