President Trump’s recent comments on Puerto Rico have brought its economic struggles and status back to the forefront of American consciousness. This small island in the Caribbean stays mostly out of the mind of mainland Americans. Though it may be rich in history and culture, the name Puerto Rico (rich port) is an ironic mockery in the context of its current condition. Puerto Rico’s current state merits a reaction of aid and empathy, yet President Trump’s tweets and words were anything but. Instead, they seemed the most inopportune. Trump’s tweets highlighted the temporary nature of military aid and redirected attention towards the economic issues the isle has faced over the past couple years. I fear a desensitizing effect towards those in crisis, the poor and the oppressed, will result from Trump’s tweets. Perhaps we will grow to ignore him, but by association that also means ignoring the situations he wrongly portrays. This is a time to defend history, reject elitist attitudes and defend the marginalized; it is a time to review the facts—and I do not mean the alternative ones.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. Territory right before the dawn of the twentieth century. It would take 19 years until Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship. It is no mistake that this citizenship was given in 1917 just before the United States entered World War I. The possession of Puerto Rico gave the United States a foothold in the Caribbean and provided soldiers. The granting of citizenship was a strategic move more than a recognition of rightful American rights. In light of recent events, it has become even more apparent that Puerto Ricans hold second-class citizenship.
The issue with Puerto Rican citizenship is that it reinforces the disenfranchisement of peoples residing on the isle. Puerto Rico is officially a commonwealth but essentially ruled like a colony and known by some as the world’s oldest colony. Though the differences in citizenship are many there are two that stand out: a difference in political right from most mainland residing Americans and a difference in civil rights. This discrepancy in political rights manifests itself in the absence of the right to vote for president or vice-president of the United States. This divergence in civil rights has to do with the placing of inalienable rights and major governmental decisions in the hands of Congress. This means that at any moment Congress can pass a bill affecting Puerto Ricans without their input. Furthermore, they possess the power to nullify the citizenship of a territory by legislation—a fear that no native born citizen has to face. The recurrent paramount issue of generating a more equal citizenship lies in whether the variations that breach the ideal serve to elevate the peoples in question or subordinate, subdue and suppress them, through the mirage afforded by a second class citizenship.
President Trump’s concept of American citizens in Puerto Rico is upheld by the popular nationalist social consciousness and its ideas of American identity. Each person in the United States and especially American citizens have rights which are protected by the founding documents of this country. Nevertheless, there is a developing consciousness that grounds American identity in ethnic characteristics rather than principles of liberty and progress. “America First,” people cry, but is it really America if it is restricted to a select few who represent nothing but an outdated stereotype? The dynamic nature of current linguistic and physiological diversity are challenging the deep-rooted depiction of American Identity. Our aversion to change must not blind our eyes to current humanitarian and economic issues. At this time, locations in Florida and Texas are receiving aid much more readily than Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, the economic struggles, governmental systems of corruption and denial of rights existed before the Hurricane Maria. The storm simply has been a catalyst quickening and drawing attention to the urgency and ruinous situation.
Puerto Rico needs aid right now. We must seek understanding and educate ourselves on issues of citizenship, American identity and Puerto Rican civil rights in particular. We must seek to construct a fluid American identity that allows diverse representation. Lastly, we cannot wait until we find ourselves affected to defend those who are oppressed by our government. After all, the rejection of those in Puerto Rico reinforces the accepted conception of American identity, and its obsolete colonialist and imperialist foundations. We are not discussing political abuses and failed rescue efforts from governments halfway across the world. We are not talking only about Puerto Ricans, but Americans. To ignore Puerto Rico, to mentally dissociate it from our empathies whether for ethnic or geographic reasons, is to set a precedent that even in modern America, no citizen’s rights are sacred and inviolable.