Even two decades after the end of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico’s status remained unsettled. Puerto Rico was neither a sovereign state nor a nation-state. Although the Foraker Act of 1900 granted Puerto Rican citizenship to the inhabitants of the Island, that citizenship was not recognized outside of Puerto Rico. This was called “natural citizenship”
. Unlike the other immigrants, when Puerto Ricans moved to the United States, they did not have any citizenship to renounce in order to receive the U.S. Citizenship.
Even the path to the Foraker Act was fraught with complexity. Prior to the Spanish American War, in 1869, the people of Puerto Rico were finally granted Spanish Citizenship after almost 400 years of Spanish rule. However, in November of 1898, things changed again. On the verge of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was waiting for Spain to grant the autonomous status to the Island. At that time, the elites in Puerto Rico were facing a crisis of national identity. Caught between the Spanish and Creole identity, the struggle became heated. The
(those born in Spain) had a social status that was much more prestigious than the
(those born in the Island of Spanish/European descent). Politically, they were also divided, with different perspectives on the U.S. invasion and other ideological differences. These differences would be played out in future fights over the island’s political future.
The Treaty of Paris and the Spanish citizenship:
When the American and the Spanish Commissioners gathered in Paris on December 1898 to discuss the terms of the Spanish-American War, they did so without any representation from Puerto Rico, Guam or the Philippines. The agreement allowed the United States to buy Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam for twenty million dollars. As a result of the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Ricans were stripped of their Spanish Citizenship despite the Spanish Commissioners’ efforts to maintain it.
The decision did not extend to the “peninsulares” but applied only to the population born in Spain’s possessions. It was now up to the U.S. Congress to decide the civil rights and the political status of the population of Puerto Rico. With little consideration for the people in the Island, Puerto Rico was considered “war booty” and was treated not as an acquired territory, but rather as a possession. In the next few years, the United States established a military government and started a brutal process of assimilation, with repercussions for any Puerto Rican official who opposed the military rule.
The organic acts of 1900 and 1917:
The military occupation lasted for two years, until U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act on April 12, 1900. The Act resolved many issues associated with governing the island and established a form of a government very much like a colonial protectorate. The U.S. President appointed the Governor and his Executive Council. The Executive Council was made of 11 members; five were Puerto Ricans, and six were from United States. The Foraker Act also allowed the creation of a legislative body (House of Delegates) made up of 35 elected members. Besides, the Act also granted Puerto Ricans the right to have an elected representative in Washington D.C.
Ignoring the trading agreements Puerto Rico had before the war, the U.S. put in place economic rules to benefit the U.S. economy. Trading with other countries was prohibited, and the currency was devalued and replaced by the U.S. dollar. The Island’s political status changed. It became an “Unincorporated Territory” under the protection of the U.S. Hence, Puerto Rico belonged to the United States, but it was not a part of it. The U.S. Constitution did not protect Puerto Ricans, whom the Act deemed citizens of Puerto Rico and not citizens of the U.S.
Jacqueline Font-Guzman suggests that “unincorporated” territory is another way of saying unorganized territory, meaning that federalism protections would not apply as they do for the states.
The process of granting U.S. Citizenship proved to be very a complex issue for Puerto Ricans. Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act in 1917, granting more governing powers to Puerto Rico and conferring U.S. Citizenship to Puerto Ricans.
Ironically, conferring citizenship to Puerto Ricans represented a step back in the quest for self-determination. The U.S. granted the extension of the U.S Citizenship to Puerto Ricans to discourage any independence movements and lessen the chances of Puerto Rico becoming a sovereign nation.
Nonetheless, the quest for self-determination was in the minds of the nationalist elites. The autonomist elites insisted on either autonomy or independence and were unenthusiastic about Congress’ policies pertaining to U.S. territories. Luis Muñoz Rivera, the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico and leader of the Partido Autonomista (Autonomist Party), thought that the grant of U.S. citizenship would deter the islanders’ efforts for independence. Dissenters like Luis Muñoz Rivera asked the Congress to postpone the grant of U.S. citizenship. Political activists and
thought that Jones Act of 1917 granted the U.S citizenship in a very “inelegant” way, as José Trías Monge explains: “The citizenship was imposed with little regard to the people whom the Americans had humiliated and considered unfit to self-govern. The citizenship reminded Puerto Rico that the road to independence or statehood was far away. It turned Puerto Rico into an increasingly American colony, on the way to self-government, but always under the sovereignty of the United States.”
A Milestone in Self-Governing: P.R. Constitution
The complexity of Puerto Rico’s legal status was problematic not only within its territory but in the United States as well. Its sociocultural implications were even more important than its legal ones. The Puerto Rican national identity was sometimes lost in the process. Nevertheless, the Constitution of 1952 marked a milestone in the quest for self-determination.
With the growth of the national and the independence movements, the desire for recognition as a nation grew, raising complex and fraught legal questions. In 1997 Juan Mari Bras, a proponent of the Independent Movement renounced his U.S. Citizenship at the Embassy of Venezuela. Upon return to Puerto Rico, Juan Mari Bras was not able to vote in Puerto Rico’s elections since he had renounced his U.S. Citizenship. After many proceedings, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that citizens of Puerto Rico must be issued Certificates of Citizenship. As a result, and based on the case of Juan Mari Bras (P.R. Sec. of Just. #06-126B), Puerto Ricans who renounce their U.S citizenship are able to vote in Puerto Rico’s local elections.
Yet, to better understand why the U.S Citizenship was considered a contested political status, one must understand the Constitution of Puerto Rico and its governing powers. More importantly, one needs to fathom what the Constitution meant for Puerto Rico, as well as its possibilities and limitations. Ratified in 1952, the Constitution of Puerto Rico was a comprehensive packet of self-governing laws. It attributed a great deal of powers to the Puerto Rican people. It did in fact enable the people to enjoy basic civil rights within their territory in the local elections processes for the legislative and the executive branches. The Constitution had included an extended bill of rights that was custom made for Puerto Rico. The Island’s connection to the United States is made clear in the preamble of the Constitution, which implies that the United States is the ruling body, which has sovereignty over Puerto Rico.
In a nutshell, the union with the U.S. limits Puerto Rico’s power. In fact, in Spanish the equivalent of Puerto Rico’s status is “Estado Libre Asociado,” which literally translates to “Free State Associated with the United States.” Nevertheless, the word “free” does not imply that Puerto Rico is independent, but rather a non-occupied territory. Unlike the federal states, the union with Puerto Rico is a loosely coupled system: The Island is a political entity with self-governing laws and suffrage rights in local elections. Yet nothing like the states, the general elections do not extend to the people in Puerto Rico, and the territory’s representative in the U.S. Congress does not have any voting power. On the other hand, just like the states, Puerto Rico lacks sovereignty and cannot sign treaties or trade agreements. These powers still belong to the Federal Government.
Between a State and an Unincorporated Territory: Divided Loyalties
Puerto Rico’s status has progressed since 1898, but Puerto Rico has never achieved independence. The two organic acts of 1900 and 1917 have increased the self-governing powers of Puerto Rico systematically. The Constitution of 1952 did not change Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of U.S. Ultimately, Congress still held the power over Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s unusual status has led to ambivalence, division, and debate both on the Island and on the continental U.S. This disagreement stems from the complexity of Puerto Rico’s political status, which is at the cusp between a state and a territory. For example, some in the United States believe that Puerto Ricans benefit from this status economically and do not pay their fair share. While some islanders feel that the status-quo works for the moment, others have taken a pro union stance. Even in the early days, some advocates emphasized the importance of “gratitude” to the United States because they believed that the union would help bring about more democracy and respect for human rights that did not exist under the Spanish rule.
The argument has changed over time. Nowadays, some think that U.S. Citizenship is nothing but a mere privilege for Puerto Ricans. For others, mostly scholars and nationalism advocates, the commonwealth status is a way to disenfranchise Puerto Ricans, or at least limit their voting rights.
These arguments over the status of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. have long been bound up with the internal governance of the Island itself. In 1951, the Public Act 600 initiated the process of the writing of the Constitution.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proposal for the Constitution came at the same time as the nationalist movements had grown and the sentiments for independence were strengthened as well.
The Federal Government authorized Puerto Rico to start the drafting of a Constitution under the condition that the territory status of Puerto Rico remains the same. Two years later, after constant drafting and much congressional support, the Public 82-447 allowed Puerto Rico a more robust form of self-governance. Roughly 35 years after the Jones Act, Public Act 82-447 acknowledged that Puerto Rico should have a local government elected by its people, just like other mature democracies. After Congress approved the Constitution in 1952, the flag -- once a separatist flag-- was legally recognized as a symbol of the nation. In addition, a new anthem of the Commonwealth was also recognized, along with the Law #2, signed by the first elected Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. The anthem, known as “La Borinqueña,” tapped into powerful nationalist feelings display and played a role in the process of self-identification process.
None of these issues has been laid to rest. The important question of representation remains after almost one hundred years of incorporation into the United States’ political system. The Puerto Rican community has yet to become more represented nationally and at the federal level. It is not surprising that Puerto Ricans feel divided loyalties. Puerto Ricans are better able to influence U.S. policies when they are in the territorial U.S., where their citizenship allows them to vote, than in Puerto Rico, where their votes do not count. This political contradiction is mirrored by the challenges of integration in a world where economic opportunities are more plentiful in the U.S. than on the Island. Many Puerto Ricans in the U.S. feel divided loyalties, with strong ties to the island but civic status and economic opportunity in the continental U.S. It may be that that this political and cultural binary places a roadblock in the integration process. Puerto Ricans have realized that their impact on the democratic processes will be greater in the mainland U.S. than on the insular election process, which excludes them from voting for representation in the Federal Government. Possibly that is why many Puerto Ricans show loyalty to both the United States and Puerto Rico. Many have chosen to participate in the U.S. democracy. Perhaps they have done so for pragmatic reasons, making a choice about participating in the U.S. democracy despite encountering racism and prejudice, rather than remaining on the Island, where there are fewer economic opportunities and where they are not fully represented.
Civil rights activists and dissenters in the late sixties successfully advocated for inclusion of Puerto Ricans and other Latino minority groups in the Voting Act of 1965.
Although Puerto Ricans did not experience the extreme racial exclusions from the voting process such as what African-Americans had experienced in the Southern states, language barriers impaired their participation as qualified voters. Puerto Rican civil rights activists in New York brought forward a lawsuit challenging the use of English ballots in an overwhelmingly Puerto Rican community. They argued it was the equivalent of a literacy test, which disqualified qualified voters because of the language barriers. While the amendment to the Voting Rights Act was initially resisted for fear of change, it eventually won approval in both houses of the Congress. The great road of political inclusion of the Puerto Ricans in the American society in the last seventy years or more has been a slow but steady progress. Nevertheless, it has been a struggle for self-determination and self-governing powers.
In conclusion, the selection of the themes discussed in this unit are in alignment with the seminar on Citizenship, Identity, and Democracy and I hope to have drawn together a variety of topics that would interest the teachers of Spanish and Social Studies at a Middle or High School level. I hope that the complex history of the Island’s relationship to the United States may mirror, or at least help explain, the attitudes of some of my students and their families toward their dual status as Puerto Ricans and U.S. citizens. The research part and the designing of the unit have helped me shed light on many issues about the history of Puerto Rico.