For the first time, Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States since 1898, approved a referendum in Tuesday’s election to become the nation’s 51st state. Puerto Ricans, including those living in western Massachusetts, are bitterly divided over the island’s political status, and even over the reported results of the referendum.
The ballot in Puerto Rico contained two questions on the territory’s status. One asked whether voters were satisfied with the current status as a US territory. A solid majority of 54% responded ‘no.’ The second question offered voters three options of an alternate political status: statehood, ‘sovereign free association’ – which would grant the island more autonomy, or full-fledged independence. Statehood received 61%, with nearly 800,000 votes, while the other options got fewer votes. But over 400,000 voters chose to leave the question blank. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans voted the current statehood-supporting governor out of office, in favor of a governor who will not likely push for statehood.
Martin Espada, a poet and professor of English at UMass Amherst, says, including blank ballots leaves only 45% in favor of statehood.
“That is not a majority obviously, it does not reflect the will of the people or a mandate from the island for statehood.”
But because statehood received the majority of votes, the US Congress now has the authority to consider admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state. Puerto Ricans in western Massachusetts are divided over what that would mean for the territory.
Agma Sweeney-Parrilla, an aide to Congressman John Olver and a Westfield City Councilor, says she favors statehood, but questions whether the US would allow Puerto Rico to remain bilingual or if it would require Puerto Ricans to speak English. She says there’s no precedent for a bilingual state accepted into the union.
“It would be quite revolutionary if Puerto Rico became a state given the conditions and the precedence of how other areas have become states.”
Georgie Delgado, a senior at Hampshire College who grew up in Puerto Rico, says he’s gone back and forth over the island’s political status. He says he thinks if Puerto Rico became a state, it would maintain its national identity.
“I believe it would be very possible for Puerto Rican’s to maintain a sense of where they’re from and what has kept them going throughout the years, if they became a state, and so i think statehood is the option to pursue.”
Delgado also says younger Puerto Ricans have been more exposed to North American media and may be more willing to accept formal inclusion in the US.
But Martin Espada says a transition to independence has not been offered as a viable option on referendums, instead, he says, independence is presented as an abrupt change.
“It’s like being told you’re going to be dumped in the ocean tomorrow.”
Espada says the United States is indebted to Puerto Rico for its people and natural resources, and owes it an economic transition to independence.
“I think a form of reparation is due, the kind of reparation that would economically subsidize a decolonization and a transition to independence as a republic, where people would have full democratic rights. Certainly things cannot remain as they are.”
Ultimately the decision over Puerto Rico’s future as a state is now in congress’ hands, but Puerto Ricans in western Massachusetts doubt whether Legislators will choose to address it in the near future.