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Beyond Territory
From Hoy
July 25, 2002

By Ana Maria Ramirez

"We are wearing a life jacket ,and we need to unfasten it and throw it to the side if we are going to make the changes we need, " said Juan Rodríguez, president of the New York Committee of the Party for Puerto Rican Independence, yesterday.

As the constitution turns 50, "boricuas," whether they live on the island or in New York, continue to be divided about the future of Puerto Rico’s status.

In the last few decades, many have debated whether Puerto Rico should become independent from the United States, maintain its current situation, or convert into a state.

Rodríguez added that the island’s status needs to be defined. "A consensus of Puerto Rican unity is growing, with the creation of a three party commission."

According to Rodríguez, independence is the best way for Puerto Rico to develop its economy. "We cannot go to France to sign a commercial treaty without the backing of the United States, but we can still attract investments. We aren’t against the United States itself, but are against this colonial position."

But the future of the island Borinquen isn’t only debated in political circles. Puerto Ricans who follow their island’s customs go to the restaurant Taza de Oro, on 15th Street in Manhattan. There they get together each day to enjoy a "mofongo," rice and beans, or coconut pudding, and debate the island’s status.

"During the past 50 years Puerto Rico has developed greatly, but we cannot afford to lose our identity. It is possible to maintain good relations with the U.S. while being independent," said José Fuentes.

Others, like Carmen Rodríguez, who was born in Corozal, said that Puerto Rico should continue as a commonwealth. "We have so many benefits and so much help. I have lived in New York for 48 years and I think that our relationship with the United States is just fine." The smell of coffee filled the restaurant.

Some who back statehood for Puerto Rico, like Carmen Santiago, indicated that the relationship between the U.S. and the island needs to change. "I am against the Navy in Vieques, they are sacrificing people’s lives and hurting the environment."

Luis Rivera left his native land, Arecibo, 50 years ago to come to New York, but with pride he said that he maintains Puerto Rican customs. "We have economic and political advantages as a commonwealth. Right now, everything is just fine."

But not all Puerto Ricans pass on their customs and language to their children. Luz Meléndez indicated that she raised two daughters as a single mom, and "they picked up on the little English I knew. They don’t speak Spanish, because now I have been in New York for 53 years. This country is great for everyone, and I want things to stay as they are."

Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrión said that even on a day of celebrations, we cannot forget the challenges facing Puerto Rico. "The military operations continue, endangering the health and security of Vieques, while the federal authorities have not made any steps towards fulfilling their promise to leave and return the territory in May 2003."

Carrión added that the United States has still not yet approved a project to hold a plebiscite allowing the island’s residents to choose Puerto Rico’s permanent political status.

Senator Olga Méndez agrees with Carrión that Puerto Rico’s status needs to be resolved. "Puerto Ricans on the island can elect a governor, senators, congress people, and a representative in Washington, who may have a voice but has no actual vote. We get more money than other states, but we cannot buy products that aren’t from the United States. This tiny island is the fifth world market for the U.S."

According to Méndez, while the status remains undefined, politics will continue to be schizophrenic. "Puerto Ricans have fought in all of the United States’ wars, and have given their lives for this country, and the residents on the island cannot vote in presidential elections. Congress sometimes passes laws that impact Puerto Rico negatively, and they just have to swallow them."

Translated from Spanish by Erica Pearson

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