This past week was the first Fourth of July I ever spent in the continental United States–meaning it’s reasonable to believe I’ve spent previous Independence Days in a territory, or outside the U.S. altogether. That assumption is right. I wouldn’t say celebrating it in Miami is particularly representative of how (non-immigrant, particularly non-Hispanic) Americans tend to get it done. The streets are littered with the American flag’s red, white and blue, yes, but the case is that it’s also littered with Cuba’s, the Dominican Republic’s, Costa Rica’s, Chile’s, Haiti’s, Puerto Rico’s same colors. The list goes on, and that’s not even counting the yellows and greens that can also be seen. I overheard a group of young Latinas singing their accented rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” on the metro, and everything was nice for a moment.
Growing up, I can recall the limitless times I grew frustrated at the fact that I could only speak to/about my family members in Spanish- something that back then seemed a roadblock to progressing to my ultimate, American self as a white-passing Latina. Since then, I’ve realized that this was actually an anchor tied to the language of my culture that many members of minority groups like mine cannot afford in the face of already-massive Americanization efforts. Up until an embarrassingly recent part of my life, salsa music seemed archaic, roasting a whole pig during Christmas celebrations seemed explicitly primitive, and all the media I consumed was Anglophone. Even if it was run by Cuban immigrants and taught bilingually, my high school in Puerto Rico even had the word “American” in its name.
There’s a point I always like to make when I talk about where I come from, and it is that Puerto Rico lives a contradictory identity–or at least in the eyes of those outside the island. To the rest of Latin America, we are American, given our passports, the presumption we can all speak English (we can’t), and our lack of an independence date. To the United States, it is clear that Puerto Ricans are held as non-American both socially and in the eyes of the law. The fact Puerto Rico’s limbo-colonial status had its centennial just this past year should not be seen as a testament to the expansion of democratic rights that mainstream American narratives produce.
My intention is that maybe, just maybe if I tell enough people what it is like to be Puerto Rican in America, someone will actually care about the never-ending burdens such an existence brings forth.
When I say that The United States of America holds Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, I refer to the 101 years of institutional and societal disenfranchisement we’ve faced. It’s not just me complaining that most Americans cannot locate our island on the map. This is evidenced particularly the justification for (until today) withholding our right to vote and to Congressional representation due to the 1901 Downes v. Bidwell Supreme court ruling that reasoned Puerto Rico and the other new territories were “inhabited by alien races,” and that so governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible”.
If that isn’t enough, consider the fact 6,000 people died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the federal death count is less than 100. And remember that the one reason we were given American citizenship was so the U.S. could draft us into World War I and all consequential armed conflicts. To this very day, the United States holds the power to “eject Puerto Rico” if it so desires. There is NO political channel to contest any of this; our U.N. representation was removed in the mid-1900’s, and we have a single non-voting member in the House of Representatives for a nation of 3.5 million AMERICAN CITIZENS, and tragically, the American public’s concern is usually directed at the impact these injustices have on their Spring Break plans rather than on their fellow citizens.
When I think back to all the years I spent rejecting my own culture in favor of one that ignores my people to the point of dehumanization, I mourn. Grief cannot exert the same power, the same weight on my chest that I feel knowing that I existed as a testament to the impending eradication of a culture that far precedes the first Fourth of July celebration.
It is unsettling to among people that accept these conditions, attributing justice to the legal system that again and again puts its own citizens on the chopping block over outdated and colonial notions of identity and hierarchies (see: this week’s White House establishment of a “Denaturalization” Task Force). It is heartbreaking to see my parents break down whenever something bad enough happens to us that American media gives us a thirty-second bit of news coverage. It is a trauma to be Puerto Rican.