Statehood Issue Stirs Passions About Puerto Rican Identity

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, Census/Demographics, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2013-03-20 01:23Z by Steven

Statehood Issue Stirs Passions About Puerto Rican Identity

Puerto Rico: Unsettled Territory
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Arizona State University

Kailey Latham
Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — What does it mean to be Puerto Rican?

For over 500 years, the people of this island have struggled with the answer to that question. This November, the question will follow them into the voting booth.

As the rest of the United States goes to the polls to elect a new president, the big issue for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens but can’t vote for president unless they live in a U.S. state, is whether to vote for a change in their territorial status. They can decide to remain as they are, become an independent nation, or apply to become the 51st U.S. state. If statehood wins at the polls Congress will eventually have to decide Puerto Rico’s political fate.

But much more than meets the eye rides on the vote. The question on the ballot goes to the heart of what it means to be Puerto Rican. A question that has hung over the island since the U.S. acquired it in 1890.

These days, citizenship links Puerto Ricans to the United States on paper but culture and history separate the two.

“Puerto Rico is not a nation-state, not an independent … country, but still it has its own history, language, territory, culture and autonomy,” said Jorge Duany, a dean and anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. “And perhaps more importantly, the awareness people do have of being separate from other people of the world, including the United States.”…

…Puerto Rican Racial Identity and the U.S. Paradigm

Under the leadership of Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico in 1960 removed the racial identification question from the territory’s version of the U.S. census. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Puerto Rico Planning Board worked together to develop a specific census that met the needs of the territory, and did not include stateside topics such as race and Hispanic origin.

Professor Juan Manuel Carrion, from the University of Puerto Rico, says that this change is representative of a traditional view about race on the island.

“The governments of Puerto Rico and of the Popular Democratic Party defended that on the idea that we are all Puerto Rican here, we don’t make distinctions about race,” Manuel said.

The race question remained off the Puerto Rican version of the census until 2000, when the Puerto Rican government sent a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau requesting to receive the same decennial census that is distributed within the continental United States.

However, the reinstatement of this question has posed some challenges because racial categories in the United States are not reflective of the racial identities used in Puerto Rico.

In 2010, approximately 76 percent of the Puerto Rican population identified as ‘white’ and 12.4 percent identified as ‘black.’

“If you took the more recent census statistics seriously, Puerto Rico would look more like a Scandinavian country than a Caribbean country in terms of the large proportion of people that have African origin and are not reflected in the census,” Duany said.

Milagros Denis-Rosario, a professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York, says that the racial identification question does not provide Puerto Ricans on the island the flexibility to identify using the terms they are familiar with.

“There are race categories in Puerto Rico, but people self-define,” she said. “It’s not like the U.S., like a binary system where you are black or white. But on the island, there is this flexibility.”

Manuel agrees, saying that race is more than black and white in Puerto Rico; it is about the shades in between.

“According to North American criteria, all Puerto Ricans would be black no matter how light their skins are,” Manuel said.

Duany says that because the census has been translated from the U.S. version it has created a big issue for Puerto Ricans who may not understand where they fit in.

“Every 10 years, Puerto Ricans get their census questionnaire and they have to figure out exactly how to fill out the form,” he said.

Vasquez, the student from the University of Sacred Heart, says that racial distinctions in Puerto Rico are not as important as they are in the United States. He feels that the census is an effort to make Puerto Ricans fit within a mold that they never came from.

“All of this really boils down to is that we don’t give such an importance to race, because at the end of the day we are all Puertoriquenos,” Vasquez said. “I don’t care what your color is, or where you come from. What I care about is that we have a common cultural background.”

Vasquez believes that Puerto Rico’s mixed heritage is the reason why racial differences are not a concern for the Puerto Rican people.

“Even from within the family nucleus we are always sharing space with someone that looks different, and when you are sharing space with someone that looks different than you, those differences start melting away and you don’t see them anymore,” he said.

Joglar Burrowes, the student from the University of Puerto Rico, agrees as she has witnessed these sentiments in her own family.

“I am white, but my grandparents are more dark,” Joglar said. “They are almost black. It is almost like we are not very defined. I may look white, but I don’t feel like it.

Manuel says the same racial pride you find in the United States cannot be found in Puerto Rico.

“If you think that is something that should be cultivated at least for some racial categories, then the situation in Puerto Rico is not very likeable,” he said.

While Barack Obama in 2008 made history as America’s first black president, Luis Lopez Salgado, a senior at the University of Puerto Rico, says the President wouldn’t necessarily be considered black in Puerto Rico.

“Here, he wouldn’t necessarily be deemed black,” Lopez said. “He would be called mixed race, because he is mixed race. If he were competing for governor here, there wouldn’t be that much attention paid to his racial identity.”

Lopez says that the issue of race on the census is one huge problem without a solution.

“I think it’s kind of absurd to ask people to identify themselves,” he said. “It’s very a personal thing how you identify yourself, and it should be left up to the person. Not fill out whatever category you think because what you think you are may not even be in those categories.”

With all of Puerto Rico’s challenges in defining identity, the upcoming election season has added extra pressure on the people of this nation to let the world know exactly who they are…

Read the entire article here.

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