Puerto Rican organizations in Chicago call for self-determination of Puerto Rico



Voters use booths to mark their ballots for the general election at a polling center set up at the Rafael Labra School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

The future status of Puerto Rico has been an ongoing debate in Congress. Puerto Rico has conducted six non-binding referendums with the goal to address their political status. Puerto Rico has been a territorial property of the U.S. since the Spanish-American war in 1898. 

In the 2020 referendum Puerto Ricans, who refer to themselves as “Boricuas,” voted on a non-binding referendum that asked the question, “should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted as a U.S state?”

“I think many people in power would like for a decision to be made soon,” said Xiomara Rodriguez, associate director of the digital presence initiative for Chicago’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center. “However, I hope that it won’t be made soon, because to me it signals a true lack of process to involve all voices.” 

A bill seeking to address the future status of Puerto Rico was introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-NY., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY. The bill, The Self-Determination Act, is meant to facilitate and legitimize referenda regarding the island’s territorial status. Some options that have been proposed include statehood, independence, and free association with the U.S.  —  an option in which Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation while still relying on the U.S. for defense and some financial assistance.

Delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters will be responsible for coming up with long-term solutions for the proposed territorial status.

“The best path forward I see is the Puerto Rican Self Determination Act,” said Joshua Smyser-DeLeon, host of Paseo Podcast, a Chicago-based podcast that highlights the stories of the Puerto Rican community in the Chicago Diaspora and beyond. “It is more democratic, puts all options on the table other than Puerto Rico’s current status, and calls for a convention that would bring Boricuas from the island and the diaspora together to discuss the best path forward for la Isla (the island).”

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Rep. Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s non-voting members of Congress, introduced another statehood of Puerto Rican statehood bill to Congress on March 2, 2021.

The bill was introduced as a response to a non-binding referendum that Puerto Ricans voted on in the gubernatorial elections of 2020.

“I think Democrats really want [Puerto Rico] to become a state, because they believe that will provide the party more political power,” Rodriguez said. “However, if Puerto Rico became a state this would also require the U.S. to take more responsibility in addressing the reality on the island.”

The territory suffers from widespread poverty, which has been exacerbated by the destruction from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Similar to the statehood bill introduced for Puerto Rico, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C, introduced a bill for the statehood of D.C. The only difference between both bills is that the D.C. statehood bill passed for the first time in Congress in January 2020.

Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S territory means that federal aid is limited, even as they continue to face the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. 

The past few years have emphasized the sincere need to question the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S,” Smyser-DeLeon said. “Recent examples include lack of proper aid after Hurricanes Maria and Irma and constant earthquakes.”

The Biden administration plans to release $1.3 billion in aid funding to help Puerto Rico with the devastation after Hurricane Maria. The administration is also starting to remove restrictions placed by the Trump administration on another $4.9 billion in aid for Puerto Rico, with former President Donald Trump claiming the island’s leadership was either too incompetent or too corrupt to spend it properly.

According to the State Elections Commission website, 52 percent of voters said they would like to be part of the U.S. as a state and the other 47 percent said they are against it.

“The referendum is not representative of the entire voter population of the island,” said Jessie Fuentes of The Puerto Rican Agenda, a Chicago organization made of Puerto Rican Leaders ensuring the self-determination of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and throughout the diaspora through policy and advocacy. 

The voting turnout of Puerto Rico was 2,355,895 registered voters in the 2020 election, and from those voters only about half voted on the referendum. 

“The reality is that all people of Puerto Rico have not spoken,” Fuentes said. “There is a sizable number of Puerto Ricans who did not come out to vote for the referendum or do not fill out that part of the ballot because they are well aware that the referendum is non-binding. So people have lost faith even giving their opinion of what the future of Puerto Rico should be.” 

Despite the referendum suggesting a majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood, that has not necessarily been the case throughout the island’s history as a U.S. territory. To pass the referendum for statehood would be ignoring the attempt of independence known as the Puerto Rican Nationalist Revolts of the 1950s. The protests were led by President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Don Pedro Albizu Campos.

The reason for protest was due to lack of inclusivity in the 1952 referendum that did not offer any option to vote in favor of independence or statehood. Instead the referendum proposed the option of the continuation of colonial status or the status of commonwealth. Similar issues are seen in the 2020 referendum that only gave a yes or no option if Puerto Rico should become a state.

In Chicago, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center has hosted multiple watch parties for the presenting of the bills at the ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo and was a part of the Self Determination online rally. 

“These events have gone over really well in the Chicago Puerto Rican community,” Rodriguez said. “I think largely because the bill does not call for any one status option.” 

“The problem with the referendums is layered,” Smyser-DeLeon said. “Congress is not obligated to act out whatever the outcome of the vote is. Past referendums have failed to show true consensus on what Puerto Ricans view as the best to address Puerto Rico’s colonial status.”

Congress has stepped in to provide solutions in regards to the referendum by offering other bills, but another underlying factor is the colonial status of Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Ricans are dependent on aid from the United States,” Rodriguez said. “Out of fear, many Puerto Ricans favor statehood, because they are afraid to lose their citizenship.”