Last November, more than 900,000 Puerto Rico voters voiced their discontent with the island’s current U.S. commonwealth status. In a two-part referendum, 61 percent chose statehood as the best option, opposed to independence and sovereign-free association. While this seemed like a sweeping victory for statehood supporters, the vote was not representative of a true majority. In total, 470,000 people left the question of status preference intentionally blank, ultimately keeping Puerto Rico in its suspended state of limbo. However, just this April, the White House’s budget designated $2.5 million to provide the island non-partisan voter education and hold a special plebiscite on its political status.
Julia Torres Barden, an award winning reporter and political advocate, is neutral on Puerto Rico’s status and a staunch supporter of equal voting rights. Barden’s views stem from being a part of the Puerto Rican Siaspora, which has influenced her goals for the community. In 2009, she penned the op-ed for Latina magazine called “An Argument for Puerto Rican Statehood” which she maintains the publication’s chosen title misrepresents her stance on the issue. In the piece she writes, “I believe all boricuas should actively push for island voting rights,” she writes. “Our combined influence could convince members of Congress that they will be held accountable by their Puerto Rican constituents throughout the country.”
Barden represents a nonpartisan viewpoint that contrasts with the independentistas who believe Puerto Rico should be its own sovereign nation.
Puerto Rico has held its commonwealth status since 1952. In 1898, the U.S. acquired the island after a war with Spain. As a result, political activists continue to struggle for independence. Oscar López Rivera, a well-known figure in the struggle for independence, helped create the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) in Chicago. Rivera is most notable for being a political prisoner for 32 years and is currently serving a 70-year sentence at Indiana’s Terre Haute prison for seditious conspiracy and a subsequent conspiracy to escape charge. His supporters believe he is incarcerated simply for his views on Puerto Rico’s status. On the other side, Rivera’s opponents claim that he was a member of a terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a number of bombings during the 1970s.
The PRCC is still active today as an nonprofit organization providing social and cultural resources. Alyssa Villegas, an organizer at its youth center Batey Urbano, shares her views on how colonialism affects Puerto Ricans. “I didn’t understand why colonialism was so important, especially growing up,” she says. “I was like ‘I’m Puerto Rican, but so what?’ I thought Humboldt Park [a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago] was a bad place, and [that its] people were so vicious. This is how being enslaved by a different country can affect the way you think and…not having freedom and self-determination.”
Each year, Batey Urbano hosts the mock jail exhibition, “32 Days for 32 Years,” to raise awareness about Rivera’s imprisonment. The event showcases prominent members of the Chicago Puerto Rican community as they spend 24 hours in the makeshift cell. There they gather petitions to send to President Obama in an effort to free Rivera from prison.
Emma Lozano, a community advocate who volunteered during the 2013 exhibition, has worked on issues affecting both the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities, such as removing the Naval base from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and comprehensive immigration reform, respectively. While Lozano believes independence is the best route, she inferred why some might vote for statehood. “They have a lot of people organized in Puerto Rico and give them perks,” says Lozano. “When I say perks, they are not even good for you…and people are afraid they are going to lose it.” Lozano is referring to the millions of federal food stamp dollars allocated to the island.
For years, the partisanship of Puerto Rican politics has divided an already widely dispersed community. Many proponents from each side agree that the commonwealth status should be an issue of the past and, for the future, the community needs to unite while preserving what makes it so unique.