The Borinqueneers and the Case for Puerto Rico’s Independence

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By: Hector Luis Alamo

My paternal grandfather passed away a few years ago at the ripe old age of 80-something, and although we’d been estranged for about 20 years before his passing, I remember three things about him: that he loved rum and Coke, that hanging in his living room was a framed photo of himself as a young man in the service, and that he was a proud, Puerto Rican-born independentista.

For a while I thought that made my grandfather something of a curiosity, a Puerto Rican who both wanted independence and had proudly serviced the country he wanted independence from. That’s until I was introduced to another man, undoubtedly the most important figure and most iconic leader of Puerto Rico’s independence movement.

Even during his formative years, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos was a man of immense pride and honor. When the U.S. entered the first World War in 1917, the man who would come to be affectionately known as “Don Pedro,” then studying at Harvard, promptly volunteered for the U.S. Army Infantry and was sent to the Reserves, where he organized the Home Guard for his home town of Ponce. He was called into the regular Army and 375th Infantry Regiment, which was strictly reserved for Puerto Ricans of African descent (as deemed by the higher-ups).

As the legend goes, the racism and discrimination Albizu Campos experienced during his service (and later while at Harvard Law School) ultimately convinced him of the unlikelihood of any reconciliation between Puerto Rico and the United States, and that Puerto Rican independence was both a moral, political and economic necessity. The claim is supported by his own actions at the time, becoming deeply involved with the movements for Indian and Irish independence.

Of course, not every Puerto Rican veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces becomes an independentista, and in fact, the Puerto Rican community has a rich history of servicemen who fought for inclusion on and off the battlefield.

The 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Borinqueneers,” are just such servicemen. They served with distinction in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, and though the politics of each member can’t be known for sure, the regiment’s support for inclusion can be presumed by its motto “Honor et Fidelitas” and the fact that their relatives and supporters have been pushing the U.S. Congress for years to award the Borinqueneers a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, next to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

That dream became a reality yesterday when President Obama signed a bill passed on June 10 by Congress. Until now, the Borinqueneers were the only Latina/o unit and the only segregated unit not to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, whose past recipients include the Navajo Code Talkers, the Japanese-American Nisei soldiers, and the Tuskegee Airmen. The honor is well deserved, but like with a resolution to the island’s status question, it’s also long overdue.

The Borinqueneers were men who gave the United States everything and owed it nothing, and the same can be said for the Puerto Rico. As an unincorporated territory of the United States under the plenary powers of Congress, Puerto Rico is the exclusive property of the federal government. People may point to the amount of investment the United States government would have to put into Puerto Rico in order to bring the island up to code, so to speak (it’s twice as poor as the poorest state), but Puerto Rico’s failings are the failings of Washington, which has made Puerto Rico what it is today: crippled and dependent on government largesse.

But there’s no need to put forth an economic argument for independence, which goes as far back as Don Pedro’s own arguments. Let’s take the example of the Borinqueneers themselves. I’m not sure how others view the decades it has taken Congress to recognize the sacrifice and duty embodied by the 65th, but for me, Congress’ feet dragging tells me really all I need to know about any hope for a resolution to the status question in the near future. If it’s taken Congress this long to recognize the valor of the Borinqueneers, who knows how long it will take them to recognize the simple sovereignty of Borinquen?

Speaking at a pro-statehood event in Hartford, Connecticut last month, Brigadier General Victor Pérez said, “I come not to ask, because statehood is mine, whether it comes in three years or 20 more.” Purple Heart recipient Sixto Olmo said he understood that “the struggle for statehood is one that takes time.” The men being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal this month are men of honor, now forced to beg at the U.S.’ table. The people of Puerto Rico are rich in history and culture, now forced to scratch at the United States’ back door to be let in.

When will enough be enough? When will a decades-long wait for a well-deserved honor be viewed for what it is: an offense? When will decades of “commonwealth” status be regarded for what it is: 20th-century colonialism? When will the over 100 years of American democracy on the island of Puerto Rico finally be called by its true name: U.S. imperialism?

I write this not as a Puerto Rican, but as an American – by birth, by right and by virtue. The United States’ subjugation of Puerto Rico is ugly to me as an American and doesn’t agree with my understanding of America’s founding principles of liberty, equality and justice. There is nothing free, equal or just about how the United States has treated Puerto Rico since 1898, and those Americans who support Puerto Rican independence only ask that the United States “be true to what you said on paper,” as Dr. Martin Luther King once put it.

Here the poetic thing for me to write would be that “the time has come” for this or that, but the time has long since come. The time came in 1898, when U.S. troops “liberated” the island from the Spanish Crown. The time came in 1917, when the United States granted the people of Puerto Rico quasi-citizenship, allowing them to die for American interests on foreign battlefields but prohibiting them from voting in American federal elections at home. The time came when the 65th started calling themselves the Borinqueneers and when Operation Bootstrap destroyed the Puerto Rican economy and way of life. The time came when Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos told us it had come. The time came when the federal government tortured him and sterilized millions of Puerto Rican women. The time came when they arrested Oscar López Rivera and decided to make him a political prisoner for 33 years and counting (though the U.S. government flatly denies having political prisoners at all).

So, as I said, the time has long since come. The Borinqueneers were already men of honor and valor, regardless of whether the U.S. Congress had recognized it or not. And the people of Puerto Rico already have sovereignty, regardless of whether Congress grants them it or not. It’s only up to Puerto Ricans to claim their rights.

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