If Puerto Ricans are Americans, why doesn’t our government provide the same level of aid to our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters? 

Curious about this, I began to research the history of the U.S. involvement in Puerto Rico and it became clear that Puerto Ricans are America’s second-class citizens. According to studies, if I were in a room with 10 American adults, only five of them would know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. This number decreases, the younger people are. 

This statistic reminded me of a time when my mom, shortly after Hurricane Maria, consulted a lawyer about a family matter only to discover that the lawyer thought my aunt, a resident of Puerto Rico, was not a citizen by virtue of being Puerto Rican — my mom fired the lawyer, educating him in the process. I was shocked that someone who went to law school and is supposed to understand the Constitution and the laws of our country did not know something so basic. The reality is that we don’t learn Puerto Rican history, instead our government has actively participated in trying to stamp it out. 

Puerto Rico first became a part of the U.S. in 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam (another U.S. territory), the Philippines, and Cuba to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris. During its first 50 years of occupation, Puerto Rico was a classic colony, characterized by the exploitation of its natural resources, namely sugar. The next 60 years saw rapid industrialization on the island with increasingly cheap labor and tax exemptions, and the island became militarized.  

School Begins by Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, January 25, 1899. Courtesy: Keppler & Schwarzmann

Since the early 2000s, government loans have been used to help the country remain afloat, as manufacturing jobs left the island. Government services were dismantled or privatized, and the professional classes migrated off the island, leaving many Puerto Ricans without access to doctors and other professionals that once lived there. Congress eventually became the direct ruler over the affairs of the island. This has left Puerto Rico dependent on the U.S. for its existence, and our government has continually failed them in return. 

In 2015, two years before Maria, Puerto Rico defaulted a $72 billion debt, the largest bankruptcy by a local government in U.S. history. This was largely due to tax exemptions that were put in place to draw U.S. firms to the island. Eventually, these firms fled the island in search of cheaper labor. Corporations that manufactured chemicals, electronics, scientific equipment, and pharmaceuticals stayed, finding tax loopholes permitting them to deprive Puerto Rico of an important tax base and further exploit the island. 

While in the 1970s, Puerto Rico had one of the highest productivity levels in the world and accounted for 40 percent of all U.S. profit in Latin America. Today, Puerto Rico is one of the poorest places in Latin America.

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Not only is Puerto Rico poorer than all of the U.S. states — with 45 percent of its residents living below the poverty line — but Puerto Ricans also pay more for goods. Puerto Rican residents pay 25 percent more than mainlanders for imported goods due to higher transportation costs. This is due in part to the Jones Act, a law that requires all goods shipped to Puerto Rico to be made only on U.S.-made boats, staffed by U.S. crews and coming from U.S. ports. Because this obscure law is meant to protect U.S. shipping, it often doubles and triples the costs of goods. The Jones Act also resulted in a loss of 10-20 percent of aid after Hurricane Maria because only ships compliant with the Jones Act could deliver goods to the island. 

Access to justice is also an issue for Puerto Rico. While local courts operate in Spanish, English is the required language for federal courts. This means that only those that speak English can serve on federal juries. Costs are higher in federal courts, as all documents must be translated into English. All federal appeals in Puerto Rico are handled on the mainland in Boston, making it even harder for litigants. 

Our courts see Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, as well. Recently, The Supreme Court ruled that residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories cannot receive Supplemental Security Income if they live on the island, but can if they are living in the 50 states, denying Puerto Ricans $1.8 billion in much-needed federal money.  

While Puerto Rico cannot share in some of the benefits that mainlanders receive, they shoulder an unequal burden when it comes to the military.  At one point, 14 percent of the island’s territory was occupied by the U.S. military. This only recently changed after decades-long protests over their exposure to dangerous chemicals left behind by the military. Puerto Ricans have also represented the U.S. in unequal numbers in wars, suffering the second-highest casualty rate in Korea (after Hawaii). It’s important to note that Puerto Ricans do not have a vote in Congress and do not have a say in declaring any of these wars.

Not only does Puerto Rico not have a vote in Congress, but its residents also have no vote on federal matters if they live on the island. This is not the case for Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland. I was shocked when I learned, the first time my Puerto Rican cousins were able to vote in a Federal election was when they moved to the mainland for college.

Puerto Ricans have also served as our nation’s guinea pigs. In the 1950s, newly developed birth control pills were tested on Puerto Rican women and coerced into forced sterilization. This resulted in one-third of Puerto Rican women being sterilized. The U.S. also attempted to stamp out the Spanish language, as well as its Puerto Rican heritage, on the island in a multi-year educational experiment that failed miserably. In a rebuke of these measures, movements to embrace Puerto Rican heritage and culture rose up and persist today. 

Puerto Ricans will continue to be second-class citizens unless something changes. Although there is no perfect solution to the irreversible damage committed, there are a few options for the future of the island. 

Statehood is one option, though unlikely, as having a majority of Congress voting to turn the Spanish-speaking island is unlikely in today’s political climate. Another option is independence, which is also complex since some Puerto Ricans want to keep their U.S. citizenship. The U.S. has also handicapped the island in such a way that independence for Puerto Rico would mean a complete economic collapse, as the island relies heavily on the U.S. 

The most likely solution is Puerto Rico becoming an associated republic or a “republica asociada,” with a 25-year agreement. This would allow Puerto Rico to be a distinct nation with the right to “sovereignty and self-government.” It would ensure that the U.S. and Puerto Rico maintain a “close and mutually beneficial relationship in a voluntary association.” This would allow Puerto Rico to conduct its own international affairs, give dual American and Puerto Rican citizenship to those born on the island, provide a common market between both nations, allow Puerto Rico to negotiate the U.S. military presence on the island, give Puerto Rico the ability to create foreign investment incentives to replace tax exemptions, and to revoke the maritime monopoly on Puerto Rican shipping. 

Today, more than half of Puerto Ricans live and work on the mainland. Puerto Ricans are Americans, and we have a responsibility to take care of the island and care for our citizens there. Puerto Rico has been the U.S.’s colonial project for 124 years. It’s time we allowed them to decide their fate and to live up to our promise to all citizens — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Galicia Stack Lozano is a Junior in high school in San Francisco. She has a Puerto Rican mother and an Irish father. 

Part 1 of this commentary was published in our March 23, 2023 issue.