Puerto Rico is testing us

Last week, in news that everyone ignored because everyone always ignores Puerto Rico, the voters passed a referendum backing statehood for the first time in history. Maybe. Sort of. It’s complicated. But it’s one of those things I never quite expected to see, and it comes at a really interesting time.

I don’t know anything in particular about Puerto Rican politics, so I can’t say whether this is actually a grand territory-wide conspiracy to put Congress on the spot (it probably isn’t), but it sure could shake out that way. The issues that revolve around statehood for Puerto Rico could stand in pretty well for a lot of the questions about how the United States relates to Latin America, as well as the growing Latino population within our borders.

My personal view is that statehood would be awesome, both for the superficial reasons (new flag!) and because it would mark an end to one of the more egregious cases of the territorial limbo brought about by American imperialism. As the article notes, we generally add new states by taking someone else’s land and pushing them aside, whereas Puerto Rican statehood would make us a more inclusive country.

We’ve known for years that a few of the states we took from Mexico back in the 1840s are headed toward majority-minority status, Puerto Rico is the best bridge we have to the Caribbean, both geographically and culturally. We’ve spent the last few decades deepening our economic relationships with Latin America, but culturally we seem to have a much easier time relating to Canadians, probably because Canadians tend to match our Anglocentric perception of what an American looks like. Plus, Puerto Rican statehood would mean a strong voice in Congress when it comes to relations with our southern neighbors, many of whom are geographically nearer to Puerto Rico than the lower 48. (Which would probably need a new name. Central 48, maybe?)

Unfortunately, all that’s still pretty unlikely to happen.

Puerto Rico might actually have had a better chance for statehood if Mitt Romney had been elected president: The Republicans added support for statehood into their party platform this year, and Romney gave Gov. Luis Fortuño a speaking role at the Republican National Convention. But now, the party’s de facto leadership reverts to John Boehner, who is both not much of a leader and less of a fan. And after an election where Latino voters overwhelmingly backed the Democrat, adding a primarily Spanish-speaking state with 3.7 million residents may not seem appealing.

On the other hand, the timing might be perfect: If the Republicans actually decide to be serious about broadening the party’s appeal, then fighting to block statehood in the face of popular demand wouldn’t look good for them, either. The real question is whether that popular demand actually happens: No one can quite seem to agree on what the referendum results actually meant, and Puerto Ricans voted Fortuño of office in favor of an opponent who favors commonwealth status.

Plus, the general lack of attention from the mainland press gives a pretty good indication of how little interest there is in the idea from our side. I can’t help but wonder if that has a lot to do with the reason I want to see statehood happen: It might force a lot of people to rethink what it means to be American, and some people have already been having issues with that idea.

The good news is that things might actually be happening for Puerto Rico, after more than a century of bizarre territorial limbo. Assuming anything comes of this, it’ll be really interesting to watch; and I’m hopeful that something does.

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