Fourth of July: Puerto Ricans Need Not Apply
A reflection on Independence Day and a reminder that Puerto Ricans are not a part of it.
The Fourth of July, an annual celebration of nationhood in the United States, commemorates the passage of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in 1776. The summer after 1776, colonists celebrated their independence from the British by holding mock funerals for King George III - as a symbol of the end of the monarchy hold - organizing parades, concerts, bonfires and highlighting public readings of the Declaration of Independence. The celebrations have since become diluted with American mainstream consumerism, backyard BBQs and organic craft beers but its patriotic messaging remains strong: America’s freedom is only for a select few.
From the enslavement of people who became free a hundred years after America’s independence to the recent Boston “Patriot” parade marched by White supremacists chanting to the tune of “Reclaim America” to the Roe V Wade overturning, America has proven time and time again that its freedom is limited to those filled with testosterone and lacking in melanin.
My Ties to the Fourth
Growing up, my family was always proud to claim our natural-born citizenship as Puerto Ricans to this mainland. I would often hear family members strut about how “we are citizens” to this free country and are “blessed and grateful” to be so, unlike our neighbors in the Caribbean like Santo Domingo, Haiti, Cuba and many others. Being an American was something to be proud of. It spoke to my family’s hierarchy in the Caribbean culture as many of our neighbors were risking their lives through the ocean waves to get their feet on the shores of the U.S and start their path to prosperity - often leaving behind family, children and spouses to make this dream a reality.
I remember family get-togethers when I was younger. The American Flag flying in different hands alongside the Puerto Rican flag, in an attempt to show unity. Everyone showing off their pride for living in a country that believed in freedom and believed in the Puerto Rican people’s right to freedom. Fourth of July was about waving sparklers in the air and watching fireworks with my abuelos and catching up on the Yankee game. As I started to get older, I would spend the Fourth at the Piers of Brooklyn watching the sky light up over Manhattan and feeling nostalgic about how my world was changing. My self-awareness was growing and I was starting to realize that America was no longer the place of accepting the “tired and the poor” but instead about boasting an infectious fake level of patriotism.
After 9/11, New York went mad but so did the rest of the country. Discrimination and bigotry was running rampant through the streets and claiming the lives of innocent Muslims and anyone who slightly resembled the Muslim culture. It was my first time witnessing the true face of Americans. I read about it in history books - the enslavement of people, the attack on Black Americans during the civil rights movement, the persecution of Irish families for religious freedoms, the oppression of women, the wars on countries for the sake of reaping resources - but this was my first time experiencing America in disdain. Bigotry was at the foot of my door and there was no way of avoiding it.
I remember thinking, on one Fourth of July, “Freedom is becoming limited.”
Puerto Ricans and the Fourth
First, let’s clear up a misconception. Puerto Ricans are not free governing people, despite their citizenship to the mainland.
Americans need to understand that despite the U.S claiming Puerto Ricans as patriotic citizens, Puerto Ricans are actually a distinct Spanish-speaking Latin-American and Caribbean culture with its own history of attempted independence, traditions and identity. For the record, Puerto Rico doesn’t celebrate the Fourth of July, and is constantly at the mercy of the U.S and actively trying to resist the assimilation of gentrification, and remains a Spanish-speaking nation first and does not want the claim to statehood as it is perceived by the system.
Puerto Rico, unlike Washington, D.C. (an American city), was invaded and militarily occupied in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Rico is a nation that has endured years of military rule; colonial governance; violent statehooder mobs (called turbas); American colonial racism; and the persecution, arrests, massacres, and criminalization of pro-independence leaders and organizations. While statehooders talk of “equality”, particularly within American liberal circles, in Puerto Rico, their narrative is about fear, colonialist loyalty, persecution, and dependence on federal funds, not assimilating to become Americans.
Puerto Rico has shifted from the hands of Spain to the hands of the U.S. with little to no say. It’s attempts for independence and its revolution against the U.S. in the 1950s holds true to its continued fight for freedom to be a unique nation of its own or Free Association. Puerto Rico does not know freedom. It knows what is told to them. As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico has benefited very little in the hands of the U.S - outside of the imposed citizenship given to all Puerto Ricans without their consent in 1917.
While citizenship gives Puerto Ricans the right to move around the country freely like an other American, Puerto Ricans are not a part of the political conversation. “Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections or have any Congressional representation. Instead, Puerto Rico has its own government: a governor, 78 mayors, and even its own constitution. Regardless, the White House and Congress make all the rules we need to follow even when Puerto Ricans cannot vote for anyone who makes up those bodies.”
“We cannot vote for president, but you can go give your life for the military. To me, that is the biggest inequality from a political standpoint.”
With that said, Puerto Rico remains a colonized land and for us, the Fourth of July is just that. A three-day weekend with no symbolism.
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Though Puerto Ricans don’t pay federal taxes, Puerto Rico pays the U.S. more than $3bn in taxes a year. They can’t vote for President and their Resident Commissioner can’t vote in Congress. It’s literally taxation without representation.
We are free to fight for and pay into this country but not enough to be truly free on these lands.