Puerto Rican Lives Matter

More than 150 people gathered on July 17 at the Arizona State Capitol to join worldwide calls for the resignation of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló. Photo by Jerod MacDonald Evoy | Arizona Mirror

As I write this, CNN is reporting that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has announced he will resign from office next week. 

In nearly 900 pages of leaked text messages, Rosselló and his all-male, nine-member cabinet were alleged to have shared droves of vulgar, misogynistic and homophobic messages about a wide range of activists, celebrities and public officials. 

The texts were published less than two weeks ago in mid-July by the nonprofit Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism, and the ensuing controversy sparked the largest protests in the island’s history. 

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets demanding that Rosselló resign. Protestors from all walks of life said they were fed up with decades of government corruption, now more than ever, as the Caribbean island struggles to recover from the mass devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria.

In Phoenix, about 150 people rallied at the Capitol last week, including Manolo Lago, a local actor, who said, “Puerto Rico has been taking advantage of its citizens for too long. The leaked messages from Rosselló and his cronies have just set that in stone.”

On Wednesday, Broadway’s Lin Manuel Miranda told USA Today, “We’re all waiting to see if [Rosselló] wants to walk out or get dragged out.”

Rosselló has opted to walk out. His resignation is effective August 2.

So, why should Arizonans, or most Americans for that matter, care if protesters virtually shut down the island to get Rosselló to resign?

For one thing, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. The island has been a U.S. territory for more than a century, though a 2017 poll found that nearly half of Americans didn’t know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

As Americans, they can travel freely to the mainland. They can move here permanently, and many have over the past century, including an estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans thought to have fled the island’s crippled economy in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

More than 5 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States. New York, Philadelphia and Chicago tally the largest Puerto Rican urban populations on the mainland. Arizona was home to more than 45,000 Puerto Ricans in 2015, according to the U.S. Census, with about half of them calling the Phoenix Valley home.

Yet, Puerto Ricans are often treated like America’s unloved stepchildren. The Miami Herald has called it “The Forgotten Island.” 

After 100 years of U.S. citizenship, the estimated 3 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island are not allowed to vote for a U.S. president. The island’s delegates in Congress cannot vote on legislation. Puerto Rico has a governor and a legislature, but the most important decisions are reserved for the U.S. government.

For all practical purposes, Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony. It was invaded by U.S. troops in 1898. Counting 400 years of Spanish rule, the island has been colonized for five centuries.

Some Puerto Ricans consider the island occupied territory. Since 1972, the United Nations Decolonization Committee has held that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony and Puerto Ricans have the “right to self-determination and independence”.

While Puerto Ricans are divided on whether the island should maintain its current status or move to become an independent nation or America’s 51st state, Puerto Ricans long ago earned the right to be treated like all other Americans.

Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, the year Americans entered World War I. Nearly 250,000 registered for the draft in WWI, though fewer than 20,000 were called to serve. About 65,000 Puerto Ricans were among the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Latino men and women who signed up to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II.

Ultimately, Puerto Ricans – like Arizonans, like all Americans – shouldn’t have to worry if their elected leaders are ripping them off or privately spewing profanities or misogynistic or homophobic remarks, even in the age of Trump’s hate-laced Twitter tirades.

And we should all care that an estimated 3,000 of our fellow Americans (about the same number of people killed in the 9-11 terrorist attack) died as a result of Hurricane Maria.

U.S. taxpayers, meanwhile, are helping foot the estimated $94 billion tab it will cost to get the territory back on its feet.

Given all of that, Americans have a moral and financial imperative to ensure that Puerto Rico bounces back from the brink, just as we have for the victims of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, which slammed into Florida and Texas, respectively, in 2017, the same year Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.

Despite President Trump’s repeated attacks on Puerto Rico, no one, including this president, has ever questioned whether Texans or Floridians deserve our help recovering from the hurricanes that destroyed large swaths of their communities.

Puerto Rico is a long way from Arizona, and, yes, it’s a lot more humid. 

But Puerto Ricans are no less deserving of our compassion and camaraderie than any other Americans, and by forcing the resignation of Gov. Rosselló they’ve shown they’re no less entitled to chart their own destiny.

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.


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