Hurricanes do more than destroy homes, daily routines, power lines, agriculture, communication systems and levees. Hurricanes unveil unequal power dynamics, crush souls and create narratives, such as: “Puerto Ricans are American citizens.” This is dangerous and arrogant. It is dangerous because it is incomplete. It is arrogant because it presupposes that the solution to Puerto Ricans’ colonial predicament is U.S. citizenship.
As a Puerto Rican, I find this story disturbing. It deprives us of our self-determination, and it assumes that the master knows what is best for the slave. The question is not why Puerto Ricans are not treated as U.S. citizens. The question should be whether Puerto Ricans want to be U.S. citizens.
It is true that Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship due to a series of congressional statutes. But it is also true that these statutes were enacted without consulting Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony in 1898, when the United States purchased the island and its people as war booty from Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris. Before the United States invaded, Puerto Ricans had Spanish citizenship. The queen of Spain had signed the Autonomic Charter of 1897, granting Puerto Ricans representation (voice and vote) in the courts of Spain. Ironically, Puerto Ricans enjoyed greater political participation under the monarchy of Spain than under the United States.
Soon after, in 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act, implementing a military government in Puerto Rico. Sen. Joseph Foraker (R-Ohio) proposed Puerto Rican citizenship for Puerto Ricans because Congress did not want to give Puerto Ricans even the illusion of having the same rights as those on the mainland.
Eventually, Congress did give Puerto Ricans official citizenship under the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917. But to this day, Puerto Ricans continue to be subjects of the United States without a right to vote for the president, without voting representation in Congress and without equal treatment compared with citizens born or naturalized in the United States. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether the statutory citizenship that Puerto Ricans possess is equivalent to U.S. citizenship — including guarantees of equal protection laid out in the 14th Amendment.
One solution to the separate-and-not-equal nature of Puerto Rican citizenship might be for Puerto Ricans to be granted the full rights enjoyed by other U.S. citizens. This answer to the Puerto Rican citizenship conundrum, however, passes over the essential step of Puerto Rican self-determination.
The fact that a minority of Puerto Ricans favor independence does not mean that a minority of Puerto Ricans favor self-determination. Puerto Ricans have a right to decide who they are before they decide whether they wish to be U.S. citizens. The prevailing story that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and should be treated like citizens on the mainland presupposes that Puerto Ricans have already decided their political future — or worse, that Puerto Ricans have no say in the matter. This storyline promotes Puerto Ricans’ perpetual colonial status.
Puerto Ricans never asked to be colonized, never asked to be denied their Puerto Rican citizenship and never asked to have U.S. citizenship imposed upon them. Puerto Ricans suffering the devastation of Hurricane Maria are not fellow American citizens; they are colonial subjects of the United States.
The United States has an obligation to provide aid to Puerto Ricans because over the past 100 years, it has chosen to keep Puerto Rico as a colony, not because Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship.
The stories we share matter. Stories can set boundaries or create possibilities.
I do not have much hope that Congress will change its story of oppression. I do hope that Hurricane Maria has disrupted the colonial space in ways that allow Puerto Ricans to construct their story of self-determination and liberation.
Font-Guzmán is professor of law and conflict studies and director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Creighton University Graduate School.