Some days the electricity goes out, leaving Minerva Rios and Jesus Noriega without light or water. They often have to carry large water jugs up the hill they live on in order to drink and bathe, which is crucial for Puerto Ricans who experience high temperatures on a weekly basis. Their grandchildren across the sea in the continental United States constantly worry about their wellbeing and are bothered by the lack of U.S. support after the disaster.
The island has not fully recovered from hurricane Maria in September 2017. More than two hundred schools were damaged, which forced Puerto Rican students to leave their old schools and friends, according to The New York Times. The Washington Post reported that close to three thousand people have died from the storm, leaving families torn. Puerto Rico’s Congress believes that it would take about $130 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s streets, houses, schools and other crucial utilities, according to NBC News.
Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rossello has requested statehood for Puerto Rico. A poll conducted among residents in September 2018 showed that about 48 percent want Puerto Rico to become a state, 26 percent would rather remain a U.S. territory, and 10 percent want full independence, according to Vox.
Puerto Rico became independent from Spain in February 1898 but also became a commonwealth of the U.S. in the same year. Now, the island is one of the oldest colonies in the world as it is still considered an American territory today. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, which means they don’t need a passport to enter the United States. They pay federal taxes, but do not have a congressional representative and cannot vote in major elections that will affect their island. It is clear that Puerto Ricans do not receive the same benefits as citizens living in the U.S., but the debate over what they should do about it has been dismissed for the most part for several years. After hurricane Maria hit and the U.S. failed to give sufficient aid, frustration has risen to the surface in the hearts of Puerto Ricans around the world.
Most Puerto Rican youth, like Sebastian Caneles, know this issue inside and out. The fifteen-year-old freshman at Fenway High is the child of two parents from Puerto Rico, and he wears his Puerto Rican flag with pride on culture days at his school. Canales believes that it would be in Puerto Rico’s best interest to become a state.
“I feel like if Puerto Rico becomes an independent country it is going to create a lot of mess, and right now there’s so much violence,” he said. “And if Puerto Rico becomes independent it’s going to be harder to get the benefits that they need and the support.”
To students unfamiliar with the island's history, it can seem like it’d be easier if Puerto Rico became independent due to its unique culture. However, the more one learns about this delicate topic, the more they understand the true story that is being told. Three Fenway High students who aren’t Puerto Rican were shocked to learn about the injustices that the island has faced over the years. When asked if Puerto Rico should become a state or an independent country, their position changed from “I think they should be independent” to “But if they have no congressmen they can’t just become independent on their own.”
Statehood is a popular choice for Puerto Ricans because they would gain not only two seats in the U.S. Senate, but also around $20 billion every year, which could be used for the much-needed repairs, according to The Washington Post. Not to mention the connection many Puerto Ricans have with the States as the U.S. has always acted as a support system for the Puerto Rican community. Still, there are some who believe that there are more complex aspects to consider when thinking about a history-making decision such as this.
Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción is a non-profit organization that focuses on helping to advance the lives of low-income families with affordable housing, along with art and education programs that help shape young leaders. Pedro Cruz, director of the organization’s Youth Development Program, is a proud Puerto Rican who is enriched by the culture and traditions of his home island. He believes that this topic is one that can not be easily answered with a one-word response.
“This is one of those questions that brings up more questions,” he said. “It’s almost like we want to be a state because of some sense of survival, but is it really in our hearts to be a state, or is it just an act of survival? If we become a state, what’s going to happen to our culture? I would love in my heart of hearts to be independent, but they crippled us to the point that we ask, ‘Are we even capable of being independent?’” He believes that if Puerto Rico was to become independent, it would need a 10-year plan to maintain the island.
Although there hasn’t been any legislative action on Puerto Rico’s standing, there has been conversation surrounding this controversial issue. Rossello has demonstrated an interest in statehood in a tweet stating: “Yes, we are wonderful people: we have weaved American Flag, the fabric of our nation, with our sacrifice and valor fighting in every war since WWI. We are Americans, we are your citizens.”
The future of Puerto Rico is undecided and unclear, but it’s important that Puerto Ricans understand the past.
“What Puerto Ricans are missing out on is self-awareness,” Cruz said. “We need to know our history, know everything that has really been done to us and understand the political history behind our oppression.”