Puerto Rico Is Not Yet Free

Puerto Rico Is Not Yet Free

Photograph by Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos



As Americans celebrate Fourth of July, The Frontline considers what independence means for Puerto Ricans, a group of U.S. citizens still under colonial rule.

Before I moved to El Paso, Texas, nine years ago, I lived in Puerto Rico. I was born there and took my first steps on its shores. I picked up lemons and mangoes from my abuelito’s backyard for fun. Living on the archipelago, you get used to a lot of problems that as a U.S. citizen you should not. While people on the mainland are now facing increased gas and food prices, this has always been the reality for those of us in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, our natural environment is being not only mistreated, but also slowly stolen by those who seek to exploit the island that raised me. 


On July Fourth, Americans celebrate independence—but Puerto Ricans are not yet free. For us, the holiday signifies nothing but a day where we may get paid double-time, play with fireworks, and, if we’re lucky, take time off from work. It is barely a celebration. In fact, it is an insult to the ongoing hardships we, Puerto Ricans, continue to face.


In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship. Since then, we’ve been able to move freely across the states just as any other American citizen. However, the archipelago is an unincorporated territory, which means we’re neither a U.S. state nor a sovereign nation. We 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.”

Liz Lebron

As citizens, doesn’t that sound like a paradox? All we can do is watch from afar and hope that we do not get the short end of the stick again—even though we always do. 


“We are U.S. citizens, but on the island, you’re a second-class citizen,” said Liz Lebron, a Ph.D. student at Louisiana State University studying international politics and communications and research manager at Voto Latino, a political group dedicated to mobilizing Latine voters. “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.”


I never celebrated the Fourth of July until I came to America, but I did grow up celebrating Puerto Rico’s Constitution Day on July 25. Every year, my family would get together and head to the beach or pool and plan a cookout. Salsa, merengue, and reggaeton would thump out of our speakers while my sister and I sunbathed. My mother, tíos, and tías would jump into the ocean. I would buy pinchos, the Puerto Rican equivalent of skewered meat, and eat homemade tostones or sorullitos from my abuela. After the sun would set, we’d gather to watch the fireworks. The day is meant to be a celebration for those who had arranged and built Puerto Rico’s governmental structure. 


Our Día de la Constitución looks a lot like the American barbecues on July Fourth. And while both pay homage to the beginning of our institutions, Puerto Ricans don’t celebrate independence. Not even our constitution can give us that.


When I finally did celebrate July Fourth, we noshed down burgers and hot dogs and, then, ended the night with fireworks. I couldn’t assimilate why the Fourth of July was not celebrated in Puerto Rico—why my family had never celebrated the holiday. It is our birthright, after all. And what an honor to be born in a country built on democracy and free speech. Right?

It is hard to see my people struggle when I know our elected officials can do something, anything, about it.

As I grew older, I began to understand. As an observer who no longer lived on the archipelago, I found it harder to visit Puerto Rico. My people are suffering; there’s not enough economic help from the federal government. Houseless people lie on corners while officials neglect to maintain the roads where drivers pass by the unhoused. Stores mark up the costs of necessary goods. I’ve seen people at the grocery store remove items from their cart just so they can afford the bill. 


It is hard to see my people struggle when I know our elected officials can do something, anything, about it.  


Workers don’t receive a living wage: the minimum wage is a meager $8.50 an hour. Some are losing their jobs, and others cannot find one. For the first time in years, unemployment is at nearly 6%, but as the cost of living increases, those who cannot afford it are struggling. I can no longer ignore the economic gaps in Puerto Rico. What I had never noticed before, I was noticing now. 


Given the stark reality back at home, I can no longer fathom a Puerto Rico that rejoices when the Fourth of July rolls around. Why celebrate a country that does not grant any native Puerto Ricans a voice on the rules it imposes on us? Why celebrate a day that does not mark our own independence? We remain tied to a country that will not let its own people have a say over their lives. Why? Because they do not live in one of its 50 states? 


As a Puerto Rican, the Fourth of July means nothing but a reminder of how we are held hostage to a country that will neither welcome Puerto Rico as a state and let its people vote nor let us be free to govern ourselves as a sovereign nation. 


The way the federal government responded to Hurricane Maria says it all. The storm’s fifth anniversary is approaching in September. It brought rainfall and powerful gusts of wind for days. Roads were destroyed and flooded, communication was down, and power lines had fallen. Hurricane Maria left 3.4 million residents without power for months

“There is very little that can be done to correct the past. Some people want to fix it through statehood while others want to fix it through independence.”

Jenaro Abraham

I was in El Paso when the hurricane struck. Almost 30 days passed before I finally heard from my dad, grandparents, and most of my family who still lives there. My mother would spend hours clutching her cell phone, even while at work, awaiting a call from my grandparents. I finally heard from my father when he was making a line for ice. He would stand in line for hours, waiting for one bag of ice that wasn’t even guaranteed. Puerto Ricans across the archipelago were making these lines, trying to find food and water for their families. The disaster left a record-breaking number of people dead: the Puerto Rican government settled on an estimate of 2,975 deaths, but a Harvard study placed the death count at 4,675.


Despite the immediate devastation all over the archipelago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency took 43 days to approve permanent aid for Puerto Rico. The delayed response signals how much—or how little—the federal government values the lives of Puerto Rico’s residents. After centuries of colonialism and the stripping of autonomy, Puerto Rico can’t even help itself. The island’s reliance on the United States affects Puerto Ricans as we need to wait longer for supplies and humanitarian help when we need it. 


And yet we’ve always given—or, rather, our resources have always been here for the taking. First, the U.S. came for the sugar and coffee crops. Now, the archipelago is a place where the rich can live tax-free while damaging our ecosystem by building on land that was once full of trees. The tax exemption opens the door for further exploitation from the government. 


“We became a place for cheap labor and cheap industry,” said Jenaro Abraham, an assistant professor of Latin American politics at Gonzaga University. “There is very little that can be done to correct the past. Some people want to fix it through statehood while others want to fix it through independence.”


When I think of July Fourth, I imagine the freedom Puerto Rico could have if it was given a seat at the table. Puerto Rican youth—like youth across the globe—may be the generation that finally brings change. I don’t know what that change will look like, but I know we need the ability to care for ourselves. We can’t rely on others when disaster strikes. Whatever may come, it must center the happiness of the people and the integrity of the land.

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