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The San Juan Star

The Writing  On The Wall

The Chiropractor Of History

By Frances Negrón-Muntaner

December 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The San Juan Star. All Rights Reserved.

Printed with permission by The San Juan Star

One of my first conscious thoughts upon watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center was Puerto Rico. After a year of covering local politics for television, I recall writing in my director’s notebook that Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States would only significantly change by the onset of one or two possible scenarios: an economic crisis or a world war. At the time, both possibilities seemed stationed far away, into the nebulous future.

The future is now present. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center may have precipitated a recession, accompanied by shifts in spending priorities aimed at supporting what many expect will be a long, and even unwinnable, war.

Whether we think Puerto Rico is an integral part of the United States or not, it is clear at times like this that other people are doing the thinking for us and it goes something like this: We’ll talk about your issues later.

Yet, however dismal the chances for dialogue between Puerto Rico and the United States may seem at the moment, war and reform are intimately tied in Puerto Rican history and change is inevitable. In fact, the war machine is Puerto Rico’s formidable, if lazy, chiropractor, adjusting the colonial joints only as need, ever since the island was a Spanish colony.

Contrary to popular myth, Puerto Rico’s autonomist charter of 1897, for instance, was not the product of Luis Muñoz Rivera’s genius — although he was an able politician — but the Cuban War for Independence against Spain.

Appropriately, although the war forced the Spaniards to grant both islands autonomy, the transformation of Cuba’s independence struggle into a larger imperial conflict took it away. Only a few months later, the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War of 1898 facilitated the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the United States, and with it, the Island’s contradictory incorporation into the American body politic.

Nineteen years later (1917), the need to quell Puerto Rican unrest against blatant colonial rule and extreme capitalist exploitation at the onset of War World I was a major factor in granting Puerto Ricans (second class) U.S. citizenship. Thirty-seven years later (1952), the combination of international pressure to decolonize Puerto Rico and the need to showcase the island as a capitalist miracle in the aftermath of World War II, gave birth to a most impressive tropical creation — the Estado Libre Asociado — that nevertheless came to life to weather the chills of the Cold War.

The uncanny precision of this algorithm suggests that, all things being equal, we were not due for another adjustment until 2013. But as part of a distressingly disjointed world, we have become implicated in the globe’s arthritic pain. As always.

If the historical text is of any use, however, we may be in for one of the greatest "fixes" of our recent collective life.

Although Americans have harbored ambivalent feelings towards Puerto Rico for over one hundred years, the unprecedented blow to its body politic and self-representation, as well as the unpredictable effects of the war on the United States’ political and economic power, will undoubtedly reconfigure the rules of engagement between the federal government and the territories. Importantly, the ambivalent reforms designed to retain Puerto Rico — without providing full political and economic rights — have by now reached their constitutional limits. This means that the next adjustment will necessarily bring us closer to — or father from — the United States.

A move toward more autonomy, such as a renegotiation of trade restrictions allowing Puerto Rico to enter into treaties with other countries or international political representation, will push the island further out of the American polity, possibly culminating into an associated republic status. More rights within the United States’ constitutional framework such as parity of federal funds, will likely pull the island in, as part of a transitional period towards statehood.

Simultaneously, regardless of how political sectors redefine their goals and strategies to fit this new juncture, the terrorist attacks made the Naval training in Vieques appear militarily obsolete, yet symbolically more important than ever to the battered American psyche.

While it is too early to tell which of these two contracted muscles — the heart or biceps — will need the most luxurious massage, demarcating the nation’s borders (imagined or not) and strengthening the politico-military apparatus that polices its fissures, will likely overtake civilian concerns on the border zones like Puerto Rico, including those related to health and the environment. The militarization of American culture and the erosion of civil liberties that may result from a long term armed conflict will then become the "war at home" over the United States’ need to radicalize and expand its democracy.

Importantly, some of the questions already on the table are deceptively simple, yet defining: Where do the national borders of the United States and/or Puerto Rico begin — and end? Are Puerto Ricans willing to fight — and possibly die — in any of the upcoming wars: the government’s fight against terrorism, multiethnic America’s struggle for a more democratic United States, and/or transnational challenges to globalization and militarism?

Each will have to decide — or not. But when the chiropractor of history cometh to Washington, bones will likely crack. Are we ready?

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a writer, scholar and filmmaker.
She can be contacted at:

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