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85 Years of US Citizenship

March 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On March 2, Puerto Ricans celebrated the 85th anniversary of their US citizenship. The occasion was not without some controversy, as is often the case on an island where political affiliations run strong and deep, and where the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status remains unresolved. However, the usual partisan bickering belies the fact that US citizenship holds a central and cherished role in the life of Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum.

The pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) values citizenship as a step toward achieving permanent union with the United States, and there is always a strong contingent of statehooders observing Citizenship Day each March. Carlos Pesquera, president of the NPP, led this year’s activities in front of the Capitol building in San Juan. "Under US protection, we have fought hunger and ignorance," he said, "but what is most important is to guarantee citizenship, the US passport, for future generations."

The Popular Democratic Party (PDP), which advocates a compact with the United States called an "enhanced commonwealth," held its own citizenship celebration in Mayaguez. Moreover, in an interview last month with the Orlando Sun-Sentinel, Gov. Sila Calderon described US citizenship as a key element of the "two realities" — Puerto Rican and American — that co-exist in the Puerto Rican identity. She further commented that she treasures the "values of democracy and liberty that the US citizenship embodies."

In fact, of the major political parties in Puerto Rico, only the Independence Party (PIP) decided against organizing any festivities. Nevertheless, the independistas (who comprise less than five percent of the electorate) have in the past recognized the importance of US citizenship to Puerto Rico. Indeed, their vision for Puerto Rican independence includes the continuation for a period of time of US citizenship for island residents.

United States citizenship is invoked and upheld by all sides in Puerto Rico, albeit in different ways and with different visions for the future.

Looking back 85 years, the same was the case in 1917. Puerto Ricans then, as now, engaged in a vigorous debate about the future status of the island. Then, as now, they split between advocating statehood, independence, or some kind of "home rule." However, when it came to the importance of US citizenship, then, as now, they found common ground.

Historian Gonzalo Córdova has described the reaction in Puerto Rico to the Jones Act, the law that granted US citizenship to Puerto Rico, as "jubilant." According to Córdova, all three major parties of the time (Republican, Unionist, and Socialist) supported the bill. Moreover, most of the key political leaders of the time, including José Celso Barbosa, Luis Muñoz Rivera, Antonio Barcelo, and Santiago Iglesias, were not only supportive but instrumental in the legislative process.

United States citizenship did not come quickly or easily to the people of Puerto Rico. They had achieved a level of autonomy under Spain in 1897, but that arrangement had vanished with the Spanish American War and the US occupation of the island in 1898. Puerto Rican leaders were hopeful for a quick transition either to full independence or to the status of an incorporated territory, which was historically the first step toward statehood.

To their disappointment, neither occurred. For a combination of reasons that ranged from bigoted to pragmatic (the island had an 85% illiteracy rate at the time), the US Congress decided instead that Puerto Ricans were unprepared for self government. The Foraker Act of 1900 that ended the military occupation of Puerto Rico thus ushered in an era of "tutelage" whereby colonial governors ruled and residents had limited rights. In a series of Supreme Court rulings that followed, Puerto Rico was defined as an "unincorporated territory" in the possession of the United States.

The Foraker Act was extremely unpopular in Puerto Rico, and some legislators in the US Congress agreed that it was unfair. Muñoz Rivera, who came to Washington in 1910 as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, was a vocal proponent of legislation to grant Puerto Ricans equal rights and local autonomy. He found an ally in William H. Jones, a Congressman from Virginia, who sponsored several bills offering citizenship to Puerto Ricans.

Jones was not the first Congressman, however, to propose US citizenship for Puerto Rico. The Olmstead Bill of 1910, which passed the US House but not the Senate, contained a provision on citizenship, but it was seen in Puerto Rico as a continuation of the Foraker Act and condemned as "ungenerous, restrictive, reactionary."

Twice in 1914, with the Jones Bill and the Shafroth Bill, the issue of citizenship came before Congress but failed to result in a law. Another Jones Bill was introduced in 1916. It passed the House in that year, the Senate early the next year, and was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on March 2, 1917.

Under the provisions of the Jones Act, the status of Puerto Rico did not change, and it remained (as it does today) an unincorporated territory and a ward of the US Congress. However, several important advances did occur. First, Puerto Ricans were permitted to establish an elected Senate, which joined the existing House of Representatives. The new Senate was also given the right to influence the selection of some officials in the island’s cabinet.

Finally, all Puerto Ricans were offered US citizenship. In order to make that citizenship voluntary, Puerto Ricans were allowed to register if they did not want to receive it. Of the 1.2 million residents of Puerto Rico at that time, only 288 chose to reject US citizenship. Then, as now, the vast majority on the island understood that attaining US citizenship was a crucial step in the island’s political and economic development; and most realized, as they do today, that citizenship provided them the opportunity to work within the framework of American democracy to advance their goals for the future of Puerto Rico.

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