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San Francisco Chronicle

Some Thoughts On Puerto Rican Assimilation Into The American

BY Luis Brau-Cebrian

20 August 2004
Copyright © 2004 San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Puerto Ricans want to remain American citizens but they are wary of losing their individuality, their cultural characteristics,  They are afraid of becoming  mainstream, of being assimilated,  in fact,  of being American.  This is not unlike Blacks on the mainland wanting to be called African Americans instead of just plain Black. They feel it gives them status, a distinction.

Historically,  it has always been difficult for Hispanics to assimilate.   Religion/ Language/Culture were the three pronged fork that held Hispanics together,  although that is changing more and more,  as Protestant sects make dramatic inroads into a traditionally Roman Catholic culture.

The Puerto Rican question remains a conundrum.  These are a people who have been American citizens since 1917 and have been under American rule since 1898.  Who, when asked what status they want for their future, in three referendums,  over the course of the 20th Century,  have not been able to give a definitive majority answer.  Commonwealth status has always won, statehood has been gaining considerable ground,  but is far from the two thirds majority, while the choice for  Independence has remained very low.

They want to be American citizens, but do not want to be called American, They cherish the use of an American passport, but refer to their fellow citizens on the mainland as gringos. They regard themselves as a nation, and compete in the Olympics under their own flag.  They regard La Borinquena as their national anthem, not the Star Spangled Banner. Will not speak English to save their lives (well, maybe to save their lives) even though everyone learns it in school.  Many settle on the mainland where they have to speak English, and they do, no problem.

So do their children, who sometimes grow up on the mainland thinking of the Island as a mythical Shangri-La. An island paradise which doesn't exist, which never existed, except in the minds of their impoverished, uneducated, and homesick ancestors who spun yarns of a mythical homeland.  Puerto Ricans have their own modern day version of the Taino areyto, the traditional tribal gathering of the original Native American inhabitants where they heard stories of the past and the present.  They will not read newspapers, theirs is an oral tradition, they would rather watch a gossip version of the news delivered by a puppet which is the number one TV show and which is,  by some estimates,  the main source of information  for about sixty percent of the population.  Puerto Ricans are great story tellers and the facts, reality, and the truth ! are sometimes irrelevant.

It is a mixed-race population but it will consistently identify itself as White in the National census. The last census states that 90% of the population identified itself as White.  One glance in any direction in Puerto Rico will put this statistic in question.

Puerto Rico has a Resident Commissioner in DC, to lobby or negotiate for the inclusion of the Island in legislation that is beneficial, or to argue against it being included, if it is not, whatever the case may be. Yet the current PDP Resident Commissioner, Acevedo Vila has not even rented an apartment in the nation's capital, instead he commutes every once in a while and stays at the home of a friend who resides there. PNP Resident Commissioners, like Carlos Romero, and Corrada del Rio have taken the job very seriously and acted very diligently. Other PDP Commissioners in the past have also been less than effective and have set the precedent of behavior for this one who is now running for governor against former two-termer Pedro Rossello.  This chronic absenteeism is a political statement to underline how unimportant our ties to the US are regarded by the party in power, the PDP.

I believe that education is key in the process of assimilation and integration of the Puerto Rican into the mainstream American society.  He has to learn English as his first language. He has to be taught that Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and yes, even Martin Luther King  are his forbearers and he has to learn to be proud of them.  He is not taught American History seriously in Puerto Rico.  In Puerto Rico he learns that the Americans took the Island from Spain as war booty and have "enslaved" them since1898. That the only patriots he has to recognize are independence fighters of the 19th century, who were against Spanish rule, but this has been transposed to represent resistance to American rule in the 20th and 21st centuries. Albizu Campos, the independence advocate responsible for masterminding the assault on Blair House and Congress in the 50's is a demigod, and regarded as an untouchable  sacred cow among all political leaders. The pro independence resistance went underground and never manifested itself openly again until the protest marches against the Navy in Vieques, which resulted in the Navy leaving the Island and it's base at Roosevelt Roads.

Youngsters find it cool to be anti-American although they don't really know why or what exactly makes the American presence undesirable. They think Fidel Castro is cool, and Saddam Hussein a hero, that the Palestinians are abused by the Israelis, who are the new Nazis of the Middle East,  they think of the US as an aging, decadent  and corrupt empire of which Puerto Rico is the last colony. This is the litany of the university student activist.

For the last 50 years, a subtle anti-Americanism has been ingrained, in varying degrees, in the brains of school children all over the Island by strategically placed History and Social Science teachers whose mission has  been to indoctrinate, and create a sense of "nationhood" and "separateness" among the post-war student population. This has been a successful conspiracy of enormous proportions, sponsored by the separatists within  the Popular Democratic Party, tolerated and ignored by the pro statehood Nuevo Progresistas even when they have been in power, and of course,  encouraged and manned by the Independentistas. A campaign which may have been nurtured by American racism.

American prejudice against Blacks and non-Anglo minorities was rampant and pervasive on the mainland until past the 60's.  This had a very negative effect on the Islanders in terms of self-esteem.  They had received the Americans as liberators in 1898.  They had come to regard their future as inseparable from the US yet their efforts for integration were repeatedly met with rejection.

It is hard to continue to love those who do not reciprocate, yet Puerto Rico consistently has shown its desire for permanent union and has loyally, bravely and proudly sent legions of heroes to fight and die in American Wars, to defend American ideals. Our ideals.

Puerto Rico has met with formidable opposition in Congress in its attempts to enter the Union as a State.  It has been the longest waiting territory in the history of the US for entry into the Union (106 years), surpassing the former record holder, Arizona (102 years).

The local reaction has been the question "why don't they want us?"  or the depressing conclusion "they don't want us".   It is not hard to understand how the original enthusiasm of the Island for annexation has waned mainly because of American disinterest and apathy.  Puerto Rican ambivalence is engendered by American colonialism and its evil byproducts: condescension, paternalism, rejection, prejudice and racism.

Our job,  if we wish to promote statehood for Puerto Rico,  will be first to eliminate those many barriers and booby traps that fifty odd years of indoctrination and misinformation have laid down.  Get rid of the schizophrenic set of beliefs,  We are Americans and have to demonstrate that we are proud of it.  That we are an integral part of this great nation, which in spite of it's mistakes and imperfections is still the greatest nation on earth.  We are not a small nation trapped within a larger dominant one.  We are part of our Nation.

We must stop being Americans out of convenience and Puerto Ricans in our hearts,  and become real Americans,  out of conviction and Puerto Rico will still be in our hearts as a part of the United States. There is a lot of work to be done in reeducation, the subliminal messages are everywhere, from the tiny but ubiquitous Puerto Rican flags in the background of all newsreels, to TV and movie theater advertisements that mark the ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences between the Island and the mainland.

We must set forth an extensive and effective educational program that will promote Puerto Rico as an integral part of the United States.   A program that will incorporate traditional Puerto Rican icons and personalities into the American landscape in a way that makes the common citizen proud.  Puerto Rican patriots must become part of the proverbial  American pantheon of heroes. Being Puerto Rican has to be seen as being compatible with being American, as part of the great American diversity.

Integration, inclusion, and the diffusion and minimization of cultural differences lie at the heart of a successful campaign for Puerto Rican statehood.

Our efforts over the past 50 years have been far from effective.

* the author is a former sub-director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture

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