The New York Times

"Puerto Rico, U.S.A."

By Rosario Ferre

(03/19/98, c. 1998 New York Times Company)

SAN JUAN, P.R. -- The Senate may soon be debating a bill that would permit Puerto Ricans living on the island to vote for statehood or independence or to become an enhanced commonwealth that would eventually evolve toward sovereignty. Feeling on the island is divided almost equally between statehood and commonwealth, with independence favored by less than 4 percent of the voters.

But if Puerto Ricans living on the mainland are allowed to participate in the proposed referendum, as some have recommended, they could sway the vote, because many of them favor independence. This could mean that the next generation of Puerto Ricans would be deprived of the right to American citizenship.

As a Puerto Rican writer, I constantly face the problem of identity. When I travel to the States I feel as Latina as Chita Rivera. But in Latin America, I feel more American than John Wayne. To be Puerto Rican is to be a hybrid. Our two halves are inseparable; we cannot give up either without feeling maimed. For many years, my concern was to keep my Hispanic self from being stifled. Now I discover it's my American self that's being threatened.

I recently was on a book tour in the United States. Wherever I went, people who knew about the plebiscite asked, "Why do you want to be American?" The question was unsettling. Puerto Ricans have been Americans for almost a hundred years. At least 6,000 Puerto Ricans have died fighting for the United States, and many thousands more served in Korea and Vietnam. My son led a platoon of Puerto Rican soldiers in the Persian Gulf war. At the time, no one asked if he wanted to be an American. He simply did his duty.

Puerto Ricans living on the mainland think of the island in much the same way as African-Americans think of Africa -- as an almost mythical place inhabited by ancestral gods. For those Puerto Ricans, the homeland is a place of origin, proof of a vital "difference" that sets them apart from what can seem the vast sameness of the United States.

Puerto Ricans living in the United States also point out that crime, drugs, AIDS and other ills are the result of too much American-style progress. They want us on the island to preserve the bucolic paradise they left behind, a place where one could drive lazily down half-deserted avenues, walk in the streets at night without feeling terrified, go for a drive in mountains still covered with lush vegetation. But this paradise exists only in their minds. Puerto Ricans have already joined the first world, deeply involved with American interests.

Puerto Ricans have contributed more than $500,000 to political campaigns in the United States. We have our reasons. The outcome of the Senate vote could have a great impact. Since we have practically no natural resources, independence would be sure to hurt Puerto Rico's economy. It would mean poverty, deteriorated health care and education, a disintegrating infrastructure and, worst of all, the disappearance of the Puerto Rican middle class.

In 1976 I lived in Mexico for a year and learned what it was like to live in a country that called itself a democracy, but where a small class of the wealthy dominates the vast majority, which is poor. Puerto Rico is different. Its strong middle class sets it apart. Our average income per household is $27,000; our annual per-capita income is $8,500, compared with $4,000 for most of Latin America.

The majority of Puerto Ricans prize their American citizenship. It represents for us economic stability and the assurance of civil liberties and democracy. On the other hand, we also cherish our language and culture. Thus, Puerto Rico's situation has historically been a paradox.

Living on the island, I've witnessed our Catch-22 situation from up close. I've lived through two plebiscites, both of them nonbinding, and have voted for independence. It was the only honorable solution, because losing our language and culture would have been a form of spiritual suicide. But conditions have changed. Latinos are the fastest growing minority in the United States; by 2010 their numbers are expected to reach 39 million -- more than the population of most Latin American republics.

Bilingualism and multiculturalism are vital aspects of American society. Florida's Dade County is about 60 percent Hispanic. New York City, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago all have large Hispanic populations. The reality is that we can no longer "be disappeared."

President Clinton recently declared, in no uncertain terms, that in order to become a state, Puerto Rico should not be forced to adopt English as its only official language and thereby abandon, possibly, its Hispanic culture. The decision on language, he said, should be left to Puerto Ricans, just as it was in the case of Hawaii, where both English and the Hawaiian dialect were made official tongues.

Mr. Clinton's remark acknowledged that ethnic diversity has become a fundamental value in the United States. Puerto Ricans have been Americans since 1898, and our culture and language remain as healthy as ever. We are no longer poor, undernourished or anemic. We are mulatto-mestizo, bilingual and proud of it. We no longer need fear that "el otro," the other, will swallow us up.

We have become the other. As a Puerto Rican and an American, I believe our future as a community is inseparable from our culture and language, but I'm also passionately committed to the modern world. That's why I'm going to support statehood in the next plebiscite.

Drawing (Catharine Lazure)

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