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The Fourth of July: What should we celebrate?

BY CARLOS ROMERO BARCELO of Caribbean Business

June 30, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Four days from today, we will be celebrating the Fourth of July–our nation’s Independence Day. Most people, however, will be thinking about a parade, a picnic with hot dogs and other goodies, fireworks, and a combination of two or more of the above.

During most of the official celebrations, part of the Declaration of Independence will be read, but most people won’t be thinking about the real meaning of the Fourth of July. They will be attending or participating in the official celebrations, the private celebrations, going to the beach, or going away for a long weekend. Very few will be reflecting on the significance of this day in our history.

In Puerto Rico, the Fourth of July wasn’t celebrated until after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 19th century, when we were ceded by Spain to the U.S. During the first half of the 20th century, the Fourth of July was celebrated in San Juan, where a predominantly military parade was held every year. Instead of celebrating the meaning of the day, we celebrated the military might of our nation. Eventually, more and more civic and community representation was included in the parade, at the same time as the military participation was being reduced. Yet, the true and most important significance of the Fourth of July still has been neglected.

What is the most significant meaning of the Fourth of July? It is true it represents the day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the 13 original colonies and, as such, was designated the day of the birth of our nation. Many, many nations, however, have been born since July 4, 1776, and many since then have disappeared; but no other nation has achieved the importance the U.S. has achieved throughout the world in less than two and a half centuries.

Why? Because the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of our Constitution, shortly thereafter, gave way to the establishment of a nation in which the concepts of civil rights and citizenship achieved an importance that we hadn’t seen since the days of the city-states of Greece and the empire of the Republic of Rome.

To be a citizen in a Greek city-state was a matter of pride to every citizen who shared equally in the rights guaranteed to all its citizens by the city-state, be it Athens, Sparta, or some other city-state.

During the times of the Roman Empire, to be a Roman citizen was not only a matter of pride to those who had it, but something desired and sought after by most people throughout what is today Europe, who weren’t Roman citizens.

After the demise of the Roman Empire, the people who lived in the different countries in Europe were subjects of the king, queen, emperor, empress, or dictator. It wasn’t until the emergence of the Republic of the United States of America that the terms "citizen" and "citizenship" started to gain meaning.

To begin with, all U.S. citizens were "endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The nation’s Constitution guaranteed basic rights to all citizens regardless of origin, race, nationality, or creed in its Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship or religion, freedom of the press, and many other freedoms became part of what it meant and means to be an "American citizen." Whether born under the U.S. flag or "naturalized" as a citizen, all had equal rights.

To ensure these rights and liberties wouldn’t be encroached upon by political maneuvering or parliamentary interpretations, which would take away power from the people and limit their rights guaranteed by the Constitution, a Republican form of government with separation of the three branches–executive, legislative, and judiciary–was established. The Supreme Court and the federal judicial system were entrusted with the power to protect citizens’ rights and liberties.

In less than a century, the U.S. came to be known, particularly throughout the western world, as the nation of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and the land of opportunity.

As a result, during the 19th and 20th centuries, millions and millions of people came from everywhere, but particularly from Europe. They were running away from political, religious, or ethnic persecution. Special facilities had to be built and prepared to accommodate the millions of persecuted individuals and families that came to "America," as the U.S. was called. Millions of others came looking for economic opportunities. Of course, their lack of opportunity in their country of origin was usually also due to religious, political, or ethnic persecution.

Never in the history of the world have so many people risked their lives traveling in rickety, overcrowded vessels, crossing stormy seas, or crossing desert lands in overcrowded vans, suffocating from heat, as did the immigrants who came and keep coming to the U.S. in the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries.

Why? They are looking for freedom, running away from oppression, and looking for an economic opportunity–most of them also hoping to one day become a U.S. citizen.

Why do so many people throughout the world risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones to reach U.S. shores if, according to what we read, hear, and see in the news media, the U.S. is a land of bigotry, racial discrimination, religious intolerance, and corporate exploitation of the poor. Why? Because people realize no nation or government is perfect. Because nations and governments are made up of people, and there always will be prejudice, persecution, and exploitation by some. Of course, the news media seldom displays the good deeds, the positive achievements, and the triumphs of justice. They sell their newspapers and their programs much better when they report and portray the negative events.

People realize this, and they also understand that although there is still prejudice, discrimination, persecution, and exploitation in the U.S., no other country has the laws, legal means, and economic assistance that allow the persecuted, discriminated, and exploited to go to court to get redress.

Not only in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe do they realize this, but even in other parts of the world. With all its faults and problems, there is no other nation in the world that provides its citizens the guarantees of freedom, protection of civil rights, and opportunities to compete economically on more equitable grounds than those provided by our U.S. citizenship.

There isn’t a single nation in the world where there is no prejudice, no persecution, no discrimination, and no exploitation of one group by another. Yet, as shown above, no nation in the world provides the means, the resources, the laws, and the court system with juries of their peers to obtain redress, economic compensation, and punishment to the evildoer. In Puerto Rico, we have that protection guaranteed by the fact we are U.S. citizens.

The right to political and economic equality and the right to vote, however, are undoubtedly the most important components of the "American citizenship" concept. It is precisely those two rights that we, Puerto Rican Americans, are denied by reason of domicile. We are subject to geographical discrimination. Because we reside in Puerto Rico, we can’t vote for our president or for representation in our Congress, nor are we entitled to the same economic opportunities as fellow citizens who reside in the 50 states of the union. This discrimination can’t continue without being challenged as undemocratic. We mustn’t allow our children and their children to grow up as disenfranchised and unequal U.S. citizens. It is upon this unfair situation that we must reflect as we celebrate the birth of our nation on July 4.

Carlos Romero Barceló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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