What The U.S. Doesn't Teach You About Puerto Rico

By Jazz Scott on September 16, 2019

“La Isla del Encanto” or “the Island of Enchantment” is featured on Puerto Rican license plates. But with the recent scandal and step down of Puerto Rico’s governor, it begs to ask the question. Is Puerto Rico really the island of enchantment?

Yes, it’s true. Puerto Rico is the island of sun-soaked sandy beaches, piña coladas, bomba music, and home for many American Major League Baseball players. But Puerto Rico is also the island of sinister corruption and scandals. As of August 2nd, 2019, Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló has resigned from office over a scandal involving him and members of his administration sending each other homophobic and misogynistic messages about politicians, members of the media, and celebrities. An eruption of Puerto Rican protesters is finally what forced Rosselló to reluctantly resign.

The problem with this scandal and many other issues in Puerto Rico is that Americans don’t know how to process or understand them. In an interview about Puerto Rico with President Trump, Trump states “I have many Puerto Rican friends. I have a real understanding of Puerto Rico. I’ve had jobs in Puerto Rico.”

Curious to see how Americans match up to President Trump’s understanding of Puerto Rico? In a 2017 poll by Morning Consult, 46 percent of Americans answered (no/no opinion/I don’t know) to the question “To the best of your knowledge, are people born in Puerto Rico U.S. citizens?” Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens under the Jones Act of 1917, two months prior to the Selective Service draft for WWI enlisting 18,000 Puerto Rican men.

It’s not Americans’ fault in not understanding Puerto Rico, it’s corruption’s. Perhaps, that statistic would be a lot lower if Americans were adequately taught about the commonwealth/territory of Puerto Rico. There is an obvious lack of place for Puerto Rico in the American education system and even arguably in the American higher education system. One fact all Americans should know is Puerto Rico was almost a sovereign nation before the U.S. claimed the island. In 1897, the Spanish prime minister signed a Charter of Autonomy, which granted Puerto Rico the right to its own legislature, constitution, tariffs, monetary system, treasury, judiciary, and international borders. Elections for its new legislature were held in March 1898, and the new government was scheduled for installation in May.

So what happened? May 12th, the Spanish-American War arrived in Puerto Rico in the form of twelve U.S. battleships, destroyers, and torpedo boats attacking San Juan (the capital city of Puerto Rico) causing residents to flee defenseless leaving the city a ghost town. First with occupation and then decidedly staying, the U.S. declared Puerto Rico a permanent spoil of their war with Spain.

A fair amount of Americans probably don’t know this piece of information and there’s a reason for that. The U.S. has corrupted the island since its invasion during the Spanish-American War. If Americans knew the state Puerto Rico was in before the U.S. claimed it as a territory, you would see much more empathy for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans among Americans. Additionally, the U.S. would incorporate curriculum in the education system teaching the history of Puerto Rico with a “higher” consciousness.

As a result of history, corruption has festered and grown in Puerto Rico. By 1934, 80 percent of sugarcane farms in Puerto Rico were U.S. owned. Additionally, the four largest U.S. owned syndicates (Central Guánica, Central Aguirre, Fajardo Sugar, and United Porto Rico Sugar) owned over half of Puerto Rico’s arable land. This affected Puerto Rican people in sinister ways. Puerto Ricans without any land, crops, or money moved to cities for work. Additionally, when the island legislature enacted a minimum wage law like in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional forcing Puerto Ricans to work for less than under Spanish rule.

Political and economic corruption persists today in Puerto Rico. PROMESA, a fiscal oversight board of a handful of politicians has the most power over Puerto Rico which was passed as a bill by President Obama. Additionally, Puerto Ricans can only vote in presidential primaries and have a minimal representation of one congress member who can only voice concerns.

One might wonder, what am I supposed to do with this information? Feel bad? The answer is no. Use that information to inform the way you react to certain issues when Puerto Rico comes to the table. It seems that Puerto Rico is the “Island of Enchantment,” but perhaps in a “gilded”  American narrative kind of way. We must take some initiative to hold our government responsible for the conditions that exist today. Voice your concerns to congress members, talk with family members and friends, share this article! We all have our own problems but what’s the point if we can’t help each other?

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