With the structure of race, ethnicity, and culture in the United States, Afro Latinos often have a difficult time maintaining and celebrating both sides of their racial identity. From assumptions based on skin color to strict categorization in surveys and standardized testing, those of mixed heritages are often told that they need to pick a side. A study by the State University of New York at Albany found that “Hispanics who define themselves as ‘black’ have lower incomes and are more likely to reside in segregated neighborhoods than those who identify themselves as ‘white’ or ‘other.’” Even in multi-ethnic states, such as California, Afro Latinos feel pressure to choose sides or find themselves lumped into one category or another instead of being accepted as both Black and Latino.
The case of Afro Puerto Ricans in the United States is especially unique right now due to the recent election. For the first time in history, Puerto Ricans rejected their status as a United States commonwealth, though only by a small margin, in favor of statehood as the alternative. This change is a “non-binding referendum” that still has to be approved by Congress, but it is an indicator that Puerto Ricans want the island to become the 51st state.
The statehood of Puerto Rico would bring many issues of race, identity, and politics to the forefront. The American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico recently published a report called “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force.” In this report, they found that the Puerto Rican Police Department, second in size only to the NYPD, regularly commits constitutional and human rights violations, often targeting Black Puerto Ricans. Such violations include:
- Excessive lethal force against civilians, especially in poor or Black communities
- Suppression of peaceful protestors using outdated, violent tactics no longer acceptable in the U.S.
- Failure to investigate allegations of domestic violence, rape, and other gender-based crimes.
If Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state, the United States government would need to address these issues. Afro Puerto Ricans would also be in a unique position of having their identity possibly redefined as all Puerto Ricans become United States citizens. Will they still be classified as Afro Latino or will they be classified as African American? Most state residents, except maybe those in Hawaii, do not have a strong racial identity tied specifically to their state of origin. For example, if asked her racial background or ethnicity, a Californian would not say “Californian” but Mexican, Caucasian, African American, or Asian American. Puerto Rico would be unique, however, in that their racial background and state of origin would possibly be the same.
This is an exciting time in United States history as a commonwealth, generally thought of as a Latin American country, becomes a state. I encourage people to follow the process to see how racial identities or classifications change and what is required of Puerto Rico to be considered our 51st state.
by Emily Springer