The Racial State of Puerto Rico

Demonstrating for statehood, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Demonstrating for statehood, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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  • Suppression of peaceful protestors using outdated, violent tactics no longer acceptable in the U.S.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

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10 Comments

  1. Michele E

     /  December 7, 2012

    Emily, I would like to thank you for your post. Identity issues plague us all whether it is about religion, race, sexuality etc. This crisis of “what am I” must only be heightened by the addition of dual races especially when both of these races individually are so rich in culture. Perhaps in 30-60 years someone would wish to be lucky enough to have multiple races within their family history. It would be amazing to alter the perception a little bit so that instead of feeling the need to be divided about identity people would see being Afro Puerto Rican as a great benefit and not a hindrance. In Hawaii the strong Polynesian culture is one that enriches the state in so many ways and people flock to visit due to its contribution in culture to the islands. Why can’t people appreciate the addition of a race as a positive?
    Thanks so much again for raising awareness around this issue.

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  2. Ivan

     /  December 8, 2012

    For starters check the Census to see the actual ethnic distribution and you will see the premise of the article is a fantasy, The same goes for the rest of it. This load of BS we have to endure from the mainland media for more than a 100 years is what has been in they way to get to join the Union..

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  3. Tori Lucas

     /  December 9, 2012

    How interesting that this post is next to the writing on Montreal. How racial and ethnic identities cause people to be treated differently by not only fellow community members and civilians, but by those that work for the governing body in which they live gives us a lot to think about. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, how the government would choose to incorporate cultures and/or define identities (i.e Puerto Rico has it’s own flag) will be truly something to watch. I am curious as to if the police will be monitored and how the issues you raised on policing will be handled. I also wonder how much of the voice of the different groups of people of the island will be heard over that of the government of this country. Definitely something to watch. Thanks for raising awareness.

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    • Hi Tori,

      Puerto Ricans certainly have their own culture, but so did all of the other states of the Union before they joined. And all the states have their own flags,too. I think the flag thing is superficial. What I’m interested in seeing is how the US will handle language from here on out. Will they make English the official language? If they do, that will alienate a lot of citizens in Puerto Rico who don’t speak English. PR would be the first non-English speaking country to become a state. I think one of the big reasons that PR has resisted pushing for statehood for so long is because they’re afraid of losing their culture. We’ll see what happens, but my hope is that my family would be able to keep their language, customs, and identifications even after becoming a state.

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  4. Emily, you say “Afro Puerto Ricans would also be in a unique position of having their identity possibly redefined as all Puerto Ricans become United States citizens.” Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens NOW. They have been since the country became a commonwealth. As an Afro Puerto Rican, I’m not sure that becoming a state would change how I identify myself. I mean, it wouldn’t add any more confusion, and I’m force to pick sides already. On the Census in 2010, I had to pick “African-American” even though I don’t identify as such because it was the closest option. How would that change if PR became a state? I don’t think it would. But I think this piece raises some good points.

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  5. Rebecca McCarthy

     /  December 11, 2012

    This was a really good article,Emily. Also related to identity, it will be interesting to see if Puerto Rico becoming a 51st state will change Puerto Rico on a cultural level, or if it will be able to retain much of its own culture.

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  6. Mio

     /  December 12, 2012

    I found the article to be interesting. There are a lot of issues at hand. I found it interesting to see that Afro-Latinos are more prone to be affected by poverty (not surprised). I am also not surprised how Afro-Puerto Ricans are marginalized in Puerto Rico.
    Some clarifications: Puerto Ricans are US citizens
    In the census, you are encouraged to check off as many boxes as possible. As an Afro-Latina, I make sure I check off all the boxes that applies.
    The statehood debate has a long interesting history in Puerto Rico and the fact that they do not have any representation, no voice, it would make sense why they would want to become a state, although fighting to become independent might be another option, this issue is very complex and only can Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico decide their fate.

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  7. Hillary

     /  December 13, 2012

    As a resident of Alaska (another state whose residents also have strong ethnic identity tied to their state of origin), the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood is particularly exciting and relatable. Whether or not statehood is right for Puerto Rico can only be determined by Puerto Ricans themselves, but think Hawaiians & Alaskans will be very eager to welcome them to the family.

    Even if some of the information in this post is not 100% accurate, I thought it was interesting if for no other reason than it raises some on-going issues about Identity-Race-Ethnicity in America. Since 2000 the US Census does allow responders to mark all race categories that they identify with. But the way in which the Census defines its race categories is somewhat questionable. As Ariela already pointed out, even with the multiple categories, people are still sometimes forced to identify themselves on the government’s terms – not their own. One of my classmates from last semester once lamented that the government does not offer enough categories to identify oneself. He didn’t identify as ‘African American’ but felt the grouping of ‘Latin American-Caribbean’ excluded him as well. As someone from a mixed background (Alaskan Native/ white) I found it particularly interesting to watch the category for Indigenous people evolve overtime. When I was young the category was labeled solely as ‘American Indian’ or sometimes ‘Native American.’ This labeling was alienating to Alaska’s indigenous population that includes 3 distinct ethnicities (Indian, Eskimo & Aleut). Sometime in the 90’s the name was changed to its more inclusive present state: ‘American Indian/Alaskan Native’. But even this categorization is not entirely inclusive of all indigenous people. Although the Census definition of American Indian/ Alaskan Native includes the indigenous people of Central & South America, I have never heard any of my friends with ancestral ties to the indigenous communities Latin America identify themselves as ‘American Indian.’ I can’t help but feel that the next Census would benefit from an update – perhaps something as broad as ‘Indigenous American.’

    In terms of official US language, when the US acquired the territory that became the Southwest states in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Spanish language rights were protected for all Latino residents who chose to stay in the Southwest and become US citizens. Furthermore, Louisiana has language protection rights (specifically French) written into its state Constitution. Whenever activist Republican congressmen talk about making English the official US language, they are only demonstrating to the general public how misinformed they are about US history and laws.

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  8. Annie B. (Making A Difference class)

     /  December 17, 2012

    It would be wonderful to think that Puerto Rico becoming an official state of the U.S. would help us redefine what it means to be an American into something that actually acknowledges the multi-national and multi-ethnic nature of our society. But given our conversations about hegemony and the desire to universalize – and even white wash – our concept of America, I would be concerned about the ability of PR to retain Spanish as its official language, etc. Does PR become another “Other” that “refuses” to assimilate, or does it help redefine what it means to be part of this nation? Given the marginalization I’ve witnessed of Spanish-speaking communities here in Brooklyn, I hope that this creates an opportunity here in NYC to acknowledge the membership that Puerto Ricans deserve in our city’s cultural and social identity.

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