I hated Mondays as a child. It had nothing to do with school and everything to do with lentil soup. Mondays were lentil-soup day, and I hated lentil soup. The texture of the lentils, the color of the dish, the sheer regularity with which they appeared before me. When I was about 10, I began to rebel against this tyranny my grandfather had imposed upon the house. “We should have a vote,” I suggested one Sunday night. My grandparents agreed, and I drafted up ballots with two options (to prevent a draw). Lentil soup was not a candidate. On Monday morning, I left for school, pleased about democracy in action. On Monday evening, I ate lentil soup.
“I said we could have a vote,” my grandfather said. “I never said I was going to listen to it.”
This, effectively, has been what’s been happening in Puerto Rico since 1967, when the colony—our American colony—held its first plebiscite. On several occasions since then, elections have been staged on the island for the Puerto Rican people to ostensibly “self-determine” their fate, each one riddled with its own problems. But the greatest problem of them all has been that, much like my Lentil Liberation movement of the late ’80s, just because there was an election happening didn’t mean anyone in power (the U.S. Congress) was going to actually listen to the results.
That is, until now. Yesterday, a group of lawmakers in Congress unveiled the Puerto Rico Status Act. The purpose of the act is to “enable the people of Puerto Rico to choose a permanent, nonterritorial, fully self-governing political status for Puerto Rico,” and it proposes to do this by pledging to hold a congressionally backed plebiscite. Most critically, the plebiscite would be binding, meaning Congress would accept the results of the election. The people of Puerto Rico would, for the first time in over 100 years, determine their own future. But, perhaps most radically—and also much like my lentil-soup vote—what is not going to be on the ballot is the status quo.
If this act passes, Puerto Rico remaining a U.S. territory, with the thorny, undemocratic relationship that I’ve written about here before, would no longer be an option. Should the Puerto Rico Status Act be enacted into law, on November 5th, 2023, Puerto Ricans would be able to vote for statehood, independence, or sovereignty in free association. (This last one is a similar arrangement to Micronesia, where trade and protection pacts are made between the island nation and the U.S.)
In other words, yesterday was, potentially, a historic first step in ending U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. I say potentially because, of course, partisanship. As Mr. Bill famously sang, “I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill.” This bill needs to be approved by the House and, more arduously, the Senate. But this is where you come in.
We are living in times where we voters feel like we are screaming into a void. Unelected judges are stripping away our reproductive rights; our elected officials seem completely out of touch with the real challenges of our day-to-day lives. And so I say to you: Here is an issue where I believe public support can make a difference. Allow me to speak frankly (not that you’d expect anything less). The travesties that have happened, and continue to happen, in Puerto Rico—the systematic disenfranchisement, the toxic waste that is being dumped on the island, the medical experiments and sterilizations conducted there, the governmental neglect after Hurricane Maria, the current situation in which U.S. citizens live with constant rolling blackouts, the corporate enrichment and corruption—have been allowed to persist because Congress assumes that nobody cares about this place or its people. That this is a “special interest” problem. Or, more bluntly, that a predominantly white electorate won’t care that their fellow Americans are being subjected to taxation without representation and all the other ills of colonialism, because the people affected are not white.
The issue of Puerto Rico’s status is a moral one. It is a patriotic one. I feel the hunger out there for us—Americans—to have a country that’s better than it is now. And I sense a feeling of powerlessness among people I talk to. At times I feel that way too. There is much we cannot affect—the decisions of the Supreme Court, the actions of racist terrorists who hunt down Black people and Asian people and Latino people.
But we can raise hell about colonialism. Right now. You, reader, who is most likely not Puerto Rican, can shock your lawmakers by giving a shit about people whom they most likely never think about. We can make phone calls. We can write letters. We can say, “I want to be sure that you are supporting the Puerto Rican Status Act, because I don’t want to live in a country where my citizenship means more or less depending on where I live. And I want to be sure my elected officials feel that way too.”
Anyway, watch this space. And if you want to hear more about this bill, the full press conference is here.