On Nov. 3 Forest Parkers may have been so anxious about who would win the presidential election that they might not have noticed their fellow Americans living in Puerto Rico were that day voting on a non-binding referendum that asked, “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state? Yes or No?”
Vivian Ramos noticed. Her grandparents moved from the island to Chicago in the 1950s looking for work. The 41-year-old Forest Park resident has ties to the island, located at the far eastern end of a chain of islands in the Caribbean known as the Greater Antilles. Through her grandmother, she is one of over 5 million people claiming Puerto Rican heritage who are living in the 50 states, compared to just 3.2 million living on the island itself.
But because she has lived in the Chicago area her whole life and has only actually been to the island twice, she thinks of herself as an American more than as a Puerto Rican. And that’s where the identity confusion begins, not only for her but for everyone who has ties to the island. First, because Puerto Ricans are already Americans in a legal sense.
The island became a territory of the U.S. at the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 and was given the status of a commonwealth in 1952. Commonwealth status means that residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in U.S. elections and have no elected representatives in Congress. They pay no federal income tax, but they can be drafted when a draft is in effect.
That means Puerto Rico’s identity is in a hard-to-define place somewhere between a state, a colony and an independent country.
Vivian sees both sides of the status debate. Statehood, she reasoned, would mean that island residents could finally vote in U.S. elections, have representation in Congress and be eligible for more federal programs. Remaining a commonwealth means that Puerto Ricans on the island would not have to pay federal income tax and would be able to attract businesses to the island by giving them tax breaks not available in the 50 states.
Vivian’s first cousin, Norverto Ramos, however, is definitely in favor of statehood. Puerto Ricans on the island do send money to the federal government in the form of payroll taxes, social security taxes, business taxes, gift taxes and estate taxes.
He did some research into what percentage of every tax dollar returns in the form of services and grants. “Connecticut,” he argued, “gets back 74 percent for every dollar they pay the federal government. That’s the least amount any state gets back, per dollar. In comparison, Puerto Rico gets back about 50 percent per dollar, and they get less services than states do. If they were to become a state, they would get more federal aid, more Social Security, more welfare, more SNAP, more services. Plus they would be allowed to vote in elections and have representatives in Congress.
“Funny,” he added, “the U.S. was started because they didn’t feel that taxation without representation was correct and yet that is what is happening to Puerto Rico.”
As it turned out, a very slim majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood. Of those casting ballots 623,053 or 52.34% voted “yes” and 567,346 or 47.66% said “no.”
What doesn’t show in the vote is revealed in the results of the election for governor of the island which was also held on Nov. 3. The winning candidate, who was from the New Progressive Party (PNP), which favors statehood, got only 33 percent of the vote. The candidate from the Progressive Democratic Party (PPD), which wants to remain a commonwealth, received 32 percent of the vote.
What is significant is that neither of the two major parties got even close to winning a majority of the vote. There is growing support for third parties outside the traditional two-party system in which statehood has been a main issue.
Time Magazine reported that the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), the newly registered anti-colonial Citizen’s Victory Movement (CVM) and the anti-corruption Project Dignity Parties together received nearly 35 percent of the vote.
Vivian, who self-identifies as a progressive, was uncertain what the vote totals from the island really mean. Referring to previous statehood referenda on the ballot in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017, she said, “I don’t know what these votes are actually doing, because there is no follow up in Congress.”
If Puerto Rico did become a state, she said, it would probably vote Democratic.