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How Puerto Ricans Feel About Statehood And What Becoming A State Could Look Like

A Puerto Rican flag hangs from the balcony of a house in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Erika P. Rodriguez/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Puerto Rican flag hangs from the balcony of a house in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s governor is lobbying Congress to vote in favor of statehood. We took a look at current attitudes here and in Puerto Rico about this debate.

There’s a new push in Congress for Puerto Rican statehood.

A majority of voters on the island voiced their support in November on a referendum that asked them whether they wanted statehood for Puerto Rico.

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Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi is pushing the idea now in Washington D.C., along with Democratic Representative Darren Soto, Florida’s first Puerto Rican congressman, who sponsored a bill for statehood.

They say state status would help the island tackle massive economic issues and recovery from the destruction of Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in 2017. Some opponents worry the island would potentially lose some of its cultural identity.

Another challenge for statehood has come from Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, of New York, who launched her own statehood bill that has split Democrats on the issue. The bill calls for the self-determination of the island — leading to other options besides statehood, like independence or a free association.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with a panel on the topic of Puerto Rico becoming a new state. He was joined by the New York Times' Miami bureau chief Patricia Mazzei; Frances Colon, the vice president of the Puerto Rican Leadership Council of South Florida; and Victor Vazquez-Hernandez, an author and history professor at Miami-Dade College.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: How often does the conversation of statehood come up among Puerto Ricans?

MAZZEI: People in the States like to talk about statehood more than people in Puerto Rico and I think part of that is because a lot of the people who support statehood for Puerto Rico are in the States. It's people who have experience being in a state, and maybe they want that for Puerto Rico or perhaps they left Puerto Rico because they supported statehood and want to live in a state — it’s sort of a chicken and egg question.

It comes up less, in my experience, in Puerto Rico, outside of the the realm of politics. That's not to say that the statehood issue doesn't sort of underlie every other issue that comes up in Puerto Rico in terms of public policy matter and and concern. But I think there's people on the island who get very frustrated when the attention can only be drawn on statehood as opposed to the many other issues that matter to Puerto Ricans.

What are the benefits to becoming a state?

VAZQUEZ-HERNANDEZ: Well, for those who advocate for the option, they believe that first they will have representation in Congress, two senators and about four representatives. So they'll have a direct voice and be able to vote directly on issues and elect the president of the United States.

On the economic front, they believe that they will have parity with other other states in terms of federal funds. Right now, in the case of Medicaid and Medicare, for example, they do not receive the same amounts of funds. So those are a couple of major-ticket items that people see that will improve the conditions of the of the island. They would probably have a greater ability to negotiate a bankruptcy and more favorable terms in addressing the issue of the debt.

What does that equality that Puerto Ricans are calling for look like?

COLON: It means basically that at the end of the day, Puerto Ricans feel they have given a lot. They have given loyalty to this country. They have served in the military. Our scientists work alongside mainland scientists to to get to cures. Our doctors and nurses work alongside mainland ones to take care of COVID patients. Why is there such a difference in perception? Why is [there] this othe-ring? What is this marginalization?

When a crisis occurs, there's too much water between the mainland and Puerto Rico, it's too far away. Puerto Ricans have given a lot and they expect to be treated with respect and with equality because they have acted as Americans, they have served as Americans. They have given as Americans, and they deserve that to equal treatment.

What would have to happen for Puerto Rico to become a state? What's the process of statehood?

VAZQUEZ-HERNANDEZ: Let's suppose that Puerto Rico was clear to proceed to officially request entrance as a state. Then there would have to be a bill drafted in either the Senate or the House, and it would have to have 67 senators on board to pass. A similar bill would require 290 members of Congress to approve and then the president would have to sign it.

Republican and Democrat support would be needed for that to occur. Then, once approved and signed by the president, it would go out to all 50 state governments and 38 of the states would have to do give the final approval to entrance of Puerto Rico or any other state. It's daunting. It's a long process.

Leslie Ovalle produces WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.