Illustration by Mark Owens

Puerto Rico, Island and State of Ambiguity: Esmeralda Santiago

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June 14 (Bloomberg) -- President Obama will visit Puerto Rico today for a series of meetings to discuss the island’s status. He has vowed to work with Congress and with Puerto Ricans living on and off the island to settle this issue once and for all. It is arguably the single most contentious subject among Puerto Ricans.

Friends and family members are split on their positions: for statehood, for independence or for a continuation of the status quo, in which the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory of the U.S. Arguments are often heated, as befits a discussion that has lasted more than 100 years.

It is impossible to be Puerto Rican without someone asking your opinion about the status question. It is in our marrow, our ambivalence about the quasi-citizenship that makes it impossible to be 100 percent Puerto Rican (because we’re American citizens) or 100 percent American (because we’re Puerto Rican), even as we insist that we are one or the other.

In the U.S., we are viewed as second-class citizens. We are often regarded by even the most educated people as immigrants, burdened with the associated negative stereotypes yet rarely credited with having overcome the challenges of immigration.

Our struggle for self-determination touches Puerto Ricans daily, though its history is largely unknown in the U.S. Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Harry S. Truman and shot up Congress in the 1950s. Over the years, there have been rebellions, political prisoners, the killing or attempted killing of nationalist leaders, bank robberies and bombings by the radical movement Los Macheteros, the machete wielders.

A Presidential Pledge

And now the president pledges to help resolve the matter. Before his visit, Obama will have been briefed on Puerto Rico. The island has been a colony for over five centuries, beginning with a series of invasions by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century. In 1898, the U.S. Navy invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.

Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. We can vote in the presidential primaries that are held on the island but not for president in the general elections -- unless we live in the U.S. In short, we are quasi-American citizens on the island and can only discharge our civic duties fully on the continent.

There are 3.8 million Puerto Ricans on the island and 4.2 million more in the U.S. Both Spanish and English are official languages in Puerto Rico. The current pro-statehood governor, Luis Fortuno, has made much of our bilingualism, but a short drive beyond San Juan proves that this is more a goal than a reality. We’re holding fast to what’s left of our Spanish heritage, primarily the language.

English Is Everywhere

Still, the ubiquitous signs in English and the impressive presence of American businesses like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Walgreen Co. demonstrate that Puerto Ricans have accepted American culture and customs with alacrity.

On his visit, Obama might sense the anguish of Puerto Ricans over the island’s unemployment rate. It was 16.4 percent in April, compared with 9 percent in the U.S. Another cause for despair is the alarming incidence of murder. Obama might be skeptical, as we are, when the local police blame drug conflicts for the crime, as if that makes it less frightening or more acceptable. Obama might not be aware of violence against women and gay people, and the reports of suicides that have become more common since the economic downturn.

Worries About Pipeline

Very likely, no one will speak to Obama about the corruption at high levels of government and law enforcement. He might not be told about popular opposition to Fortuno’s current pet project -- a gas pipeline that would cut across some of the island’s fragile ecosystems and possibly expose adjacent communities to explosions.

But the president might hear that the population is aging. Although Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. often return to the island as retirees, the young frequently leave for opportunities unavailable at home. Between 2005 and 2009, Puerto Rico lost 300,000 people and gained 160,000, for a net loss of 140,000, about 4 percent of its population. Those departing had a higher education level than those returning, producing a loss of potential leaders for the island.

During Obama’s brief visit, he may get a glimpse of anti-American protests. He has written that he is “firmly committed to the principle” that Puerto Rico’s status is “a matter of self-determination.” His President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status recommends two plebiscites, the first to determine whether Puerto Ricans prefer to be independent or in a legal relationship with the U.S. If they choose the latter, the task force proposes a second vote that presents three options: statehood, free association or some form of commonwealth.

Still Second-Class

The first plebiscite would be the most painful. We would have to choose whether we are American or Puerto Rican. As a Puerto Rican living in the U.S., I would not get a vote, but I would watch it closely. If Puerto Ricans choose against independence and, later, against statehood, the ambiguities we have lived with for more than a century in association with the U.S. and for 400 years before that under Spanish rule will continue. Nothing will change. We will remain second-class citizens in our own land and in the world.

(Esmeralda Santiago is the author of three memoirs and the upcoming novel “Conquistadora,” which will be available in July. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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