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Will referendum eventually lead to Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state?

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A large Puerto Rican flag at a National Puerto Rican Day Parade.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – When gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was coming into his own as a writer, he tried his hand at fiction-based-on-fact, specifically on the time he spent in the late 1950’s working as a sports writer for a small newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The novel he began working on in the early 1960’s, but not published until 1998, was The Rum Diary, which was made into a film starring Johnny Depp in 2011.

For a journalist, it’s a great story. And when Thompson was on the island – long a neo-colonial “territory” of the United States, he inserted this sentence into Chapter 11 of The Rum Diary when writing about his character, Paul Kemp, finding a new place to live, he writes about negotiating with the landlord over the cost of the rent: “The woman (landlord) wanted a hundred, but when I said seventy-five she quickly agreed. I had seen a big ‘51’ sticker on a car in front of her house and she told me that she and her husband were going all out for statehood.

Passions regarding statehood (and independence, less so) run deep.

Recall that the events in Thompson’s novel took place over 50 years ago (the 50th state, Hawaii, was granted statehood in 1959) and here in 2017, the long-languishing, Spanish-speaking island voted on Sunday – overwhelmingly – in favor of statehood, following a referendum that begins steps of “Sending representatives to Washington, D.C.” and “meaning its governor will choose two senators and five representatives to go to Washington, D.C. to request statehood,” as reported by The Hill.

And while many Republicans have balked at the idea of statehood for Democrat-leaning Puerto Rico, President Trump, The Hill reported, “signaled during his presidential campaign that he is open to Puerto Rico officially becoming a state.”

And some may wonder why Puerto Ricans have such an affinity for their official flag.

Partly because the U.S. government-supported Public Law 53 made it illegal – a felony – to “sing a song, whistle a tune, or utter one word against the U.S. government, or in favor of Puerto Rican independence. This included singing La Borinquena, or owning a Puerto Rican flag. Own a flag … 10 years in jail,” as noted by Nelson A. Denis, author of War Against All Puerto Ricans and a very informative blog telling the real story of Puerto Rico, up to the present day.

Red Dirt Report has argued in favor of full-on independence for Puerto Rico, noting that independence "is the only way forward."

And back to history, as The Guardian notes: "The standing of this tropical Caribbean island in relation to the US has been the running sore dominant topic of local conversation, ever since it was handed to Washington as war booty at the end of the Spanish-American war of 1898. In 1917, the islanders were granted US citizenship, but they continue to labour under a political half-life in which they can elect their own local government and governor but cannot vote in federal elections.

Several glaring anomalies arise from this colonial pact. One of the more poignant is the fact that Puerto Ricans can serve in the US military and be sent into battle by a president whom they cannot elect."

In a piece in The Hill last summer, penned by U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Illinois), he said that the “colonial attitude of the U.S. towards Puerto Rico” has had long-term and damaging effects on “the Puerto Rican psyche.” This piece was written due to the U.S. government's slow response to Puerto Rico's spiking Zika virus crisis at that time. 

As for Congress, there is little interest in making Puerto Rico the 51st state, mainly due to the island being "linguistically, culturally and racially" dissimilar to intergrating with the U.S. as a whole. This, of course, leads to Congress looking "ugly" and racist, as Dr. Amilcar Barreto, a specialist in Puerto Rican politicas at Northeastern University in Boston told The Guardian“This brings out the worst in the US Congress,” Barreto said. “To be blunt, it brings out the racist side of Congress. To admit to the union a Spanish-speaking, racially-diverse population – hell no.”

Red Dirt Report is attempting to get officials comments on the Puerto Rican statehood referendum from members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation. If and when we do, we will be sure to post them here.

In the meantime, with over 90 percent of Puerto Rican voters (albeit amidst low voter turnout) voting for statehood, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricard Rosselló said, "The federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico."

Let's hope Gov. Rosselló is right.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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