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Puerto Ricans Reflect On A Century Of (Limited) Citizenship

Photo caption:

Photo by Greg Allen NPR

The Capitol of Puerto Rico, Capitolio de Puerto Rico, in San Juan. Puerto Rico is under federal control, but isn't allowed voting representation in Congress, and residents can't vote for president.

Photo caption:

Photo by Greg Allen NPR

Guanica Bay is where American troops commanded by General Nelson Miles landed on July 25, 1898. At the site, a stone marker engraved by the 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army commemorates the invasion.

Photo caption:

Photo by Greg Allen NPR

Francisco Rodriguez, is the museum director in Guanica. Most people there support statehood because of the town's historical connection to the U.S.

On Puerto Rico's southwestern corner, the sleepy seaside town of Guanica is where, nearly 120 years ago, the U.S relationship with the island began. It was during the Spanish-American War. The town's museum director, Francisco Rodriguez, takes visitors to the town's waterfront where the invasion began. In Spanish he says, "This is Guanica Bay where the American troops commanded by General Nelson Miles landed on July 25, 1898." At the site, a stone marker engraved by the 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army commemorates the invasion.

Nearly 19 years after the invasion, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, granting citizenship to people born on the island. But it's a limited form of citizenship. The law puts Puerto Rico under federal control but doesn't allow the island voting representation in Congress. Residents also can't vote for president. That law started a debate that continues today over what exactly the island's relationship with the U.S. should be. And now in Puerto Rico, there's a new push to fix what many see it as a deeply-flawed relationship.

For decades, there have been three basic positions: statehood, independence and the status quo or commonwealth status — each represented by a political party. But there is something nearly all Puerto Ricans agree on. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello says, "Regardless of what ideological twist people may have, about 90 to 95 percent of our population really values our citizenship, so it's of utmost importance."

Rossello says one of the reasons Puerto Ricans treasure U.S. citizenship is that it allows them to travel freely to the mainland. Over the last decade, while the island was mired in a recession, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida, New York, Texas and other states.

Rossello is with Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party, which advocates statehood. That's the good side of the island's status — being part of the U.S. "The bad side of it is that we are not a full part of the United States," Rossello says. "We're a territory or a colonial territory. We're aiming to change that and of course, from my perspective, I'd want Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the nation."

Today the question of Puerto Rico's status is one debated on the campaign trail. But over the last century, the push for Puerto Rican independence several times led to violence, including an attempt to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950 and then, four years later, an attack on Congress in which five members of Congress were wounded.

Since then, support for outright independence has declined on the island as the Puerto Rican population has grown on the U.S. mainland. Support also has declined, at least among elected officials, for maintaining the status quo. Last year, a Supreme Court decision undercut the island's long-standing claims of autonomy. Around the same time, struggling with more than $70 billion in public debt, Puerto Rico was forced to hand over financial control to an oversight board established by Congress.

Manuel Natal serves in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives with the party that has long supported the current commonwealth status. He believes change is needed, but worries statehood would force Puerto Ricans to give up things they've long treasured. He says: "We can talk about language. We can talk about our cultural identity. We can give plenty of examples of things that are important to the people of Puerto Rico on day to day, and we are not sure how they'd come about if statehood was actually a reality."

Natal supports a political status called free association. That would enable Puerto Rico to maintain its close relationship with the U.S. while at the same time allowing the island autonomy to make its own trade deals.

He thinks the U.S. Congress might find free association more acceptable than statehood. In part that's because statehood would grant Puerto Rico more power in Washington: two U.S. senators and as many as five House members, numbers that could affect Republican control in Congress. And Natal says, with President Trump's pledge to build a wall on the U.S. border, he doesn't see Washington welcoming a state where Spanish is the first language. "I'm a Puerto Rican citizen, a U.S. citizen with a thick accent," he says. "I understand what's going on there and I know that statehood is not a possibility."

In June, Puerto Ricans will go to the polls to choose between two options: statehood or independence/free association.

In Guanica, museum director Francisco Rodriguez says most people there support statehood. In part that's because of the town's historical connection to the U.S. and the monument that marks the invasion. "Puerto Rico lacks resources, but that's not the fault of the U.S.," he says.

But it's a town with a mixed legacy. Every year, Rodriguez says, members of the island's independence movement come to Guanica to protest. It's a place that's both a source of pride, and for many, a symbol of colonialism and a century-long dysfunctional relationship with the U.S.

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