Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 is a day that will go down in history as the day that President Obama was elected to his second term. But to the people of Puerto Rico, it will go down as the day the population finally voted in favor of American statehood.
Puerto Ricans voted on a two-part referendum Tuesday. The first question addressed interest in changing the island’s relationship with the United States. The second asked citizens to decide that if the commonwealth’s political status was to change, what it should change to.
As of early Wednesday, 54% of Puerto Rico’s 1,643 precincts were interested in changing the commonwealth’s political status. Sixty-one percent of voters who chose to answer the second question believed that Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state. Currently, the island is a U.S. territory and its residents are U.S. citizens, but they are unable to vote in presidential elections and have limited representation in the U.S. House.
Nicole Arocho, a Puerto Rican student at Ithaca College, did not vote on the referendum. Had she voted, she said, she would not have supported the statehood of Puerto Rico.
“Statehood won’t happen any time soon,” Arocho said. “The voting that happened this Tuesday did not bind the U.S. in any way; it wasn’t a consult with Congress’ blessing, it was just [something] the pro-statehood political party in power wanted to do to push Congress to do something about our political status, but it isn’t that this voting is final.”
The 2012 vote is not the first time that Puerto Rico has debated its political status. The commonwealth previously held official plebiscites in 1967, 1993 and 1998, but Tuesday was the first time a majority voted in favor of statehood.
And yet this majority was not clear. Only about 1.3 million voters chose to answer the second question on the referendum, and while nearly 800,000 voters chose statehood, roughly 500,000 voters left the question blank.
At present, Congress has no plans to induct Puerto Rico into the United States of America, and it’s unclear if or when that will happen, according to USA TODAY. Early in 2011, President Obama commented on the matter, saying that it wasn’t up to the U.S. government to pass judgment.
“The status of Puerto Rico should be decided by the residents of Puerto Rico,” Obama stated last year. “If the plebiscite, or the referendum, that takes place in Puerto Rico indicates that there is a strong preference from the majority of the Puerto Rican people, I think that will influence how Congress approaches any action that might be taken to address status issues.”
Beyond the political implications of Puerto Rico’s potential statehood, some — like Arocho — are worried about the cultural effects of Puerto Rico as a state.
“We Puerto Ricans take pride in our sports teams, athletes, Miss Universe candidates and other cultural figures,” Arocho said. “If we became a state, all this would disappear.”
Jack Stearns, a recent alumnus of the University of Michigan, also thinks that the cultural barrier between the United States and Puerto Rico could prevent a successful inclusion.
“I think Puerto Rico could be a great boost to our economy, but the problem is that the language barrier is the number one reason for misunderstanding between Americans and immigrants,” Stearns said. “There’s a lot of division because of language issues.”
“If Puerto Rico becomes a state, our language, Spanish, will be substituted by English,” Arocho said. “Language is a very important part of culture and, without Spanish, the Hispanic culture of my country will fade away completely.”
Others view Puerto Rico’s statehood as a way to emphasize the “melting pot” background that is integral to the history of America. Kimberly Mahaffy, the director of Latino/Latina Studies at Millersville University, said that Puerto Rico joining the U.S. would help maintain its culture.
“This would be reaffirming and politically powerful,” Mahaffy said in Lancaster Online. “My hope is that [Congress] finally … allows Puerto Rico to be an example of how a state could be fully integrated while maintaining their pride and their sense of culture and language.”
Because of the referendum’s non-binding quality and the disinterest of the United States government, it seems that despite new designs for the American flag, there will be no 51st state in the current future.
“A lot of federal laws apply to us … we already are U.S. citizens,” Arocho said. “It’s easier just to stay as we are.”
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