Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and its residents are considered United States citizens. However the island’s political status remains a subject of debate and discussion. Some Puerto Ricans advocate for independence, while others support maintaining the current status as a territory, pursuing statehood, or seeking other forms of self-determination for the island. The political status of Puerto Rico remains a complex and ongoing issue.

Transcript for Puerto Rican Citizenship: A Complex Status

Written and Researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Elizabeth: Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and its residents are considered United States citizens. However the island’s political status remains a subject of debate and discussion. Some Puerto Ricans advocate for independence, while others support maintaining the current status as a territory, pursuing statehood, or seeking other forms of self-determination for the island. The political status of Puerto Rico remains a complex and ongoing issue.

Sarah: Today we’ll be considering the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans. They are citizens of the United States, but what does that really mean? Does that mean that those living on the island of Puerto Rico have the same rights as say, a naturalized citizen living in Minnesota? And furthermore, what exactly are the rights of U.S. citizenship? Let’s dig in….

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Sarah

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Elizabeth: The original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, before European colonization, were indigenous peoples known as the Taíno. The Taíno were part of the Arawakan-speaking peoples who inhabited various islands in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, and Cuba.

Sarah: The Taíno culture in Puerto Rico was characterized by agriculture, fishing, and a complex social structure. They cultivated crops such as maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes, and they were skilled in crafting pottery and tools. The Taíno society had chiefs or caciques who ruled over smaller villages, and they had a polytheistic religious belief system.

Elizabeth: The arrival of Christopher Columbus and European colonization in the late 15th century had a profound and devastating impact on the Taíno population. European diseases, forced labor, and violent conflicts led to a significant decline in the Taíno population. Many Taíno were enslaved and subjected to harsh conditions, while others succumbed to diseases introduced by the Europeans, to which they had no immunity.

Sarah: The establishment of Spanish settlements and colonization efforts in Puerto Rico took place over several decades, with the town of Caparra being founded in 1508 and later moved to the site of present-day San Juan in 1521. Under Spanish rule, Puerto Rico became an important outpost in the Spanish Empire, serving as a strategic base for further exploration and conquest in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Elizabeth: In 1898 Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. The Spanish-American War was a brief but significant conflict that took place between the United States and Spain.

Sarah: One of the primary factors leading to the Spanish-American war was the Cuban War of Independence that had been going since 1895, in which Cuban revolutionaries sought to gain independence from Spanish colonial rule. The Cuban struggle for independence gained international attention, and the harsh tactics employed by Spanish forces, including concentration camps where civilians suffered, drew condemnation from around the globe.

Elizabeth: Sensational and often exaggerated reporting by newspapers, known as “yellow journalism,” played a role in escalating these tensions. Newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer used sensational headlines and stories to increase their circulation and fueled public outrage over Spanish actions in Cuba and calling for U.S. intervention. However, much of this was exaggerated. Illustrator Frederick Remington was sent by Hearst to chronicle the war in Cuba. Remington got there and realized there wasn’t much going on. He cabled Hearst to tell him that there was no war to cover and Hearst allegedly replied with, “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”

Sarah: The explosion and sinking of the USS Maine, a U.S. battleship, in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, further escalated tensions. While the exact cause of the explosion remains disputed, many in the United States blamed Spain, and this event provided a catalyst for war sentiment. The most widely accepted theory today is that the explosion was likely an accident, possibly caused by a spontaneous combustion of coal that ignited the ship’s ammunition magazines. Nevertheless, headlines of “Remember the Main” were again fueled by the yellow journalism of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers.

Elizabeth: American business interests, particularly in the sugar and tobacco industries, had significant investments in Cuba and other Spanish colonies. They were concerned about the impact of the ongoing conflict on their economic interests and pressured the U.S. government to intervene. Furthermore,some politicians, known as “war hawks,” advocated for war with Spain as a means to boost American nationalism, buoy American “manhood,” expand American influence, and distract from domestic issues like the rising tide of women’s rights. Additionally, there was a desire among some in the U.S. government to assert America’s role as a global power, and to protect American business interests. Therefore, the United States’ interest in expanding its influence and presence in the Caribbean and the Pacific played a significant role in pushing the U.S. towards war with Spain.

Sharah: All of these forces led the U.S. Congress to pass a joint resolution on April 19, 1898, which declared war on Spain. In May 1898, as part of the war effort, U.S. forces, including both ground troops and naval units, were mobilized to engage Spanish forces in the Caribbean and the Pacific. On July 25, 1898, U.S. troops, led by General Nelson A. Miles, landed on the southern coast of Puerto Rico near the town of Guánica (juan-ee-ka). This marked the beginning of the U.S. military’s occupation of Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth: Over the next few weeks, U.S. forces engaged in various skirmishes and battles with Spanish forces on the island. The largest and most significant battle took place in August 1898 near the town of Yauco (yau-kow). U.S. forces emerged victorious in these engagements.

Sarah: The war came to an end in December 1898 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. This treaty formally ended hostilities and outlined the terms of peace. Under the terms of the Treaty, Spain ceded several of its overseas territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, to the United States. As a result of this treaty, Puerto Rico came under U.S. control. It’s worth noting that Puerto Rico had been a Spanish colony for over 400 years prior to this transfer of sovereignty.

Elizabeth: The Spanish-American War was a relatively short war between the United States and Spain.The term “Splendid Little War” is attributed to U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, who used the phrase in a letter to President William McKinley to characterize the short and decisive conflict. However, even as the term “Splendid Little War” is often used somewhat flippantly to describe the relatively swift and low-casualty conflict (for the Americans at least), it’s important to note that the war had profound global implications.

Sarah: Often when we teach the Spanish American war, we concentrate on Cuba, perhaps the exploits of TR and the Rough Riders, and end with the Treaty of Paris and then finish up by throwing in that Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were also ceded to the U.S. by Spain. And that’s kind of it. We could do a whole podcast on the bloody and protracted Philippine-American war that lasted another four years after the Treaty of Paris as Philipinos resisted U.S. colonization, but most history curricula perhaps give it a mention and move on. And sadly we will too but perhaps we can revisit it in another episode. If survey classes spend any time on the Spanish American War at all, we focus on Cuba Libre, the protracted Cuban fight for independence.

Elizabeth: But Puerto Rico also has a history of attempts to cast off Spanish colonial rule as well. Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain for 400 years before the Spanish American war and there were various unsuccessful attempts to achieve independence and be free from colonial rule. The largest was in 1868. 

Sarah: The Grito de Lares was a rebellion that took place in September 1868. It was one of the earliest and most significant uprisings against Spanish colonial rule in Puerto Rico. The rebels, led by Ramón Emeterio Betances and other independence advocates, sought to establish a free and independent Puerto Rican republic. However, the rebellion was suppressed by Spanish forces, and the leaders were arrested. There were various attempted uprisings and movements advocating for Puerto Rican independence from Spanish colonial rule. These efforts, however, were largely unsuccessful.

Original flag of the Grito de Lares, considered the first flag of Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth: Before the Spanish American War, Spain was already struggling to hang on to its colonial holdings in the Americas. On November 25, 1897, Spain approved the Carta Autonómica, also known as Constitución Autonómica, which gave Puerto Rico the right of self-government. The first elections under this new political arrangement were held in March 1898. However, the island never fully realized its autonomy and tensions were already building between Spain and the United States. Puerto Rico’s short-lived attempt at self-rule came to an end when the Spanish-American War began in April of that year.

Sarah: U.S. forces landed in Puerto Rico on October 18, 1898, and effectively took control of the island. In December the United States claimed ownership of the island as part of the Treaty of Paris, which concluded the Spanish–American War. The military was responsible for maintaining order, overseeing civil affairs, and managing the transition from Spanish colonial rule to U.S. control. This set an imperialistic tone for US-Puerto Rican relations and subjected the island to de-facto martial law.

Elizabeth:  In 1900 the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, also known as the Organic Act. It established a civil government in Puerto Rico, with a locally elected legislature and an appointed governor.

Sarah:While it provided for a degree of Puerto Rican self-governance, ultimate authority remained with the United States, and Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory was established.

Elizabeth: The Foraker Act went into effect on May 1, 1900, and it had significant implications for the governance and political status of Puerto Rico. The Foraker Act replaced the military government that had initially governed Puerto Rico with a civilian government under U.S. authority, transitioning from military rule to civilian rule.

Sarah: The Act provided for the appointment of a U.S. President-appointed governor who would represent the executive branch of the government in Puerto Rico. President William McKinley appointed an American civilian governor, Charles Herbert Allen, to oversee the civil government of Puerto Rico. The act also created an Executive Council, composed of the governor and several executive officials, which had limited legislative authority. This council would help administer the government and advise the governor. Notably, the executive council was comprised of five Puerto Rican members and six US members, effectively ensuring that mainland interests were protected.

Elizabeth: The Act established a Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and allowed the island to send a Resident Commissioner as a non-voting representative to Congress. And finally, the Foraker Act established a legislative body known as the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico. The assembly was bicameral, consisting of a House of Delegates and a Council of Administration. Members of the assembly were elected by the people of Puerto Rico.Although Spanish and English were designated as official languages on the island, the Act also stipulated that education on the island would be conducted entirely in English, with Spanish as a special subject.

Sarah: The Foraker Act recognized Puerto Ricans as statutory citizens of Puerto Rico, a distinction that had implications for their legal status and political rights as it did not grant U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. The act included a Bill of Rights, which guaranteed certain civil liberties and protections to the residents of Puerto Rico, similar to those enjoyed by U.S. citizens, but not completely.

Elizabeth: Puerto Rico remained subject to U.S. customs laws, and Puerto Rican goods were subject to U.S. tariffs when entering the mainland United States.The Foraker Act included provisions related to land redistribution, allowing for the transfer of public lands from the federal government to private ownership.The act imposed limits on the amount of debt that the government of Puerto Rico could incur without approval from the U.S. Congress. Thus, the Act  reaffirmed the United States’ sovereignty over Puerto Rico and established Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory of the United States. While it introduced a measure of self-governance and civilian rule, it also emphasized the island’s status as a territory subject to the authority of the U.S. government.

Sarah: During the early years of American occupation and governance in Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War, there were mixed sentiments among the Puerto Rican population. While not all Puerto Ricans had the same views, there were various attitudes and reactions to the American presence. Some Puerto Ricans welcomed the end of Spanish colonial rule and saw the arrival of the United States as an opportunity for positive change, improved governance, and economic development. On the other hand, many Puerto Ricans resented the American occupation and governance. They viewed the United States as another colonial power and were disappointed with the continuation of colonial rule. Some Puerto Ricans who had been fighting for independence from Spain now found themselves under another colonial power. The imposition of English as the official language of government and the introduction of American customs and institutions created tension and resistance among those who wanted to preserve their Spanish language and cultural heritage.

Elizabeth: The American administration introduced various economic changes on the island. One of the most significant changes was the shift from a primarily agrarian and subsistence-based economy to a cash-based economy. The United States implemented land reforms that involved consolidating landholdings and introducing new agricultural practices. Large estates were established, often displacing small landholders. The United States promoted cash crops like sugar, tobacco, and coffee for export. American businesses and investors gobbled up land and established large plantations. All of this led to changes in land use and a shift away from small-scale subsistence farming. These changes had significant impacts on rural communities and these economic changes were often met with resistance. The United States imposed tariffs and taxes on Puerto Rican goods, including agricultural products. These policies were designed to protect American industries and created economic challenges for Puerto Rican producers.

Sarah: As an example of some of the chicanary that came along with these economic changes: Charles Herbert Allen, the former first civilian U.S. governor of the island, formed the American Sugar Refining Company. By 1907 it controlled 98% of the sugar processing capacity in the U.S. and was known as the Sugar Trust. (So think of those Robber Barons that you learn about in your Gilded Age history classes. Allen was one of those guys.) He became president of the American Sugar Refining Company, later renamed as the Domino Sugar company. Allen leveraged his former governorship of Puerto Rico into a controlling interest over the entire Puerto Rican economy with his political appointees in Puerto Rico provided him with land grants, tax subsidies, water rights, railroad easements, foreclosure sales and favorable tariffs on the island.

The Insular Cases

Elizabeth: There were a number of Supreme Court cases that played a crucial role in shaping the legal framework for the governance of U.S. territories acquired as a result of the Spanish-American War. These are often referred to as the Insular Cases. ** A note on the term “insular cases.”** The Insular Cases are a series of opinions by the Supreme Court of the United States about the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish–American War. The term “insular” signifies that the territories were islands administered by the War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs. Even today in 2023 these cases determine the legality of not affording equal rights to those in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam. and the ACLU is currently pressuring the Biden administration to condemn the Insular Cases as, at the very least, racist and unworthy of standing as legal precedent.

Sarah: Downes v. Bidwell was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1901 and is the core Insular Case.  One of the central legal questions in Downes v. Bidwell was whether Puerto Rico was to be considered a foreign country for tariff and customs purposes or whether it was to be treated as a domestic territory with full constitutional protections.

Elizabeth: The case involved a challenge to the imposition of import duties on goods entering the United States from Puerto Rico. George W. G. Bidwell, the plaintiff, argued that Puerto Rico was not a foreign country, and therefore, the imposition of such duties violated the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that Puerto Rico was not a foreign country for tariff and customs purposes. The majority opinion, written by Justice Henry Billings Brown, argued that Puerto Rico had a “temporary” status as an unincorporated territory. The majority opinion also introduced the concept of “incorporation,” implying that some constitutional provisions fully applied to territories (incorporated territories), while others did not (unincorporated territories). Puerto Rico was deemed unincorporated, meaning that not all constitutional rights automatically extended to its residents. Downes v. Bidwell established that these territories could be treated differently from the states regarding certain constitutional rights.

Sarah: The case set a precedent for the legal framework that would later be applied to other U.S. territories acquired during the same period, such as Guam and the Philippines. Basically, the Court argued that the Constitution did not necessarily follow the flag. It also led to ongoing debates and legal discussions about the rights and political status of residents in unincorporated territories.

Elizabeth: Questions continued to arise as to what citizenship rights or status Puerto Ricans had. Since the United States’ founding, a presumption existed that the Constitution’s protections would naturally apply in the nation’s territories. But with the Insular Cases, the court broke from this practice in order to keep the new territories from enjoying full constitutional protections.These  later-acquired territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines  were  populated mostly by people of color. Arguments against citizenship in the insular cases were racist to the core, with the court describing the territories’ inhabitants as “alien races” and “savage tribes.” The court based its views on the presumed racial inferiority of the non-white people who inhabited the islands.

Sarah: Thus, to ensure the Constitution would not block U.S. expansion, the court made up a new doctrine — so-called “territorial incorporation” — that said some constitutional provisions and protections could be switched off in those islands and for those residents until Congress said otherwise. The Treaty of Paris, the Foraker Act, and the Insular cases had essentially invented a new type of subject–the non-citizen national or Puerto Rican citizen was a designation used  to govern the primarily non-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Puerto Rico. This “nationality” or Puerto Rican citizenship barred island or insular-born Puerto Ricans from acquiring actual U.S. citizenship. In 1906 Senator Foraker summed this liminal-state up when he said, “There is no way in which they [Puerto Ricans] can become citizens of the United States. Not being aliens and having no foreign sovereignty to renounce they cannot become naturalized, and they are consequently in a far worse position than the citizens of any other country.”[1]

The Jones-Shafroth Act 1917

Elizabeth: The Jones-Shafroth Act, officially known as the Jones Act of 1917, was a significant piece of legislation passed by the United States Congress that had a profound impact on the political and legal status of Puerto Rico. This act is often touted as giving Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, but as I’m sure you can already guess- it’s more complicated than that.

Sarah: The Jones-Shafroth Act provided for limited U.S. citizenship and local self-government but it did not change Puerto Rico’s political status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. The act incorporated a Bill of Rights into Puerto Rico’s legal framework, ensuring certain civil liberties and protections for its residents, but as we’ll see, not all rights.

Elizabeth: The act established a locally elected bicameral legislature in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans were given the authority to elect both houses of the legislature, which was responsible for enacting local laws and regulations. The legislature consisted of a Senate and a House of Representatives.The Jones-Shafroth Act also provided for a locally elected Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, who represented the island in the U.S. Congress but did not have voting rights in Congress. The President of the United States continued to appoint a governor to oversee the executive branch of Puerto Rico’s government.

Sarah: Furthermore, the Act controlled commerce. Puerto Rican goods were exempt from U.S. customs duties when entering the United States and the act allowed the U.S. Congress to establish a system of taxation in Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth: The Jones-Shafroth Act foreshadowed the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1917 (aka the “draft” for WWI), which passed just two months after the Jones Act. And so the Act allowed the Selective Service Act to extend to male residents of Puerto Rico and resulted in more than 20,000 Puerto Rican soldiers being sent to the front during World War I. The Act also began to drastically change migration patterns off the island. Citizenship under the Jones-Shafroth Act resulted in mass migration to the U.S. mainland; mostly to New York State during the 1920s.

Sarah: Puerto Rican citizenship was further defined in the 1922 case, included in what we call the Insular Cases, Balzac v. Porto Rico (sic). In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico was not a foreign country for tariff and customs purposes but it also ruled that Puerto Rico was not a part of the United States for constitutional purposes.The case originated when Jesús Balzac was prosecuted for criminal libel in a district court of Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth: Balzac was the editor for the newspaper El Baluarte. During labor strikes in Puerto Rico at the end of World War I, Balzac published two editorials criticizing the island’s white Kentucky-born governor, Arthur Yager, in which he called him a tyrant, a dictator, and other choice words. Balzac was sentenced to five months in prison for libel in a trial with no jury. However, pursuant to the Jones Act of 1917, which ostensibly granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship, Balzac and his lawyers argued that his Constitutional rights under the 1st and 6th Amendments had been violated when he was tried for libel and without a jury. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgments of the lower courts in deciding that the provisions of the Constitution did not apply to a territory that belonged to the United States but was not incorporated into the Union. The unanimous opinion of the Court was delivered by Chief Justice Taft (the former president). He argued that although the Jones Act had granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, it had not incorporated Puerto Rico into the Union.

Sarah: There was no consensus however, as to what status Puerto Ricans as a whole wanted for the island. Some wanted independence, some wanted statehood, and some wanted to keep the status quo but with perhaps more constitutional rights. This was compounded by the increasing out migration to the mainland.

The Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico

Elizabeth: The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, founded in 1922, was a prominent political organization that sought full Puerto Rican independence from the United States. Its most enigmatic leader, Pedro Albizu Campos was born in Puerto Rico in 1891, when the island was still a Spanish colony. He later moved to the United States for his education and attended Harvard University, where he earned both undergraduate and law degrees. During World War I, Campos served in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. His experiences during this time, including blatant discrimination and racism due to his Afro-Caribbean heritage, influenced his later activism. After returning to Puerto Rico, he joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, a pro-independence organization that advocated for the end of U.S. colonial rule and the establishment of an independent Puerto Rican republic.

Sarah: Campos assumed leadership of the Nationalist Party in the 1930s and played a central role in its efforts to achieve Puerto Rican independence. In 1933, Campos led a strike against the Puerto Rico Railway and Light and Power Company for its alleged monopoly on the island. The following year he represented sugar cane workers as a lawyer in a suit against the United States sugar industry.

Elizabeth: The Nationalist movement was intensified by some of its members being killed by police during unrest at the University of Puerto Rico in 1935, in what was called the Río Piedras Massacre. The police were commanded by Colonel E. Francis Riggs, a former United States Army officer.

Sarah: In 1936, two members of the Cadets of the Republic, the Nationalist youth organization, assassinated Colonel Riggs. After their arrest, they were killed without a trial at police headquarters in San Juan. Campos and others were arrested and charged with sedition, with the prosecution arguing that the Cadets, which the government referred to as the “Liberating Army of Puerto Rico,” used military tactics which the cadets were taught for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of the United States. Campos and the other Nationalist leaders were sentenced to the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, GA.

Elizabeth: While Campos was in prison, in 1937 the Nationalist party organized a march to celebrate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico and to demand the release of Nationalist Party members, including Campos. Thousands of Puerto Ricans, including Nationalist Party members and supporters, gathered in Ponce to participate and many attendees wore white clothing, a symbol of peace. As the demonstrators gathered and began marching, the police attempted to disperse the crowd, claiming that the gathering was illegal because the organizers had not obtained the necessary permits. Tensions escalated and the police opened fire on the crowd, killing an estimated 19 protestors and wounding 200 others. This became known as the Ponce Massacre.

Ponce Massacre

Sarah: The Ponce Massacre shocked Puerto Rico and the United States and led to investigations and inquiries into the events of that day. The U.S. government justified the actions of the police, while critics argued that the police response was excessive and indiscriminate.

Elizabeth: In 1948, the Puerto Rican Senate passed Law 53, also called the Ley de la Mordaza (Gag Law). The Senate was controlled by the Partido Popular Democrático or PPD party which at the time was made up of a coalition of centrist and left-leaning politicians and led by Luis Muñoz Marín who would go on to be the longest serving elected governor of the island.

Sarah: The law made it illegal to own or display a Puerto Rican flag anywhere, even in one’s own home as it was associated with the Nationalist and Independence Movement. Furthermore, the gag law limited speech against the United States government or in favor of Puerto Rican independence and prohibited one to print, publish, sell or exhibit any material intended to paralyze or destroy the insular government or to organize any society, group or assembly of people with a similar destructive intent. Essentially this was an anti-nationalist law. Anyone accused and found guilty of disobeying the law could be sentenced to ten years imprisonment, a fine of $10,000 dollars, or both.

Elizabeth: Dr. Leopoldo Figueroa, who began his political career as an advocate of Puerto Rican Independence and who later became a member of the Puerto Rican Statehood Party, spoke out against the law, saying that it was repressive and in direct violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees Freedom of Speech. Figueroa argued that since Puerto Ricans had been granted United States citizenship they were covered by its constitutional protections. However, as we’ve seen, constitutional protections did not always protect Puerto Ricans. Furthermore, this crackdown in speech was part of the larger Second Red Scare era crackdown on left-leaning political dissent.

Statue of Pedro Albizu Campos holding the Puerto Rican flag that was banned in the 1948 Gag Law.

Operation Bootstrap

Sarah: By the middle of the twentieth century Puerto Rico was one of the poorest islands in the Caribbean. After World War II, the U.S. government and policymakers in Puerto Rico sought to address the island’s economic challenges, including high unemployment. In May 1947, the Puerto Rican legislature passed the Industrial Incentives Act (aka Operation Bootstrap) to encourage U.S. investment in industry. The initiative granted private and foreign investment a ten year period eliminating all corporate taxes. The US government in Puerto Rico enticed US companies by providing labor at costs below those on the mainland, access to US markets without import duties, and profits that could transfer to the mainland free from federal taxation. The program encouraged importing the raw materials, and exporting the finished products to the mainland U.S. and manufacturing on the island shifted from the original labor-intensive industries like the manufacturing of food, tobacco, and leather products, to more expensive, capital-intensive industries like pharmaceuticals, chemicals, machinery, and electronics.

Elizabeth: However, global economic changes impacted Puerto Rico negatively. As industrial markets opened up in the developing world, American manufacturing moved to other markets with cheaper labor and little to no regulation.

Sarah: Mass emigration from Puerto Rico was a result of Operation Bootstrap. Economic pressures and limited opportunities in Puerto Rico led to significant migration to the mainland United States. Residents were forced to either move to bigger cities like San Juan or immigrate to the United States for better financial opportunities and higher wages. The 1950s were the peak of Puerto Rican emigration away from the island, with 85% of Puerto Rican migrants settling in New York City.

Puerto Rico Status as a Commonwealth

Elizabeth: In 1948, U.S. Congress mandated Puerto Rico to draft its own Constitution which, when ratified by the electorate and implemented in 1952, provided greater autonomy as a Commonwealth. The term Estado Libre Asociado , the Spanish equivalent for Commonwealth, emerged in Puerto Rico in 1938 as part of the arguments in favor of the “naturaleza de un pacto” between Puerto Rico and the United States. The term was first used by the PPD founder Luis Muñoz Marín as an explanation for his party’s historic platform change from pro-independence to being in favor of an Estado Libre Asociado. In 1950, the United States Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 81-600) authorizing Puerto Rico to hold a constitutional convention. Puerto Rico ratified a constitution in 1951, approved by the US Congress in 1952, that established a republican form of government for the island. It was ratified by Puerto Rico’s electorate in a referendum on March 3, 1952, and on July 25, 1952, Governor Luis Muñoz Marín proclaimed that the constitution was in effect. July 25 is known as Constitution Day.

Sarah: Under this Constitution, Puerto Rico officially identifies as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. However, the United States maintains ultimate sovereignty over the island. Thus, Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the US is still a constant source of debate on the island, in the US Congress, and even at the United Nations. At the center of the debate is whether Puerto Rico should remain a US territory, become a US state, or become an independent country. Since 1952, this debate has spawned several referenda, presidential executive orders, and bills in the US Congress.

Elizabeth: While the official status of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth has remained unchanged since 1952, the debate about the island’s future has escalated. Puerto Rico has held six referenda: 1967, 1991, 1993, 1998, 2012, and 2017. A majority of voters did not choose a clear change in Puerto Rico’s status.

Sarah: Puerto Rico’s territorial status was put in sharp focus when Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, had a devastating impact on the island. It was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to make landfall in Puerto Rico, causing widespread destruction and a humanitarian crisis. Hurricane Maria caused extensive damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. This included damage to homes, roads, bridges, electrical grids, and telecommunications systems. Much of the island was left without power, and restoring electricity to all residents took months. The federal government’s response to the disaster faced criticism for delays and inadequacies.

Elizabeth: One of the most prominent criticisms was the perceived delay in the federal government’s response. It took several days for federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the military, to fully mobilize and provide assistance.There were critical shortages of essential supplies such as clean drinking water, food, medical equipment, and fuel. Hospitals and medical facilities were overwhelmed, and many were operating on generators due to power outages. That hurricane season, cities like Houston got billions more dollars than the island of Puerto Rico. In the wake of hurricane Maria and the challenges faced during the recovery, many Puerto Ricans chose to leave the island and move to the U.S. mainland.

Sarah: A seventh referendum– the most recent —  was held in 2020. The option to pursue statehood won the referendum 53%–47%. The referendum was non-binding, as the power to grant statehood lies with the US Congress. The referendum was not approved by the US Department of Justice under the Trump administration. Furthermore, Republican members of Congress have come out against statehood as a Puerto Rican state would be able to elect more Democrats into Congress.

Elizabeth: Ultimately, the referendum was non-binding, since the power to grant statehood lies with the U.S. Congress rather than Puerto Rico. In December 2022, H.R. 8393 (the Puerto Rico Status Act) passed the House of Representatives 233–191. The Act would institute a binding referendum that would allow Puerto Ricans to vote on the future status of the island, which Congress would have to obey. Every Democrat voted in favor of the bill, and were joined by 16 Republicans. So far nothing else has come of it.

Sarah: So what’s the conclusion to this podcast episode? There isn’t one. Since the passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917, residents of Puerto Rico have been recognized as U.S. citizens. This means that Puerto Ricans have many of the same legal rights and protections as citizens residing in the U.S. states, including the right to travel freely within the United States, work in the United States, and serve in the U.S. military. BUT Puerto Ricans do not have full voting representation in the U.S. Senate, and their sole representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, known as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, does not have voting rights in Congress. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections if they reside in Puerto Rico, but they can participate in the U.S. presidential primary elections if they are registered with one of the major political parties.

Elizabeth: Furthermore, Puerto Rico has a lower minimum wage than the mainland, and federal entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid have lower caps on the island than they do on the mainland. These are just a few example of many that indicate Puerto Ricans hold a kind of second-tier citizenship. 

Sarah: This gets us to the question at the top of the episode, what are the rights of U.S. citizenship? This is still a contested question. Many Americans believe that voting and full representation in the U.S. Congress are rights of citizenship, but that isn’t 100% true. The courts are currently filled with cases contesting the right of citizens to vote, whether through gerrymandered districts, restrictive voter I.D. laws, the ability of college kids to vote where their school is and not where their parents live, etc. etc. And of course the lack of full representation for Puerto Ricans and citizens living in Washington D.C. are further examples that voting is in fact not a foregone right of citizenship.

Elizabeth: Complicating the issue of Puerto Rico, there is no overwhelming consensus among Puerto Ricans as to how the island should be governed– whether it should stay a territory or Commonwealth, become a state, or gain full independence. And so Puerto Rico has remained, in some form, a marginalized political entity since 1898 even as the island’s people celebrate their independent and unique cultural heritage.

Thanks for listening!


Hoganson, Kristin. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender-Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Macpherson, Anne S. “Birth of the U.S. Colonial Minimum Wage: The Struggle over the Fair Labor Standards Act in Puerto Rico, 1938–1941.“ Journal of American History, Volume 104, Issue 3, December 2017, Pages 656–680.

McGreevey, Robert C. Borderline Citizens: The United States, Puerto Rico, and the Politics of Colonial Migration. Itaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018.

Milton, Joyce. The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism. New York: Harper-Perrenial, 1989.

Moreles, Ed. Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

Nelson, Denis. War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. New York: Nation Books, 2015.

Soltero, Carlos, R. Latinos and American Law: Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 2009.

[1] Puerto Rico: Citizens Archive Project. http://scholarscollaborative.org/PuertoRico/exhibits/show/historical/prcitizenship


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