I have become increasingly bemused and amused by the not-so-recent trend of supposedly liberal supporters of Puerto Rican statehood who claim that those of us who favor independence are actually racist, xenophobic right-wingers. The irony should be palpable to anyone who knows a bit of the history. For decades, independentistas have been branded as radical, lefty communists by most of Puerto Rican society—and, you know, by the FBI. So to suddenly find out that I have more in common with Tucker Carlson than with Fidel Castro has come as a bit of a shock.
But, in all seriousness, there’s something useful to glean from this latest chapter in the endless rhetorical battle over Puerto Rico’s status.
First, it’s clear to me that this line of attack is a cheap tactic on at least two fronts. Self-styled liberal statehooders have a problem: they can’t attack most independentistas’ politics because, on nearly everything but the status issue, they actually agree. They seem to understand who the real progressives in Puerto Rican politics are. And they certainly can’t call us independentistas the radical leftists without bringing their own politics into question and sounding like some of the reactionary conservatives they hate most. So they’re attempting to flip it on us, all while creating an excuse not to support the Puerto Rican leaders and movements that, deep down, jibe best with their stated ideological commitments.
Perhaps even more saliently and more cynically, it’s also an attempt to distract from the inconvenient fact that the real racist right-wingers in the United States, especially in the GOP, continue to make statehood politically impossible, and even blame the impossibility on Puerto Ricans themselves! Which is where this whole thing starts to shift from amusing to disgusting, or at least tragic. Nothing better exemplifies the moral putrefaction of the colonial mindset than finding a way to blame the oppressed for the actions of their oppressors.
But, though we shouldn’t, let’s set all that aside and examine the argument on its merits. What is the great right-wing sin of independentistas? Well, we care about our people, our homeland, our culture, our language—and we worry about what would happen to them if Puerto Rico became a state.
(This is not to say, of course, that no supporter of Puerto Rican independence has ever said or done anything racist or xenophobic. But surely we’re all serious enough people to understand that we’re talking about political ideas, not the ignorant words and actions of a handful of outliers within any political camp.)
But here is where the contradictions of being a “liberal statehooder” start to rear their ugly heads, and the very notion is revealed as a political oxymoron. Because… shouldn’t statehooders also be worried about our people, our homeland, our culture, and our language? For liberals, in the American context, even the most minuscule manifestations of non-White identity and dignity are sacrosanct. And they’re under threat! You can’t go two paragraphs in progressive commentary about American society without reading about the prevalence and the dangers of White supremacy. And if non-White identity and culture are under threat in United States, then Puerto Rico’s non-White identity and culture are threatened by U.S. colonialism and the prospect of being a state.
So liberals who favor Puerto Rican statehood can’t have it both ways. Either they don’t think White supremacy is a problem, or they do—but if they do, we independentistas can’t be the assholes for worrying about what they, the supposedly liberal and anti-racist statehooders, constantly remind us is the foundational problem in American life.
There is a third option, I guess, but it’s even more repulsive: that they do worry about what White supremacy might mean for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, but they think even that being ruled by U.S. White supremacy, either as a colony or as a state, is preferable to the misery they imagine awaits an independent Puerto Rico. Which begs the question: How are independentistas the racists, if it’s the statehooders who think so little of Puerto Ricans that they believe a Puerto Rican future of our own would be inferior to a future under U.S. White supremacy? Or if they’re willing to sacrifice Puerto Ricans to the uncertain sociopolitical project of making the United States a more equitable and inclusive country?
I’ll say this, if I squint really hard and try to give my pro-statehood friends the benefit of the doubt, I can understand that their position on Puerto Rico’s status is based, in part, on a genuine commitment to that project. Likewise, I recognize that their rejection of concerns about the preservation of culture and language stems from their experience in the American context, where those concerns have historically been the province of racists and bigots. But it’s lunacy to see how these dynamics play out in the most powerful nation in the world, and thoughtlessly try to apply them to one of the most powerless.
Statehooders’ inability or unwillingness to consider a different framework—their desire to sloppily superimpose the ideological priors of their American political consciousness into the altogether different Puerto Rican context, where it strikes a discordant note—only underscores the inescapable reality of the status debate: that, in most instances, we can think, feel, or act, first and foremost, as Puerto Ricans or as Americans. Not both.
Ultimately, what bothers many liberal statehooders is that so many Puerto Ricans, even those of us who live in the United States, remain committed to doing and being the former, not the latter. Perhaps they even blame us, and our insistence that Americans and Puerto Ricans are not the same, for impeding the full acceptance and inclusion in the American polity that they desire. That’s understandable. Perhaps it’s even fine. But that position is a reflection of their personal and political identity in much the same way that my belief in Puerto Rican independence is a reflection of my own. It is not and cannot be immoral for me not to put working toward a glorious multinational and multicultural America at the top of my political priorities as a Puerto Rican—or to be clear-eyed about how far the U.S. is from achieving it.
And that’s why the claims that Puerto Rican independentistas are “NAZIonalists,” as some on Twitter call it, or racial essentialists, or whatever other insult they’ll think of next, will continue to fall flat. They’re accusations are borrowed from American identitarian culture wars that, it bears repeating, only make sense if you’ve given American politics and society primacy even in how to think about Puerto Rico. Most supporters of Puerto Rican independence obviously don’t. It’s as if statehooders were trying to argue the finer points of theology with committed atheists.
The only people with whom their accusations might gain traction are other like-minded Americans for whom their country’s punctilious, racialized political debates are the center of the known universe. But, ironically, precisely because they don’t conceive of Puerto Rico as part of the United States in the first place, those people aren’t listening. And statehood supporters should be glad, because regardless of whether we can be, most American liberals aren’t inclined to think of poor brown people as xenophobic. It does not compute. They might wonder why their fellow progressives are lobbing what essentially amount to accusations of “reverse racism” at what they generally conceive of as a poor, oppressed people.
It’s a critical time for the fight over Puerto Rico’s status. Pessimistic as one may rightfully be about the prospects of a solution in the near future, the fact is that there’s more public conversation and legislative action on this issue now than in the past few decades. I believe statehood supporters, as always, are losing and will continue to lose. But so will all of us if we keep degrading the debate with name-calling, baseless accusations, and trying to weaponize the very real specters of hate and discrimination to score points on social media. And, let me be clear, I do mean all of us: independentistas must do better at engaging in civil conversation with statehooders.
But that won’t happen if some statehood supporters continue to insist that Puerto Ricans are moral monsters for wanting to protect and preserve our patrimony and the very foundations of our identity.