Blast from the Past: Puerto Rico Statehood Discussed on the West Wing

The West Wing, a TV drama about a fictional president of the United States and his staff, took on Puerto Rico’s status in a 2012 episode called “Galileo.”

In this episode, the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee has recommended to the Postmaster
General that a stamp honoring Marcus Aquino be created. Marcus Aquino is a fictional character described as “a former Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico and a Korean War hero.” In the story, he “strongly advocated statehood,” and the federal government worries that a stamp with his face would imply advocacy for statehood.

The federal government, character Josh claims, must remain neutral on this issue.

“He voiced an opinion so he can’t be on a stamp?” Donna asks. “Sides have been taken: former Presidents, the Speaker, Minority Leader. They all said that statehood is in the long-term interest of Puerto Rico and that, as it stands, 3.8 million American citizens have been relegated to second-class status! That’s more people than Mississippi!”

Donna is correct. A number of former presidents, including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, have spoken out officially in support of statehood. Many members of Congress have done so, as well, some of them recently. And, while the population of Puerto Rico has decreased since this scene was filmed, Puerto Rico would not be the smallest state by any means.

 

Josh is not convinced, however. The two characters continue to debate the question of statehood.

“Isn’t anyone worried that if they’re not given statehood, they’re going to want independence?” Donna asks.

“Exactly no one is worried about that,” Josh responds, telling Donna that Puerto Rico is completely dependent on U.S. manufacturing. This is an arguable claim, and Donna brushes past it.

“I don’t care!” she declares. “People don’t sit still for tyranny!”

Asked by Josh for an explanation of her use of the term “tyranny,” Donna responds, “Puerto Ricans have to register to be drafted into the armed forces, yet they’re not allowed to vote for President. They’re expected to die for a Commander-in-Chief they had no voice in electing?” Again, Donna’s information is accurate.

The discussion devolves into comedy at this point, and some observers of the program have suggested that the scene is intended only to demonstrate the chemistry between the two characters. But it’s possible to see this as popular culture educating the American people.

Surveys have found that the majority of Americans are not aware that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States or that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. This episode of West Wing doesn’t mention Puerto Rico’s current status, but does say that Puerto Rico has only a non-voting representative in Congress and that the people of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections.

An informed citizenry is essential to democracy. Popular culture can play a part in building that informed citizenry.

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