Independence is an unpopular idea in Puerto Rico. No more than five percent of voters have ever chosen this option in status plebiscites. No Independence Party candidate has ever held the title of governor or resident commissioner. Puerto Rico simply does not want independence.
Independence may be more popular among Puerto Ricans who now live in the states than among those who live on the island, with some polls showing as much as 19% of stateside Puerto Ricans supporting the idea. These independence supporters enjoy the benefits of statehood and the full protection of the U.S. Constitution. They can romanticize independence for Puerto Rico without concern about the personal consequences (but see our caveat below).
Some independence advocates who live in states protest that if Puerto Rico were to transition from a U.S. territory to a U.S. state, Puerto Rican culture would be subsumed into general U.S. culture and Puerto Ricans would lose their special identity.
Perhaps this is an observation born of experience: individuals of Puerto Rican heritage who chose to live in a state are by definition integrating themselves into a broader U.S. culture.
But let’s look at the broader claim: Would the culture of Puerto Rico take a hit if the U.S. territory were to become a U.S. state?
Does statehood require assimilation?
People across the United States are not a monolithic group. No visitor to the United States can miss the differences among the states. The geography, history, and culture of each state is different.
There have been times in the history of the United States when assimilation has been a goal, but overall we have a history of respecting and celebrating regional distinctions.
Residents of each state are generally proud of their states and their traditions. Schoolchildren learn about the unique history of their states. Their parents think of themselves as Texans or Michiganders as much as they think of themselves as Americans. State legislators sway over the lives of their constituents, just as federal legislators do.
Puerto Rico has been a possession of the United States for more than a century, and two thirds of all Puerto Ricans now live in the states. The idea that either statehood or independence could flip a switch and either totally immerse or completely wall off Puerto Rico from the rest of the world in 2023 lacks credibility.
Isn’t Puerto Rico already influenced by U.S. culture?
The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is already influenced by the United States culture. Puerto Rican students attend U.S. universities in droves, and increasingly settle in states. Puerto Rican families are now spread among the states and Puerto Rico in a seamless web. American music, television, baseball and food are all easily accessible in Puerto Rico.
Would Puerto Rico become free of U.S. cultural influences as a foreign country?
Looking beyond U.S. states and territories, we can easily see the cultural influence of the United States in countries around the world. English is the world’s most-spoken language. There are only two countries on earth (Cuba and South Korea) where Coca-Cola is not sold. McDonald’s restaurants are located in more than 100 nations. Rock and roll music, jazz, blues, and country music are internationally popular. Blue jeans are commonly worn all over the world. American films and literature dominate popular culture in many countries.
Can we imagine that a Republic of Puerto Rico would all of a sudden stop being influenced by U.S. culture? Given the interconnectedness of the world today, it does not seem possible. Particularly when so many Island residents have friends and family in the states, complete rejection of U.S. culture would probably require harsh restrictions on personal liberty. There is an unavoidable hypocrisy in arguing from the comfort of a U.S. state that U.S. influence should be kept out of Puerto Rico.
The richness of cultural integration
Bad Bunny has been a Spotify top artist for several years. Jennifer Lopez is one of the most popular celebrities in the world. Roberto Clemente is considered the best right fielder ever. Many more Puerto Ricans have made their marks on U.S. history and culture. Can Puerto Rico expect to continue to export its culture to the states, and yet keep its borders closed to outside cultures?
After more than a century as a U.S. possession and even with the majority of Puerto Ricans living in states, Puerto Rico — like California, New York, Kentucky, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Utah — continues to be proudly distinct in culture. Puerto Rican culture can be expected to endure and remain strong, even if Puerto Rico were to obtain democratic rights and freedoms as a state.
A final caveat…
It may be worth noting that Filipinos were considered U.S. nationals before the Philippines obtained independence, after which Filipinos living stateside were immediately considered “aliens.” This precedent could similarly cast uncertainty over continued U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rican born residents living stateside at the time of a future Puerto Rican independence.