Federico Degetau y González was the first Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to the United States House of Representatives, a position he held from 1901 to 1905.
Born in Puerto Rico on December 5, 1862, the son of a German father and a Puerto Rican mother, Degetau pursued his education in Spain, where he became well known for his support of Puerto Rico. He returned to Puerto Rico, practiced law, and became the mayor of San Juan. He was one of the four emissaries sent to ask Spain for independence for Puerto Rico.
When Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States, he did not choose to fight for independence from the U.S. Instead, he worked toward the status of an incorporated territory “with the certainty of soon being admitted as a State of the American Union.” He ran on this platform for the newly-created office of Resident Commissioner within one of the newly created political parties of the territory. The opposing party called upon its members to boycott the vote. By doing so, they naturally lost the election, and Degetau became Resident Commissioner.
He introduced a bill demanding citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico, arguing that it was clear from the location of the territory and the desire of the people for democracy that they should be part of the United States. He continued to request the same status for Puerto Rico as the other territories, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. He also argued that the Resident Commissioner should be a delegate, “for as commissioner Puerto Rico has less representation than under Spain.” Degetau became a member of the Committee on Insular Affairs, and pointed out that his colleagues in that committee referred to him as “the delegate from Puerto Rico.”
He claimed also that it was not clear to the people of Puerto Rico whether he was intended to represent them or the government of Puerto Rico. It was suggested that his position was more like that of a lobbyist than like that of a congressional representative. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner lacks the power to vote on legislation in the House of Representatives.
According to Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012, printed by the Government Printing Office, Degetau was “treated by the media like a celebrity.” He used this media attention to work around the fact that he was not allowed to speak on the floor, announcing his intentions instead to the journalists. With the support of the media and of colleagues in Congress, Degetau was able to achieve the ability to participate in debates and to have a seat in Congress in 1904 — too late to give him the power to accomplish all his goals, but in time to allow later Resident Commissioners some voice in Congress.
After the end of his political career, Degetau served as Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico and pursued his interests in the arts.
Degetau died on February 20, 1914, just a few years before his dream of citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico became a reality. His other great dream, incorporation as a territory followed by statehood, still has not come to fruition.