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Ignorance about Puerto Rico Is Still a Problem

Since 2006, retail stores selling cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine have been required to ask for ID from customers buying these medications. Recently, an employee at a CVS drugstore followed this rule and asked for an ID from Jose Gusman-Payano, a student at Purdue University. Gusman-Payano showed his drivers license, and that should have been that.

Instead, the employee refused to accept the ID, which was issued in Puerto Rico. She told Gusman-Payano that she could only accept ID from the U.S., Mexico, or Canada. Even when the student explained to her that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and people born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the U.S., the clerk insisted that she couldn’t accept the ID.

Gusman-Payano showed her his U.S. passport, too. The worker refused to accept the passport. He left the store without his cold medicine.

Ignorance is widespread

This is not the first time people from Puerto Rico have been inconvenienced by ignorance about the territory. Eduardo Caraballo, a Chicago resident born in Puerto Rico, was detained for several days in 2010 and threatened with deportation in spite of showing police his birth certificate. Georgia DMV workers added trivia questions about Puerto Rico to the process of gaining a drivers license in their state.

In fact, as recently as 2017, a Morning Consult poll found that almost half of the stateside Americans they asked did not know that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. A 2018 Facebook survey  found that 95% of respondents knew this — but the answers also included one saying that Puerto Ricans had dual citizenship and one saying that they could choose between U.S. and Spanish citizenship.


Following extensive news coverage after Hurricane Maria, most Americans living in the States now realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but there are still some who do not.

CVS response

The ignorant CVS worker made a mistake and then doubled down on it, claiming that it was store policy not to accept Puerto Rico IDs, according to a Facebook post written by the student’s mother, Arlene Payano Burgos.

“What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?” she wrote. “Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today.”

The post has been shared more than 12,000 times as of this writing. Perhaps in response to this post and local news coverage, CVS eventually apologized and acknowledged their error. Refusal to accept IDs issued in Puerto Rico is not a policy of the individual store, nor of CVS.

How important is this problem?

Jose Gusman-Payano is probably over his cold by now, and the CVS worker will probably never forget that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

There is more to the story, though. Research has found that people who know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens are more likely to support statehood for Puerto Rico. They are more likely to support federal help for the territory.

As Puerto Rico continúes to struggle to rebuild and to fight for recognition of the 2012 and 2017 votes for statehood, it is important to continue to educate Americans in general about Puerto Rico.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) made this point on Twitter, referring to the CVS event.




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