A resident of Puerto Rico was one of the jackpot winners in Powerball, a lottery game, last week. Another 13,961 people in Puerto Rico won other prizes in the game, along with nearly six million other people who won prizes last week. The top winners will be splitting a $546,000,000 prize, which got the winners into the headlines. However, the news was simply that the winning tickets had been sold in two states and in the territory of Puerto Rico.
Responses on Twitter included some strange questions:
- “Since when could you win a Powerball jackpot in Puerto Rico? Don’t they use the Euro as currency?”
- “Powerball winner in Puerto Rico…When did they become part of America?”
- “Do they have to pay taxes to our government also?”
El Nuevo Dia quickly reported the tweets as “racist,” and some might have been. But the other winners came from Texas and North Carolina, neither of which is an ethnically homogenous state. In fact, the winner from North Carolina has stepped forward, though the official Powerball website still lists the award as “pending,” and she is African American. No racist comments about her have shown up on Twitter.
Some tweets expressed hurt feelings that Puerto Rico hasn’t yet become a state, with phrases like, “Sure they’ll take our lottery winnings, but they are too good to be a state.”
Most of the tweets that mentioned Puerto Rico or another location were neutral.
- “Speaking of luck, Puerto Rico joined Powerball less than a year ago.”
- “#Powerball jackpot winner hails from #PuertoRico for 1st time ever”
- “Sorry for us Tennesseans… no winning tickets sold here!”
- “Call your now-favorite cousin in North Carolina, Puerto Rico or Texas, because three people are going to split the $564.1 million Powerball jackpot.”
As the story spread, many were in support of Puerto Rico’s right to play Powerball and appalled by the ignorance of the negative tweets:
- “Are people really hating on the Powerball winner from Puerto Rico?get a life!”
- “Why is it that because one of the Powerball winners is from PR, offensive tweets have surfaced??? For all you ignorant idiots, residents of Puerto Rico ARE BORN UNITED STATES CITIZENS AND THEY DO PAY TAXES!!!!!”
- “Seriously. You’re supposed to learn this in school.”
Racism exists in the U.S., but identifying the responses as primarily expressions of racism misses an important point. Many Americans don’t know that Puerto Ricans are citizens, or that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. It is certainly ignorance, but it’s worth looking further into the reason for this ignorance.
First, people are supposed to learn this is school, as a number of tweets have pointed out, but they often don’t. Students in U.S. mainland schools often learn the states and capitals but ignore the territories of the United States. Textbooks often leave Puerto Rico out entirely. A state Geography Alliance presents a lesson with the stated intention that “Students will discover important facts and places regarding the country of Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico is in fact not a country, but kids aren’t learning that in school.
Second, information about Puerto Rico available to people on the mainland is often unclear. In fact, the government of Puerto Rico’s official website includes a “Country Profile” listing the following tidbits of data:
Nationality: Puerto Rican
Government: Democracy, Republic
The new government tourism site puts it this way:
Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth and the U.S. dollar is the official currency; U.S. citizens don’t need a passport or a currency converter!
That is not quite the same as explaining that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and that everyone born there is a U.S. citizen. It is hard to avoid concluding, through reading the government’s extensive materials designed to promote tourism, that they are intentionally presenting Puerto Rico as an independent nation.
Finally, since Puerto Rico doesn’t have the opportunity to participate in the political life of the U.S., people do not hear about the views of the Senator from Puerto Rico or how Puerto Rico voted in the presidential elections. Not only does this lessen the influence of the people of Puerto Rico on the laws they must follow, but it also means that the rest of the U.S. is less familiar with the concerns of Puerto Rico.
So, while ignorance is never something to be proud of, it might be understandable that many people on the mainland do not know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.
This level of ignorance is not just a problem when it causes people to embarrass themselves on Twitter. It’s a problem because it keeps the American people from objecting to the unequal treatment of the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It keeps the American people as a whole from objecting to the fact that the United States has a colonial relationship with a territory which — more than two years ago — voted not to remain a territory. It allows Congress to ignore their responsibility to the territory of Puerto Rico.