When Puerto Rico played the U.S. in the recent NBA match up, a meme went around social media sites: “If Puerto Rico is able to win this, let’s give them statehood.”
Many of the responses to the numerous shares and tweets showed that viewers took offense. Whether or not we favor statehood for Puerto Rico, the suggestion that NBA fans can dispense statehood to Puerto Rico if the players can prove by their basketball prowess that they are deserving was considered offensive by a significant number of people.
Congress can grant statehood to Puerto Rico. In the 2012 plebiscite, 54% of voters rejected the current territory relationship and 61% of those who chose a status option voted for statehood. Now the federal government and the government of Puerto Rico have agreed to hold the first federally funded referendum, this one to include only those status options which are consistent with the U.S. Constitution, laws and policies. Puerto Rico can request and be granted statehood — by the will of the people and the acceptance of Congress, not by conquest on the basketball court.
It is noteworthy that the topic of statehood for Puerto Rico is being used in a joke. When The Puerto Rico Report began several years ago, many visitors to this website came here by Googling, “Is Puerto Rico a state?” and “Is Puerto Rico a country?” Given that jokes are only funny if their topic is familiar, it is possible that the joke is a sign of increasing awareness of the true status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory, belonging to but not a part of the United States.
The underlying implication of the joke –the offensive part — is that Puerto Rico should have statehood only if that statehood is deserved and earned. If it were indeed a question of earning statehood, Puerto Rico would have earned statehood by serving in the military in every conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries, and in fact in the Civil War as well. As Jesus Hernandez Sanchez, counsel of the Puerto Rico Veterans Association, said in 1989:
[Puerto Rico veterans] are very proud of their past performance; 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in the United States armed forces in the First World War; 65,000 the Second World War, out of which 23 died in action; 61,000 during the Korean War, out of which 371 died in action. More than 3,000 were wounded in Korea; 48,000 [fought] in the Vietnam War, out of which 342 died in action and 3,000 were wounded.
Keeping with the NBA meme, Puerto Rico has sent 238 baseball players to the major leagues. Puerto Rico has also supplied the U.S. with a Supreme Court Justice, several Members of Congress (who could not vote in the House of Representatives had they remained in Puerto Rico), musicians, actors, scientists, writers, painters, architects, industrialists, civil rights activists — indeed, it would be hard to identify any area of endeavor where Puerto Rico had not provided someone all Americans can be proud of. In more than 100 years as a possession of the United States, Puerto Rico has more than proved worthy of statehood.
As a champion of democracy, the United States does not provide equal rights to U.S. citizens as the prize for a game. Puerto Rico has a right to self-determination and — having rejected its territorial status — is now on the path to resolving its permanent status with the U.S. through democratic means.