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Puerto Rico’s Representative Talks Statehood in Ohio

The City Club of Cleveland may not initially seem like an obvious venue for a speech on Puerto Rican statehood.  Yet there are many Puerto Ricans who live in Ohio, just as there are Puerto Ricans in every state of the United States. The Puerto Rican population in Ohio is 104,291. Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, has 37,450 Puerto Rican residents — the largest number of any county in Ohio.  In nearby Lorain County, Ohio, live over 18,000 Puerto Ricans, six percent of the population.

As an organization with a century of distinguished history in public speaking, however, Cleveland’s City Club is an excellent place for speeches on important issues. Known as “The Citadel of Free Speech,” The City Club has hosted speakers from Franklin Roosevelt to Julian Bond, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to Jane Fonda. It is “the longest uninterrupted independent forum series in the country.”

Jose Feliciano, Chairman of the Hispanic Roundtable, introduced Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government, Pedro Pierluisi, who is also leader of the territory’s statehood party with a joke. Four people were asked to write about an elephant, he said. The Frenchman wrote about the love life of the elephant. The German wrote about the metaphysical implications of the elephant. The Midwestern American wrote a practical guide to elephant management. The Puerto Rican’s paper was entitled, “The Elephant: Should Puerto Rico Become a State?”

The issue of Puerto Rico’s status is that important to Puerto Ricans, and there are implications for all Americans.

Resident Commissioner Pierluisi presented the case for statehood, examining political rights, civil rights, and economic opportunity.

The speech began with an overview of the historical context. Why is Puerto Rico’s path to statehood from territory different from that of States like Ohio? The discussion at the time — at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century — focused on the different nature of the people of Puerto Rico. Designating Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory” meant it was not necessarily on the path to statehood. Some felt, Pierluisi explained, that this unincorporated status would last only until Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship. The Supreme Court disagreed, and in 1922, held that citizenship for Puerto Ricans did not change the unincorporated status of the territory — or mean that it would become a State.

By the 1950s, Puerto Rico had been granted just about the same amount of autonomy as the States possess. However, Puerto Rico is still an unincorporated territory of the United States. “This may surprise some of you,” said Pierluisi,  “who have heard Puerto Rico described as a ‘commonwealth’ and have therefore assumed that Puerto Rico must have some special status that is neither a State nor a territory, but this is simply not the case.”

“The only correct answer to ‘What is the status of Puerto Rico?’,” Pierluisi continued, “is that it is a territory.”

With this situation clarified, Pierluisi continued by explaining and describing the position of Puerto Rico and clarifying the results of the referendum on Puerto Rico’s status held last November.

Enjoy the complete speech in the video above.

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