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Statehood a Threat to Puerto Rico’s Culture?

Opponents of statehood for Puerto Rico offer a variety of arguments, from the difficulty of designing a flag with 51 stars (designers have already suggested a number of practical options) to the fear of bilingualism.

Often these supposed threats are intended to appeal to mainland citizens, especially those who are not Puerto Rican or lack direct ties to Puerto Rico. The threat of statehood that is most often presented to the people of Puerto Rico is the fear of losing cultural identity.

Is this a realistic fear?

“Politicians who make this argument,” says one columnist, “underestimate — indeed, disrespect — the strength of our culture.”

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, put it this way in a speech to the Puerto Rico Chapter of the Federal Bar Association:

Our history, our traditions, our language, our faith, our food, our music, our dance, our art, our love of family, and our embrace of life—these things constitute the very essence of what it means to be Puerto Rican.  Nothing—least of all equality under statehood—could ever diminish their power or their role in our lives.  Our culture is simply too strong and too resilient.

These may be emotional arguments, but this is an emotional question. We can look to the fact that Puerto Rico takes pride in the exceptional record of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. military, in the athletes like Gigi Fernández who have represented the U.S. and Puerto Rico in the Olympics, or the pride Puerto Ricans feel in mainland leaders such as Justice Sonia Sotomayor. We can point to the fact that more Puerto Ricans now live on the mainland than in Puerto Rico, and that this diaspora continues to maintain parades, festivals, and other reminders of Puerto Rican heritage.

We could also look to the special characters of the states of the Union. Texans are not the same as the Down Easters of Maine, and they do not choose to be. Texan athletes carry the flag of Texas as well as the flag of the United States, and Maine’s Francophone population is as proud of their language as the Spanish speakers of Texas.

The fact that more of Puerto Rico’s people live on the mainland than in Puerto Rico should, in itself, convince us that Puerto Rico’s culture is not endangered by the possibility of statehood. As millions of Puerto Ricans choose statehood for themselves simply by moving to the mainland, they reaffirm by their choice that they do not accept second class citizenship, not that they reject their heritage.

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