Puerto Rico is a territory belonging to the United States. It could become a state, or it could declare its independence from the United States and become a new nation. While most schools in the continental United States do not include Puerto Rico in history lessons, the current unusual position of this island territory could be a rare opportunity to bring current events into the classroom to explore important ideas about government.
The Puerto Rico Status Act
Congress is currently considering a law called the Puerto Rico Status Act. This bill would allow the voters in Puerto Rico to choose from three political status options:
- They can be a state.
- They can be an independent nation.
- They can be a sovereign associated republic.
We currently have 50 states. The most recent states were Alaska and Hawaii. Both were territories until 1959, when they became states. Compare the current territories (including Puerto Rico and Guam) with states like Alaska and Hawaii. You’ll notice that people in Puerto Rico and Guam are U.S. citizens just like people in Alaska and Hawaii, but that the people who live in territories cannot vote in presidential elections.
The Philippines and Cuba are examples of independent nations that used to belong to the United States. Compare these nations with the states and territories. Students will notice, for example, that people from Cuba and the Philippines are not citizens of the United States, while people from Puerto Rico and Alaska are. Are people from all of the territories citizens of the United States? (No — people born in American Samoa are not citizens of the U.S.).
The picture below is a Venn diagram — a great way to compare things. We’ve started it for you. Download a copy and fill it in with facts as students discover them.
Examples of associated republics include Palau and the Marshall Islands. Read “What’s a Freely Associated State?” to understand this political status. It is often considered a form of independence. Like the citizens of the Philippines, citizens of the Marshall Islands are not United States citizens. However, people from the Marshall Islands can live and work freely in the United States without a visa, while people from the Philippines must have a visa. Note that the details of a relationship between the United States and its associate republics can be slightly different from one nation to another, since they are negotiated as part of a treaty, but none are U.S. citizens and the U.S. has exclusive control over each nation’s military and defense.
Challenge students to create a Venn diagram comparing Puerto Rico’s current territory status with the three status options in the Puerto Rico Status Act. A four-way Venn diagram will usually need to be bigger to include all the detail; you might want to project or create this on your smart board. You can also download a copy.
Once students have done research to understand the options being proposed in the Puerto Rico Status Act, explore the various aspects of political status.
- 32 territories have already become states. Was your state a territory? If so, find out when it became a state. Apart from Alaska and Hawaii, most territories became states too long ago for anyone now living to remember. Check your state history books to see how your state joined the union.
- If your state used to be a territory, find out which nations it belonged to in its past. Puerto Rico belonged to Spain before it belonged to the United States. Your state might have belonged to Britain, Spain, Mexico, or France. If so, it was probably a colony before it became a territory. Texas was an independent nation briefly.
- The Puerto Rico Status Act requires the government to create nonpartisan educational materials to explain all the choices before people in Puerto Rico vote. Ask your class to pretend they are responsible for creating these educational materials. The Act includes a list of things the educational materials are required to cover. Challenge students to find the information they would need in order to prepare those educational materials. Are any of the items confusing?
- Hold a mock vote. If your class got to choose, which of the three options would win?
Once Puerto Rico (and perhaps Washington D.C.) becomes a state, it could be a very long time before any more states are admitted to the United States. In fact, it might never happen again. Your students could be the last generation to experience this process.