Poll: Most Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens

And members of Philly's large Puerto Rican community don't find that surprising at all. How the misconception fuels microaggressions that many Boricuas experience daily.

"The Puerto Rican Tree," as residents and Parks & Rec workers refer to it, in Norris Square Park. Photo | David Cruz via Instagram.

“The Puerto Rican Tree,” as residents and Parks & Rec workers refer to it, in Norris Square Park. Photo | David Cruz via Instagram.

So this happened: From May 6th to May 9th, the Economist and You-Gov conducted a survey of U.S. citizens 18 and older, asking them several questions about the Puerto Rican financial crisis which has been in the news.

One of the questions was about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans, and the results are a bit embarrassing: Only 43 percent of those surveyed knew Puertorriqueños are U.S. citizens from birth. Another 41 percent thought “Puerto Rican” was its own citizenship, and another 15 percent weren’t sure.

The numbers are higher than I expected, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve heard stories from Boricua friends about Department of Motor Vehicle employees refusing to renew driver’s licenses because they believe Puerto Ricans are “foreigners;” and I’ve seen far too many articles (and even respected research efforts) that classify Puerto Ricans as “immigrants” when they move stateside — as they’ve been doing since beginning of the 20th century. 

Dr. Sandra Andino

Dr. Sandra Andino

Now, if you think this popular misconception resides only in Red States without substantial Puerto Rican populations, think again. It’s alive and well in Pennsylvania too, and we have cities that rank No. 2, No. 10 and No. 12 (Philadelphia, Allentown and Reading, respectively, according to the 2010 census) in terms of the highest Puerto Rican populations stateside.

“In daily life, in the social fabric of U.S. society, and even in city, state and federal agencies, white or African Americans many times don’t know that (we are citizens),” said cultural anthropologist Dr. Sandra Andino. “They tend to see us as foreign immigrants.”

That misconception prompts the microaggressions that many Boricuas experience time and again.

Gilberto Gonzalez

Gilberto Gonzalez

“My son and I were waiting in line on Free Comic Book Day and this gentleman in the line kept pushing me. I asked, very politely, to please stop pushing. His response was, ‘this is America, deal with it.’ He pushed me again and this time I pushed back and told him to stop. … His response was, ‘You need to get on a boat back to your country,’” recounted Gilberto Gonzalez, senior designer at Community College of Philadelphia.

“The point being, everyone assumes that because you look Latino you’re an immigrant,” Gonzalez said. “Why should I have to explain to anyone that I am Puerto Rican and that I was born in Philadelphia and that I am a U.S. citizen? I have always been told, by Blacks and Whites, ‘to get back on my banana boat and get out of Philadelphia.’ At the age of 51 I am still dealing with that ignorance.”

Marangeli Mejia Rabell

Marangeli Mejia Rabell

Marangeli Mejia Rabell, the co-founder of Philly’s AfroTaino Productions, said it’s not uncommon for people to ask her about Puerto Rico’s currency, or how long it took her to become a citizen. But the clearest manifestation of people’s lack of understanding about Puerto Rican citizenship happened to her in 1991, with Operation Desert Storm.

“I was at work when the announcement was made that we were at war,” Mejia said. “I began crying and a coworker told me he didn’t understand why I was crying since I wasn’t a citizen and Puerto Ricans didn’t go to war.”

There is a huge irony in that particular erasure.

Isamac Torres Figueroa

Isamac Torres Figueroa

“(It) speaks to the lack of knowledge Americans have about Puerto Rican history and its Ccommonwealth status,” said Isamac Torres-Figueroa, the vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Latino Caucus. “The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, a federal bill passed by the U.S. Congress, granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. This action came with a hefty price tag, a significant sacrifice, in that by making Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens the men would be eligible to be drafted into the army. A successful strategy on the part of U.S. government officials pending the onset of World War I.” Since then, more than 200,000 U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have served in the Armed Forces, in every major U.S. conflict.

“Many Americans do not know the history of how and why Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory because it is not a part of American history that is taught,” Torres-Figueroa added.

Israel Colon

Israel Colon

Israel Colón, an independent consultant for the government and non-profit sectors and an elder statesman of Philly’s Latino community, agrees that lack of education about U.S. and Puerto Rican history underpins the survey’s findings.

“The historical relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is a convoluted one. Because of Puerto Rico’s ‘unincorporated’ territorial status, Puerto Rican citizenship (on the island) is not afforded the full protection of the U.S. Constitution,” Colón said. “Congress has full plenary powers over what was often considered by former justices of the Supreme Court as a ‘foreign’ territory. The sense that they are ‘foreign,’ is infused in the public mindset.”

“Remember, despite its colonial status, Puerto Rico has its own language, culture and history,” Colón added. “And, they are people of color, which makes integration into American society just as difficult as it is for other immigrant groups and racial/cultural minorities. So it doesn’t surprise me that many Americans know little of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. In fact, I’ve often found myself explaining to my ‘gringo’ friends  (Black and White) the history of Puerto Rico, their ‘rights’ under the statutes of the U.S. Congress vs. those of the diaspora, etc.”

Differences in constitutional rights for Boricuas living on the mainland and those living on the island — including that islanders cannot vote in presidential elections and have no real representation in Congress, do not have access to the healthcare other citizens are entitled to, and the fact that the commonwealth is precluded from declaring bankruptcy as other U.S. municipalities can — have contributed to the grave financial crisis Puerto Rico has been going through.

Carmen Febo San MIguel

Carmen Febo San MIguel

And that situation is what Carmen Febo San Miguel, the executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño, is really concerned with changing.

“What is frustrating about the lack of knowledge regarding Puerto Rico is more than just the fact that they are not aware of our citizenship status,” Febo said. “It is even more frustrating that that citizenship status is fraught with inequities … that keep Puerto Ricans on the island in a constant state of economic inability and standstill. I would encourage people to find out more so they are more informed. Maybe that way, Congress can be persuaded to change laws that are antiquated, unfair and beneath the standards of U.S. democratic values.”

For Torres-Figueroa, the island’s financial crisis reinforces the need for Puerto Rico’s history “to be taught across the United States.”

Gonzalez, meantime, is hard at work producing his second film about the oldest Latino gang in Philadelphia, which he describes as covering “police abuse, drugs, deindustrialization and the forced and sometimes-violent gentrification of the Spring Garden Community” in Philadelphia.

For him, the education that needs to take place begins here.

“I hope that my films will educate everyone in this city about the Puerto Rican experience,” he said. “I think it is time for Philadelphia to embrace the Puerto Rican community.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian US,AL DÍA News, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.