As Puerto Rico faces a $70 billion debt crisis, a poverty rate three times that of the U.S., borderline-insolvent public health care and retirement systems and a subsequent mass exodus, a longstanding debate has reignited over the merits of U.S. citizenship.
In New York City, artists are grappling with these issues at “CitiCien,” an exhibit at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Jones Act, a 1917 law that granted citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico. (The exhibit’s name combines the words “citizen” and “cien,” the Spanish word for 100.)
Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth of the U.S. means that people born on the island and in the mainland diaspora must contend with their identities as both U.S. citizens and as Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico’s colonial past has directly led to the territory’s struggles today, Vagabond Beaumont, a documentarian and visual artist who contributed to the show, said.
“Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. We’re always living in this sort of nether zone, in between spaces,” Beaumont said.
As part of “CitiCien,” Beaumont and 99 other artists with ties to Puerto Rico created art installations that describe their feelings on the Puerto Rico-U.S. relationship. The exhibit was curated by “Defend Puerto Rico,” an artistic collective seeking to connect Puerto Ricans to news and information about the island that is not widely available in the mainland U.S.
A month after Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to send troops to World War I, in which close to 20,000 Puerto Ricans would serve. For decades, the U.S. military used the Puerto Rican islands of Culebra and Vieques for bombing practice and a dumping ground for old munitions. The Jones Act also required Puerto Ricans to buy goods solely from American ships manned by American crews, which locals say limits business and jacks up prices.
Today, the Puerto Rican legislature creates laws that can be overruled by a U.S. Congress that has a non-voting Puerto Rican representative. Puerto Ricans can be drafted to war, but they can’t vote for U.S. president. And the island territory often receives less funding for federal programs like Medicaid than U.S. states.
As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico cannot file for bankruptcy, so last year Congress responded to the territory’s economic crisis by passing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (or PROMESA, the Spanish word for “promise”). It established a bipartisan fiscal control board that would oversee the restructuring of the island’s debt and negotiate with its creditors. On March 13, the board approved an amended fiscal plan submitted by the Puerto Rican government after rejecting an initial proposal it called “unrealistic” and “overly optimistic.”
“There’s this perception that we are our own nation,” Beaumont said. “And yet, there is this reality that we’re not really a part of the United States, but we don’t own ourselves either. We’ve always been in-between.”
The walls inside the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center’s main lobby are lined with 12×12, black-and-white pieces celebrating Puerto Rico’s indigenous roots, West African heritage and beautiful scenery. Yet, criticisms of the territory’s colonial history and connection to the U.S. are front and center. Many of the works speak of infamous killings and suppression of Puerto Rican nationalist movements, including a period from 1948 to 1957 where Puerto Rican law prohibited displaying the Puerto Rican flag.
More personal statements address family members who left Puerto Rico for the U.S. to escape rampant poverty. In his piece, Beaumont features a photograph of his grandfather, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was born in 1913, and gained U.S. citizenship under the Jones Act before moving to New York in the 1940s. A quote from the 1957 musical “West Side Story” is transposed onto the photo; it describes a longing to return to home.
“Today, we are dealing with the same reality,” Beaumont said. “Because of the debt crisis, people are fleeing the island. Not because they want to, but because they’re being forced to leave.”
Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status has always been a hot-button issue in the territory, where political parties define themselves by platforms calling for either statehood, independence, or the status quo.
In particular, the presence of a control board and its threats to impose austerity measures — including billions in cuts to pensions, public education and health spending — have become a source of tension in Puerto Rico and continue to incite mass protests.
In an article for The Nation, author Nelson Denis argued the control board is another extension of U.S. control over the island:
“Puerto Rico has been little more than a profit center for the United States: first as a naval coaling station, then as a sugar empire, a cheap labor supply, a tax haven, a captive market, and now as a municipal bond debtor and target for privatization. It is an island of beggars and billionaires: fought over by lawyers, bossed by absentee landlords, and clerked by politicians.”
In June, Defend Puerto Rico’s curators will bring the CitiCien exhibit to the island’s capital, San Juan. That same month, Puerto Ricans will vote in a non-binding plebiscite on the island’s status for the fifth time in its history. Unlike past plebiscites, the ballot will offer only two options: Statehood or Independence/Free Association, excluding the traditional “Commonwealth” status option. Any outcome would need to be ratified by Congress.
The PBS NewsHour Weekend spoke with other artists and curators about their contributions to the exhibit and relationship with Puerto Rico. Read what they told the NewsHour below.
Adrian Roman, co-founder of Defend Puerto Rico and curator of “CitiCien”
We wanted to create a bridge in communication between the people on the island and people here in the States. We have a lot of different emotions and pieces that are personal, about family, and then pieces that speak about our fight for independence dating back to the 1930s. The independence movement in Puerto Rico has been broken down, not only by the Puerto Rican government but by the U.S. government. It hasn’t been able to thrive. Every time it gets to a place where people have created a movement and are fighting for their freedom, it’s been knocked down.
Being able to travel freely is the only true gift that we’ve been given through citizenship. Anything else we’ve had to fight for or fight against, and nothing has come easy. Where we are right now is obviously not working.
Arianna Chikki Cuesta, artist
I chose this young man as my subject because I wanted to shed light on how the economic crisis is affecting people who are already going through a hard time. The young man in this photo has cancer and owes a lot of money in medical bills for his cancer treatment. The location I chose is an abandoned building in Santurce, Puerto Rico, which represents all of the abandoned buildings in Puerto Rico right now. This neighborhood has been rocked by the economic crisis.
This piece is called “Governmental Parasite.” My subject is holding on tight to his few dollars and the government is represented by this hand, which is the parasite. They live off of us and take from us until they no longer can. By holding on to his few dollars he’s saying, this is mine and I will fight for what is rightfully mine. I will fight for my island. And that’s what I wanted to express here.
Nia Andino, artist
My piece is about identity. My grandfather came here after joining the Army. I created a spoken-word piece about his journey. When he came into the U.S. after the Jones Act, there was a bureau that gave out ID cards for Puerto Ricans to identify as Americans to make it easier to receive benefits. I was thinking about coming to a new place after leaving another, and how people see you and how you see yourself. I learned a lot about how important this document was for their experience in how people treated them or saw them, especially because he was Afro-Latino, so there was this layer of not only being foreign, but also being black.
Jean Oyola, artist
This piece took me 9 years to create because it’s a collage made from letters sent to my grandmother, evicting her from her home. I kept it in a shoebox for many years. My grandfather was a veteran, he served in the military. He had his benefits while he was alive, but when he died, benefits were denied to my grandmother, and that’s my message here. How the United States offers one thing but then hands over another. Many of us have had to fight for our identity wherever we go, but wherever we go, we carry hope with us. It walks with us. We carry our home with us.
Daniel Alago, artist
I was thinking about a story that my mother told me from when she was a child growing up in the town of Jayuya. There was a bombing in her town, planes going over and bombing the town so she had to hide under the house. What was really happening was that people in the Puerto Rican nationalist movement had to come in and taken over the town and had gotten into a shootout with the police officers and proclaimed Puerto Rico to be free. After that, the U.S. government sent in the National Guard. [P-47] bombers were attacking the town with bombs. So in my painting I added a picture of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist movement, the house my mom grew up in and then a picture of the National Guard coming into the town.
Bonafide Rojas, artist
The fact that we can’t control our own destiny is the biggest thing. If Puerto Ricans want Puerto Rico to succeed, Puerto Ricans have to be the ones In control of making our own decisions. My piece is called “In the Morning of Our Independence.” It’s a colonial history of Puerto Rico spanning back 118 years. It starts with the Americans invading in 1898, it talks about the relationship that Puerto Rico had with Spain and how they signed an autonomous charter to make them free and then couple of weeks later were invaded by the U.S. during the Spanish-American war. The piece talks about everything from the control board, to the Island’s first governor, a man who was a Confederate General in the Civil War who fought at wounded knee. I try to fit as much as I can ending at the massacres in Jayuya and Salon Boricua.
Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, co-founder of Defend Puerto Rico
We in the diaspora weren’t getting stories from back on the island. We heard about the economic crisis and about people leaving the island and different things, a lot of numbers, pie charts that I believe aren’t going to motivate people to do anything about the situation. So we went there to hear stories from the people and then share those personal stories. It’s such an honor to be able to express myself on a 12 x 12 piece of work along with 100 other Puerto Rican artists.
Mark Otura Mun, artist
I moved to Puerto Rico in 1999. I’m African-American and have no blood ties to Puerto Rico. I am not a nationalist and on a personal level am struggling with those themes and with my thoughts on what should happen to my friends and neighbors on the island. In the past, I’ve struggled with whether I have the right to have an opinion on Puerto Rico’s future. I’ve been there for 20 years and I do believe in liberty, so I wanted to offer this. The people that are around me are my family and I’m entrenched there, it is my home.
CitiCien will be on view at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center in New York City until March 26.