Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

The Puerto Rican Photographic Society’s NYC Collective presents

Sunday, November 1st, 2009
October 3, 2009
1:33 pm

Photo workshop and photo critique session on Nov. 7 at Hope Community
Lineup:

New York Times’ journalist David Gonzalez and photojournalist Angel Franco — joint workshop on photography and storytelling

Photo critique session — Franco and Journal News photojournalist Ricky Flores

Event is open to NYC Collective members and invited guests. Space is limited.

Free

Hope Community Bldg., ground floor community room, 171 E. 109th St., East Harlem

This event is sponsored by the NYC Collective of the Puerto Rican Photographic Society and Hope Community.

RSVP by noon Oct. 31 at

http://www.eventbrite.com/event/439470468

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For Puerto Ricans, Sotomayor’s Success Stirs Pride

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

By DAVID GONZALEZ
New York Times (August 6, 2009)

In the summer of 1959, Edwin Torres landed a $60-a-week job and wound up on the front page of El Diario. He had just been hired as the first Puerto Rican assistant district attorney in New York – and probably, he thinks, the entire United States.

He still recalls the headline: “Exemplary Son of El Barrio Becomes Prosecutor.”

“You would’ve thought I had been named attorney general,” he said. “That’s how big it was.”

Half a century later, the long and sometimes bittersweet history of Puerto Ricans in New York is expected to add a celebratory chapter today as the Senate confirms Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Her personal journey – from a single-parent home in the South Bronx projects to the Ivy League and an impressive legal career – has provoked a fierce pride in many other Puerto Ricans who glimpse reflections of their own struggles.

“This is about the acceptance that eluded us,” said Mr. Torres, 78, who himself earned distinction as a jurist, novelist and raconteur. “It is beyond anybody’s imagination when I started that a Puerto Rican could ascend to that position, to the Supreme Court.”

Arguably the highest rung that any Puerto Rican has yet reached in this country, the nomination of Judge Sotomayor is a watershed event for Puerto Rican New York. It builds on the achievements that others of her generation have made in business, politics, the arts and pop culture. It extends the legacy of an earlier, lesser-known generation who created social service and educational institutions that persist today, helping newcomers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Yet the city has also been a place of heartbreak. Though Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917 and large numbers of them arrived in New York in the 1950s, poverty and lack of opportunity still pockmark some of their neighborhoods. A 2004 report by a Hispanic advocacy group showed that compared with other Latino groups nationwide, Puerto Ricans had the highest poverty rate, the lowest average family income and the highest unemployment rate for men.

In politics, the trailblazer Herman Badillo saw his career go from a series of heady firsts in the 1960s to frustration in the 1980s when his dreams of becoming the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor were foiled by Harlem’s political bosses. Just four years ago, Fernando Ferrer was trounced in his bid against Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

All those setbacks lose their sting, if only for a moment, in the glow of Judge Sotomayor’s achievement, which many of her fellow Puerto Ricans say is as monumental for them as President Obama’s victory was for African-Americans. It has affirmed a sense of Puerto Rican identity at a moment when that distinction is often obscured by catch-all labels like Latino and Hispanic – and even as it is subjected to negative comparisons.

“Many elite Latin Americans have implied that Puerto Ricans blew it, because we had citizenship and did nothing,” said Lillian Jimenez, a documentary filmmaker who co-produced a series of television ads in support of Judge Sotomayor’s nomination. “But we were the biggest Spanish-speaking group in New York for decades, and bore the brunt of discrimination, especially in the 1950s. We struggled for our rights. We have people everywhere doing all kinds of things. But that history has not been known.”

That history is in danger of disappearing in East Harlem, long the cradle of Puerto Rican New York. After waves of gentrification and development, parts of the area are now being advertised as Upper Yorkville, a new annex to the predominantly white Upper East Side. While the poor have stayed behind, many of East Harlem’s successful sons and daughters have scattered to the suburbs.

“We have a whole intellectual and professional class that is invisible – people who came up though the neighborhood, with a working-class background, who really excelled,” said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

“But it’s so dispersed, people don’t see it. They do not make up a real, physical community, but they have the identity.”

For those who paved the way for Judge Sotomayor, embracing that identity was the first step in charting their personal and professional paths out of hardship. Manuel del Valle, 60, an overachiever from the housing projects on Amsterdam Avenue, made the same leaps as the judge – to Princeton University and Yale Law School – but preceded her by five years.

Taking a cue from the black students at Princeton, he and the handful of working-class Puerto Ricans from New York pressured university officials to offer a course on Puerto Rican history and to admit more minority students. They saw their goal as creating a class of lawyers, doctors, writers and activists who would use their expertise to lift up their old neighborhoods.

“Talk about arrogance,” said Mr. del Valle, who now teaches law in Puerto Rico. “We actually believed we would have a dynamic impact on all the institutions American society had to offer.”

Judge Sotomayor’s nomination, he said, is a vindication of those efforts.

“We were invisible,” he said. “She made us visible.”

In New York, many have welcomed the judge’s visibility during a summer when the most celebrated – and reviled – local politicians were two Puerto Rican state senators who brought the state government to a standstill by mounting an abortive coup against their fellow Democrats.

“She really came at a moment when there is a public reassessment of the value of identity politics through this brouhaha in the Senate,” said Ms. Davila, a professor of anthropology at New York University who has written extensively on Puerto Rican and Latino identity. “Here came this woman who reinvigorated us with the idea that a Latina can have a lot to contribute, not just to their own group, but to the entire American society.”

But it is among her own – in the South Bronx, East Harlem or the Los Sures neighborhood of Brooklyn – where Judge Sotomayor’s success resonates loudest, for the simple reason that many people understand the level of perseverance she needed to achieve it.

Orlando Plaza, 41, who took time off from his doctoral studies in history about five years ago to open Camaradas, a popular bar in East Harlem, sees her appeal as a sort of ethnic Rorschach test.

“Whether it’s growing up in the Bronx, going to Catholic school or being from a single-parent household, there are so many tropes in her own story that we feel pride that someone from a background like ours achieved something so enormous,” he said. “This is the real Jenny from the block.”

And it is on the block, among the men and women who left Puerto Rico decades ago so their children might one day become professionals, where her story is most sweetly savored. The faces of the men and women playing dominoes or shooting pool at the Betances Senior Center in the Bronx attest to decades of hard work.

Many of them came to New York as teenagers more out of despair than dreams. Lucy Medina, who arrived in the 1950s, worked as a keypunch operator and in other jobs as she singlehandedly raised two children. Today, her son is a captain in the city’s Department of Correction and her daughter is a real estate executive.

Impressive as the judge’s accomplishments are, Ms. Medina is more impressed with the judge’s mother, Celina Sotomayor, who did what she had to do in order to raise two successful children in the projects.

“Her mother and I are very similar,” said Ms. Medina, 77. “I know what she went through. We sacrificed ourselves so our children would get an education and get ahead. A lot of women here have done that. We stayed on top of our children and made sure they didn’t get sidetracked.”

All Ranks Salute Olga Méndez, Political Trailblazer

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

By DAVID GONZALEZ
New York Times (August 3, 2009)

Befitting a scrappy, independent political pioneer – in 1978 she was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the United States – her funeral attracted the governor, the mayor, several members of Congress and countless local officials. She was lauded for many things: her tenacity; her willingness to cross party lines; her embrace of labor, housing and educational rights for the poor. She was eulogized as a loyal friend, a fierce competitor and a proud Puerto Rican.

Outside the Church of the Holy Agony, on Third Avenue at 101st Street, beyond the honor guard of construction workers that flanked her hearse, groups gathered by the housing projects to remember La Senadora, and the friends and relatives who got a hand up because of her.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like her,” said Monin Paez, who said she always voted for Senator Méndez. “When she spoke, you had to listen. The politicians today don’t talk to us. They only come by when they want your vote.”

Senator Méndez died from cancer last week at age 84. Married into a politically savvy East Harlem family – and possessed of no small measure of education and determination herself – she found her resolve tested in the State Senate, friends said. But she threw herself into her work, giving as good as she got.

“Many of you have gone toe to toe with her in political battles,” her niece, Annette Vasquez, told the mourners. “But later you would walk away with her arm in arm in friendship and respect.”

Just don’t play games with her.

“When you played Risk with Olga, it was never a game,” she said. “It really was about world domination!”

Among the politicians attending were Representatives José E. Serrano, Nydia M. Velázquez and Charles B. Rangel; the former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer; the city comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr.; and State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. Efraín González Jr., Mr. Espada’s predecessor, who recently pleaded guilty to using $200,000 in state funds for vacation homes and other personal expenses, was also there.

Some may have felt themselves in the crosshairs as Gerson Borrero, a fire-breathing columnist and political commentator, delivered his eulogy praising Senator Méndez.

“She worked hard behind the scenes while others pranced around like peacocks,” he said. “They still prance around like peacocks.”

Outside, there was a plainspoken pride among the construction workers who sweated for the duration of the Mass.

“Olga always did the right thing for El Barrio,” said one worker, Marty Torres. “She was about change. She was no punk.”

The plain setting for her funeral was fitting: not the marbled St. Patrick’s Cathedral – though she was well-connected enough to have had her service there – just the simple linoleum tile and plywood walls of Holy Agony, where she had been a loyal parishioner since the 1950s. Opened in 1953, it was built for the Puerto Ricans settling in El Barrio – old timers said it was the first local church where they celebrated in the main sanctuary, not hidden in some basement.

In the days before the funeral, friends recalled Senator Méndez, too, as visible and approachable. She asked about your children and treated you like family. She relished telling stories with a mischievous smile and a raspy voice. And she was fiercely Puerto Rican – not Latina, not Hispanic.

“She is the last of her kind,” said Gloria Quinones, a lawyer and activist often on the far left of the senator. “She represented reassurance that the community had a fighting voice and someone who loved them.”

Ms. Quinones remembers when she finished law school and Ms. Méndez asked her if she wanted to become a judge.

“To get me out of the way,” she said.

“But she always asked me how my boys were,” she added. “She was like that with everybody. At the same time she was always calling and asking me if I was going to run against her.”

Others noted that while she had sharp political instincts, they were further honed when she married into the Méndez family, whose patriarch, Antonio Méndez, was the first Puerto Rican district leader in Manhattan. Her mother-in-law, Isabel, was equally political.

“She pushed Olga,” said Carmen Villegas, a family friend. “She knew how to move the chairs like chess pieces. She worked in the senator’s office until she died. And she never called her Olga. She always called her La Senadora.”

The two women were just as devoted to Holy Agony, staying active and donating statues to the church over the years.

An urn with her ashes was set before the altar, flanked by the United States and Puerto Rican flags. Two state troopers stood smartly on either side. The Rev. Victor Elia did the final blessing, and people applauded as the urn was carried to the waiting hearse for burial in the Bronx.

Outside, under a glorious sun, a group of elderly women broke into song as the hearse prepared to leave. Wrapped in the Puerto Rican flag, they intoned Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano,” the unofficial anthem of Puerto Rico. It is a song about hardship, hope and heartbreak.

It can never be sung without tears.

Howard Jordan’s Response to Black Agenda Report (BAR) article about Sotomayor

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

Below please find a reply I wrote to the recent article by “Black Agenda Report (BAR) the journal of African American political thought and action” on an article entitled “Sonia Sotomayor: She’s No Clarence Thomas, But No Thurgood Marshall Either” by managing editor Bruce A. Dixon. I invite all readers to write BAR and express your opinion on this important nomination. The article is on the following website: http://www.blackagendareport.com/

Black Agenda Report(BAR) Joins the Anti-Latino Sotomayor Agenda
By Howard Jordan

I was saddened to witness Black Agenda Report (BAR) join the chorus of attacks on Latina justice Sonia Sotomayor. The article “Sonia Sotomayor: She’s No Clarence Thomas, But No Thurgood Marshall Either” by managing editor Bruce A. Dixon trivializes the historic importance of the nomination of the first Latina to the court. It also does a disservice to the Puerto Rican/Latino legal and political experience in the United States. Let me address some the points you raise:
First you argue that corporate media is exaggerating the importance of the nomination and it just feeds the notion that anybody can overcome racism in America. As a New York born Puerto Rican/Latino the importance of the nomination to our community is unprecedented. Though racism is structural and will not be eliminated by one appointment Mr. Dixon the narrative is important. A diabetic Latina, who lost her father when she was nine, raised in a housing project speaking a foreign language, attended Princeton, was editor a Yale Law Review, and served on the bench for seventeen years is a tribute and recognition of the important contributions Latin@s have made to this nation. The elevation of Thurgood Marshal to the Supreme Court during that historical period received the same sense of elation in the African-American community. It is as one Dominican legislator noted a “Jackie Robinson moment” for the 40 million Latinos in the U.S.
I am troubled that in your article you make only a passing reference to the racist comments characterizing Sotomayor as a “reverse racist,” an “affirmative action pick, a Hispanic chick, making fun of her unpronounceable last name, or cartoon depictions of her strung up like a piñata with a sombrero as an “easy out for progressives…to waste all their time and oxygen debating Republicans, ridiculing and refuting their racism.” The Latino community, as do all communities of color, have a responsibility and yes even an obligation to refute unfounded attacks that stereotype Justice Sotomayor and by extension promote racist stereotypes against Latinos.
Second, you rightly note Justice Sotomayor’s participation on the Board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the main civil rights law firm for Latinos in the Northeast, but demean that participation by referring to the fact that she was “reportedly involved.” You state “No reports we have seen say that she personally filed those suits or that she ever appeared in court on behalf of litigants in discrimination and other lawsuits… she can hardly claim sole credit for it. The best barometer of her participation in PRLDEF is the statement of Puerto Ricans themselves. As Cesar Perales, the PRLDEF President stated “Sonia displayed an increasing amount of leadership on the board.” Unless of course you are going to parrot the white right and argue that Perales is only saying that because he’s Puerto Rican. She served nobly. By the way as I am sure you know board members don’t bring the cases in civil rights organizations.
Mr. Dixon, Ms. Sotomayor was one of 20 Hispanics in her class at Princeton and co-chairwoman of the Puerto Rican organization Accion Puertorriqueno where she wrote a complaint accusing Princeton of discrimination and convinced the leaders of the Chicano Caucus to co-sign it and filed it with the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. As a result of her efforts, Princeton employed its first Hispanic administrator and invited a Puerto Rican professor to teach. (New York Times) Perhaps you also missed her Yale Law Review article where she urged the granting of special rights for off-shore mineral rights for Puerto Rico not enjoyed by U.S. states, a historical corollary to the Vieques struggle of the Puerto Rican nation. (New York Times-David Gonzalez)
The one point you raise that I wholeheartedly agree with is your recognition of the contributions of Justice Thurgood Marshal and his transformation of the legal and racial landscape. As an attorney Justice Marshal remains one of my heroes and is the most important Supreme Court justice in U.S. history. But I consider the Sotomayor nomination as part of the historical continuum of the Latino contribution to the broader struggle for civil rights. It is the cross fertilization of our communities struggle for legal equality.

For example, in the case of Mendez v. Westminster, nine years before Brown vs. the Board of Education, on March 2, 1945, five Latino fathers (Gonzalo Mendez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez) challenged the practice of school segregation in the Ninth Federal District Court in Los Angeles. They claimed that their children, along with 5,000 other children of “Mexican and Latin descent”, were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate “Mexican” schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modeno school districts of Orange County. Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946. As a result “separate but equal” ended in California schools and legally enforced separation of racial and national groups in the public education system. The governor of the state at this time was Earl Warren who later decided Brown.
I will not go on to cite all the contributions of Sotomayor this gifted jurist who is a legatee of our contributions to our struggle for social justice. Anybody with roots in our community understands this reality and can readily access her contributions through the internet or the written and oral histories of our community if they so desired.
Third, you maintain that her legal experience a “mere 12 years of legal experience” five as a prosecutor and 7 for and corporate firm is not significant. Perhaps in your analysis you failed to mention that Justice Sotomayor has more legal experience that any of the nominees on the present court had at the time. Even more troubling is your transparent attempts to cherry pick those cases that would present Justice Sotomayor in a negative pro-corporate light. As the New York Times indicated Justice Sotomayor would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years and more overall judicial experience than anyone confirmed in the court in the past 70 years. She participated in over 3000 panel decisions and authored roughly 400 opinions.
Fourthly, you establish a false causal connection between the Rockefeller Drug laws and the development of the prison-industrial complex and Sotomayor. The article argues that during this period Sotomayor as a prosecutor did not inject herself in this scandalous imprisonment of people of color. I frankly don’t see the connection, did Sotomayor cause this situation? During this same historical period Puerto Ricans were held as Puerto Rican political prisoners in American prisons and many progressive lawyers did not speak out. Many jurist, liberals, and yes progressive of color have not played a leading role in denouncing the colonization of the Puerto Rican people (America’s last colony), despite the efforts of our people to bring our situation to the courts, yet I would not blame them for assisting the colonizers in their silence.
Five, you use a corporate news media source like the Wall Street Journal to argue that Justice Sotomayor not only represented corporate clients but rejoiced in that representation. You note that absent from the conversation is a cursory review of her (Sotomayor’s) legal career then proceed to offer your readers a less than cursory review of your own. I am particularly disturbed on how your article cherry picked the cases that pigeon hole the judge as pro-business- but conveniently ignored other decisions such as the 2006 case Merrill Lynch v. Dabit where she allowed class action lawsuits against Merrill Lynch or her ruling in favor of the players (workers) in the major league baseball strike. As many scholars have noted that her opinions do not necessarily put her in a pro- or anti-business camp. (New York Times-May 28)
It might also have been more intellectually honest to note the civil liberties decision by the Justice in the Ricci case allowing the city of New Haven to reject an exam that discriminated against African American and Latinos or her support against insensitive strip search of a 13 year old girl as intrusive. Or the case of United States v. Reimer where Judge Sotomayor wrote an opinion revoking the US citizenship for a man charged with working for the Nazis in World War II Poland, guarding concentration camps and helping empty the Jewish ghettos. And in Lin v. Gonzales where she ordered renewed consideration of the asylum claims of Chinese women who experienced or were threatened with forced birth control
I would add that while I would not reject the argument that many of the Justice’s experience have also been corporate friendly as is most of the court, I don’t believe we have any “revolutionaries” on the bench. Will the nomination of Sotomayor destroy the corporate state/capitalism or free people of color from the racial oppression in the United States- no but is it a significant step forward- yes.
I am particularly troubled with the overall tenor of your article characterizing Justice Sotomayor as a “zealot advocate for multinational business” and an “easy out for progressives around the Sotomayor nomination is to waste all their time and oxygen debating Republicans, ridiculing and refuting their racism.” I am a progressive and I wholeheartedly reject your advice. Justice Sotomayor is reflective of the Puerto Rican/Latino experience in the United States. I would submit to you Mr. Dixon that recognizing a community’s leadership is about “respect” and I view your article as disrespectful and a cavalier dismissal of our historical experience.
As a New York born Puerto Rican I have spent a large part of my life organizing in the Latino community and struggling to build bridges between Latinos and African Americans. From the struggles against police brutality, to the Jackson campaign in 1984 and 1988, to support for the election of Mayor Dinkins, to the endorsement of candidate Obama for the Presidency who received 67 percent of the Latino vote. It is in the interest of both African Americans and Latinos to continue to cement the historical alliance between our communities and against the white supremacy that has relegated both our communities to the bottom of the economic ladder. “Sticking it” to our leaders and refusing to recognize the different levels of our “racialization” of our respective communities does not lend itself to that goal. It instead diminishes solidarity, weakens alliances, and deprives our communities of the benefits of sharing experiences.
As a regular reader of BAR I have enormous appreciation for the insight your publication has on issues of importance to all communities of color. I have read with interest your critiques of President Obama and embrace of Rosa Clemente’s candidacy as the first Afro-Puerto Rican Vice-Presidential candidate for the Green Party. That is why I was bitterly disappointed at your blind spot on the importance of the nomination of Sotomayor as “historical milestone.” The first African American President nominating the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court is reflective of a new Black-Brown paradigm in America where all contributions are fully recognized. We must bring together the legacies of those “those who picked cotton and those that cut sugar cane.” However, with all due respect, this will not be accomplished by promoting anti-Latino sentiments in the mainstream press.
Howard Jordan, host
The Jordan Journal
WBAI-Pacifica

Puerto Rico’s Moment in the Sun

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

By MICHAEL JANEWAY
New York Times (May 22, 2008)

PUERTO RICO, an afterthought trophy for the United States 110 years ago at the end of the Spanish-American War and an island in limbo since, has become an improbable player in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Its primary on June 1 could bolster Mrs. Clinton’s claim to a majority of the popular vote — the combined tally for all the Democratic primaries and caucuses held across the country over the past six months.

Puerto Rico’s formal role in the process is indeed weighty. Its 63 voting delegates — 55 elected ones and eight superdelegates — at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer will outnumber delegations from more than half the states (including Kentucky and Oregon) and the District of Columbia. Yet Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the Electoral College, nor will its 2.5 million registered voters cast ballots for president in November.

How in the world did this happen? From the beginning, the question of Puerto Rico has perplexed the United States. The island was essential to the defense of the Panama Canal, so we did not make it independent, in contrast to two other Spanish possessions we gained in the war, Cuba (which become independent in 1902) and the Philippines (1946). And we judged it foreign in language and culture — and worse, overpopulated — so New Mexico-style Americanization leading to statehood was out of the question.

Similarly, Puerto Ricans have never resolved their relationship with the United States. For almost 50 years after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rican sentiment was divided between dreams of statehood and of independence. This ambivalence deterred the island from ever petitioning Congress for one or the other. And until mid-century, sporadic outbursts of violent nationalism haunted the scene.

Partly to put such extremism out of business, Congress in 1948 allowed Puerto Rico to elect its own governor and then in 1950 gave it an intricately designed, semi-autonomous “commonwealth” status short of statehood. Two years later, the island adopted its own Constitution, and Congress quickly ratified it.

Puerto Ricans elect their own Legislature, along with the governor. They enjoy entitlements like Social Security, but they do not pay federal income taxes. They retain their own cultural identity (Spanish is the prevailing tongue) but live under the umbrella of the American trade system and the American military. They have been citizens since 1917, but they have no vote in Congress or for the presidency.

The man who brought forth this unique arrangement, which has come to seem permanent, was Luis Muñoz Marín, who dominated Puerto Rico’s politics beginning in 1940. In 1948 he became the island’s first elected governor. He won three more terms and could easily have been “president for life.” A stretch of 116th Street in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem is named Luis Muñoz Marín Boulevard in his honor.

Muñoz was an eloquent advocate of independence until, faced with daunting statistics at the end of World War II, he concluded that Puerto Rico’s impoverished economy could not support nationhood. So he began packaging his third-way brainchild.

When pitching commonwealth on the mainland, Muñoz — an artist of words and imagery who also enjoyed a drink or two — would observe that Puerto Rico is the olive in the American martini. The phrase went down well in Washington, but Muñoz used different language at home. Neither Congress nor the American courts have ever embraced Muñoz’s Spanish-language phrase for “commonwealth,” universally recognized in Puerto Rico: “estado libre asociado,” or free associated state. Those three words suggested an autonomy (or even statehood or independence) beyond what came to pass. But Muñoz was too popular on the island for that to cause him trouble.

Still, Muñoz always intended to bring “enhanced autonomy” in trade, self-governance, taxation and entitlements to Puerto Rico. But Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959 moved Washington’s attention away from the commonwealth.

Muñoz left office in 1965. His dreams faded. The economy he jump-started went flat. Today, the government accounts for 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s work force (compared with 16 percent on the mainland).

Then in 1974, the Democratic National Committee and some shrewd local political strategists came up with an idea for how to play to lingering discontent over the island’s status: Why not make nice with Puerto Rico (and, as important, with the Puerto Rican vote in American cities) by awarding it the number of delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention that its population would yield as a state? But not until this year has a presidential race been close enough, long enough, to yield Puerto Rico a role in the endgame.

On the island, politics is focused on the longstanding deadlock between the two dominant parties, whose identities — one is for statehood and one is for enhanced autonomy — today bear no relation to those of the Republicans and Democrats in the 50 states. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are, gingerly, bidding for support from both of them.

But the mainland population of Puerto Ricans (like the island’s, almost four million) is watching, too. That fully enfranchised constituency is up for grabs in November. Republicans have fished in these waters, too.

Presidential candidates usually offer Puerto Ricans hazy promises that are sure to be unfulfilled. First on the list: We’ll do whatever you want about the island’s status if you deliver us an overwhelming majority for one or another option. That’s not going to happen.

Since 1967, public support on the island has seesawed inconclusively between statehood and enhanced autonomy — a better version of the deal they already have. Muñoz’s commonwealth helped eclipse independence; that course enjoys only limited support today. An overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans wants, one way or another, to be American.

The next president could just appoint another commission, more high-level and forceful than past ones, to reopen the dormant question of Puerto Rico’s status. But there is an additional option.

Fidel Castro is gone from office, Hugo Chávez’s influence is growing, Brazil is becoming an oil power, and the United States has no Latin American policy to speak of. John F. Kennedy wisely turned to Puerto Rican leaders to help him frame a new policy for the region in 1961. Similarly, the next president could ask Puerto Rico, with its democratic tradition and its past success with economic development, to help us plan for the post-Castro Caribbean.

The United States is overdue in re-engaging with this special place, which landed in our lap as a stepchild of imperialism in 1898, and which we have never seen clearly.

Michael Janeway, a former editor of The Boston Globe and a professor of journalism and arts at Columbia, is writing a history of the United States and Puerto Rico in the 20th century.

Puerto Rico’s Moment in the Sun

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

By MICHAEL JANEWAY
New York Times (May 22, 2008)

PUERTO RICO, an afterthought trophy for the United States 110 years ago at the end of the Spanish-American War and an island in limbo since, has become an improbable player in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Its primary on June 1 could bolster Mrs. Clinton’s claim to a majority of the popular vote — the combined tally for all the Democratic primaries and caucuses held across the country over the past six months.

Puerto Rico’s formal role in the process is indeed weighty. Its 63 voting delegates — 55 elected ones and eight superdelegates — at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer will outnumber delegations from more than half the states (including Kentucky and Oregon) and the District of Columbia. Yet Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the Electoral College, nor will its 2.5 million registered voters cast ballots for president in November.

How in the world did this happen? From the beginning, the question of Puerto Rico has perplexed the United States. The island was essential to the defense of the Panama Canal, so we did not make it independent, in contrast to two other Spanish possessions we gained in the war, Cuba (which become independent in 1902) and the Philippines (1946). And we judged it foreign in language and culture — and worse, overpopulated — so New Mexico-style Americanization leading to statehood was out of the question.

Similarly, Puerto Ricans have never resolved their relationship with the United States. For almost 50 years after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rican sentiment was divided between dreams of statehood and of independence. This ambivalence deterred the island from ever petitioning Congress for one or the other. And until mid-century, sporadic outbursts of violent nationalism haunted the scene.

Partly to put such extremism out of business, Congress in 1948 allowed Puerto Rico to elect its own governor and then in 1950 gave it an intricately designed, semi-autonomous “commonwealth” status short of statehood. Two years later, the island adopted its own Constitution, and Congress quickly ratified it.

Puerto Ricans elect their own Legislature, along with the governor. They enjoy entitlements like Social Security, but they do not pay federal income taxes. They retain their own cultural identity (Spanish is the prevailing tongue) but live under the umbrella of the American trade system and the American military. They have been citizens since 1917, but they have no vote in Congress or for the presidency.

The man who brought forth this unique arrangement, which has come to seem permanent, was Luis Muñoz Marín, who dominated Puerto Rico’s politics beginning in 1940. In 1948 he became the island’s first elected governor. He won three more terms and could easily have been “president for life.” A stretch of 116th Street in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem is named Luis Muñoz Marín Boulevard in his honor.

Muñoz was an eloquent advocate of independence until, faced with daunting statistics at the end of World War II, he concluded that Puerto Rico’s impoverished economy could not support nationhood. So he began packaging his third-way brainchild.

When pitching commonwealth on the mainland, Muñoz — an artist of words and imagery who also enjoyed a drink or two — would observe that Puerto Rico is the olive in the American martini. The phrase went down well in Washington, but Muñoz used different language at home. Neither Congress nor the American courts have ever embraced Muñoz’s Spanish-language phrase for “commonwealth,” universally recognized in Puerto Rico: “estado libre asociado,” or free associated state. Those three words suggested an autonomy (or even statehood or independence) beyond what came to pass. But Muñoz was too popular on the island for that to cause him trouble.

Still, Muñoz always intended to bring “enhanced autonomy” in trade, self-governance, taxation and entitlements to Puerto Rico. But Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959 moved Washington’s attention away from the commonwealth.

Muñoz left office in 1965. His dreams faded. The economy he jump-started went flat. Today, the government accounts for 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s work force (compared with 16 percent on the mainland).

Then in 1974, the Democratic National Committee and some shrewd local political strategists came up with an idea for how to play to lingering discontent over the island’s status: Why not make nice with Puerto Rico (and, as important, with the Puerto Rican vote in American cities) by awarding it the number of delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention that its population would yield as a state? But not until this year has a presidential race been close enough, long enough, to yield Puerto Rico a role in the endgame.

On the island, politics is focused on the longstanding deadlock between the two dominant parties, whose identities — one is for statehood and one is for enhanced autonomy — today bear no relation to those of the Republicans and Democrats in the 50 states. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are, gingerly, bidding for support from both of them.

But the mainland population of Puerto Ricans (like the island’s, almost four million) is watching, too. That fully enfranchised constituency is up for grabs in November. Republicans have fished in these waters, too.

Presidential candidates usually offer Puerto Ricans hazy promises that are sure to be unfulfilled. First on the list: We’ll do whatever you want about the island’s status if you deliver us an overwhelming majority for one or another option. That’s not going to happen.

Since 1967, public support on the island has seesawed inconclusively between statehood and enhanced autonomy — a better version of the deal they already have. Muñoz’s commonwealth helped eclipse independence; that course enjoys only limited support today. An overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans wants, one way or another, to be American.

The next president could just appoint another commission, more high-level and forceful than past ones, to reopen the dormant question of Puerto Rico’s status. But there is an additional option.

Fidel Castro is gone from office, Hugo Chávez’s influence is growing, Brazil is becoming an oil power, and the United States has no Latin American policy to speak of. John F. Kennedy wisely turned to Puerto Rican leaders to help him frame a new policy for the region in 1961. Similarly, the next president could ask Puerto Rico, with its democratic tradition and its past success with economic development, to help us plan for the post-Castro Caribbean.

The United States is overdue in re-engaging with this special place, which landed in our lap as a stepchild of imperialism in 1898, and which we have never seen clearly.

Michael Janeway, a former editor of The Boston Globe and a professor of journalism and arts at Columbia, is writing a history of the United States and Puerto Rico in the 20th century.