“Patriotism,” Mark Twain once quipped, “is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Twain also noted that the United States has “the best government money can buy.”
For Puerto Rico’s estadistas (statehooders), however, patriotism seems to mean wanting to form “a more perfect union” with the United States no matter what. On the night of June 11, when the results of the most recent plebiscite on the island’s status returned with the statehood option winning 97 percent of the 23 percent of voters who actually bothered, the new pro-statehood colonial governor, Ricky Rosselló, was joined on stage at the New Progressive Party’s headquarters in San Juan by a number of colleagues, friends and supporters — each waving the Stars and Stripes.
The estadistas are widely accepted as the most American of Puerto Ricans, or at least the most wannabe-American, willing to give any concession to U.S. government — as well as the U.S. public — that will inch Puerto Rico closer to becoming the 51st state in the Union. They will cut social welfare spending to ensure Puerto Rico pays its debt in full, however illegitimate it may be. They will make learning the imperial language, English, a priority. They will beg and beg and beg the U.S. Congress for statehood, and when their pleas continue to fall on deaf ears, they will force Congress’s hand via backdoor maneuvers.
The independentistas (those favoring separation from the U.S. government), meanwhile, are seen as clinging to Puerto Rican culture and making their own pleas, only not for entry into the United States but for separation from it. In the minds of many Puerto Ricans, including independentistas themselves, the independence movement is inseparable from and deeply rooted in Puerto Rican nationalism, the idea that Puerto Ricans are a distinct people — puertorriquenidad — who therefore deserve to live in their own country, governed by their own laws.
I am a Puerto Rican and an independentista, but not a nationalist of any kind. On the contrary, I’m a Puerto Rican independentista as well as an American patriot — a patriot in Twain’s sense, not in the way in which statehooders and nearly every Republican uses the term. I aim to be the kind of patriot Edward Abbey wrote about: one who is “always … ready to defend his country against his government.”
What I mean by the label American is equally important, because it is my americanidad (American-ness), in fact, that makes me an independentista. I use American here in both the Jeffersonian and the Bolivarian sense: I am the product of not only the American Revolutionary War but also the Spanish-American wars for independence, which began with Bolívar and the Supreme Junta of Caracas in 1810 and ended, incidentally, with Spain’s defeat to the United States in 1898, which transferred control of Puerto Rico from Madrid to Washington. (Considering the island has remained a colony of the United States ever since, and that Oscar López Rivera and other members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional have been imprisoned for taking up arms against the last remaining colonial power in the hemisphere, one could argue that the Spanish-American wars for independence continue to this very day.) Simply put, I am an American and an americano.
The two terms overlap, and it is that overlap which I imply in my use of the word. American, if it is to mean much, means freedom. Freedom from what? would be the obvious question, and the answer is just as obvious: freedom from Europe and all its baggage. American means freedom from religious and nationalistic divisions and their attendant strife. It means pluralism and democracy. And it means — historically, politically, ideologically, and essentially — the self-determination of peoples, or, put plainly, the complete rejection of anything resembling colonial rule.
And so it is that I, as an American patriot, oppose the U.S. government’s maintaining its colonial rule over the island of Puerto Rico. That I myself am of Puerto Rican descent I view as merely a coincident, since I would advocate Puerto Rican independence were I Belizean, Haitian, Argentinian or fifth-generation Chicagoan. Because not merely is the U.S. government un-American in its possessing colonies — along with Puerto Rico, there are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands — it is even anti-American, against the idea of America. As an American patriot, I oppose, by definition, anything that is against the idea of America.
These thoughts come to mind every year in the run-up to Fourth of July, the day on which Americans and americanos celebrate one of the first declarations of independence from European colonialism in the Americas, a declaration echoed by subsequent declarations from Dolores to Tucumán. No doubt few in Puerto Rico will celebrate the Fourth harder than statehooders, but their ignorance of its true meaning inevitably condemns their celebrations to mere farce. Because the meaning behind the Fourth of July isn’t heard in what the estadistas have been begging for since 1898, but in what López Rivera, the FALN and other independentistas have been fighting for — freedom.
Featured image: The Puerto Rican and U.S. flags fly over Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Peter Dutton/Flickr)