Opinion: Are Puerto Ricans immigrants?
An Occupy Puerto Rico protester in San Juan in October. (Flickr: PicHunting)
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The easy answer is “no.”
Since 1917, Puerto Ricans are American citizens by default. We have American passports, and can move to the mainland United States just like someone moves from Kansas to Ohio.
So why does former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who is running for Senate as a Democrat for Arizona, self-identify himself as the son of immigrants?
His parents moved from Puerto Rico to Harlem, where Carmona was born in 1949.
“I’m Hispanic and I’m first born in this country,” he told our Univision News Political Editor Jordan Fabian last week. “My parents were immigrants, you know, we were poor. I was homeless as a child. So all of these issue are not really foreign to me.”
Just a few days ago, Carmona again identified as the son of immigrants in an interview with News Taco:
“In a generation, I went from a homeless child of immigrants to Surgeon General of the United States. I got a lot to return,” Carmona told NewsTaco. “My goal is to make my country better for those who come in the pipeline behind me to put in an infrastructure of opportunity — that’s what I intend to do.”
The Huffington Post published an Op-Ed by Tucson-based writer and political activist Pamela Powers Hannley, in which she describes Carmona as the “son of Puerto Rican immigrants,” no doubt following on the former Surgeon General’s own choice of words.
Of course, technically, Puerto Ricans are not immigrants. But even though we have freedom of mobility and the coveted blue passport, that doesn’t exempt us from cultural, linguistic, economic, and discriminatory hardships and experiences that any immigrant — legal or not, Latino or not — go through.
It’s not the same to move from Ponce to Chicago as it is from Philadelphia to Seattle. But it’s certainly not the same as moving from Guadalajara to Houston either (although culturally, Texas and northern Mexico are very similar). Latin Americans like to point this out to us a lot. We have it easy, they tell us, in terms of the paperwork.
Because of Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status of a territory, the island “belongs to but is not part of” the United States. That’s the general feeling Puerto Ricans have about being Americans as well — it’s not as seamless an identity as we’d like it to be. Americans from the mainland feel the same way about us, too. The average American assumes we came here from somewhere else; which is true. Just like any other minority, sometimes people assume we’re not from here, even if we were born in New York.
Carmona is choosing to identify his family as one of immigrants, especially since he’s courting Arizona’s Latino voters, most of whom are of Mexican descent. It’s still misleading, but I’m hoping that ultimately this brings much-needed attention to the political limbo in which Puerto Rico has found itself during the past 114 years. No excuse for journalists, however, to get it wrong and be oblivious to the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It’s part of both Puerto Ricans and Americans’ uneasy identity.