W. Kamau Bell: When I showed up in Puerto Rico, even the things I thought I knew it turned out that I didn't know
Puerto Rico's people, history, and relationship to the United States are all complicated, Bell writes
Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and the author of the new book, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” (Dutton). Tune in Sundays at 10 p.m. ET to watch the second season of CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
After nearly two seasons of “United Shades of America,” I finally get to go a beautiful, sun-drenched island and drink fruity drinks, and I didn’t even have to leave the country. And no, I didn’t go to Hawaii. I went to Puerto Rico.
Now, I know at least a few of you reading this are saying to yourselves, “Puerto Rico is in the United States?” Yes, it is… sorta.
Puerto Rico is complicated. The people are complicated. The history is complicated. The story of the United States’ relationship to Puerto Rico is complicated. People born in Puerto Rico are US citizens, except for the teeny, tiny, mind-boggling fact that if you live in Puerto Rico, you are not allowed to cast a vote in the election for president. That tiny fact starts to get bigger when you realize that electing our own leaders is the whole reason that we have a country in the first place. Remember that whole, “No taxation without representation” thing?
The citizens of Puerto Rico pay taxes with no representation every day, because Puerto Rico is not a state. And the rules only became more confusing the more I looked into them during my time there.
When I showed up to the island, even the things I thought I knew it turned out that I didn’t know. For example, I was sure that Puerto Rico was a commonwealth. I didn’t know what that meant, but it’s in the official name of the island, “The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” Well, it turns out that “commonwealth” is defined as an independent country or community – but in this case it is just a fancy word that somebody stuck in the official name of the island. It’s like calling Julius Erving Dr. J. even though you know he’s not a medical doctor.
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, not a state, just like the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. I’d like to brag and say I knew about all those other territories, but I definitely Googled just to make sure.
Being a “territory” is weird. You get an American passport, but your own elected officials can’t make decisions about the future of the territory without consulting the US government (in which you have no senators or representatives in Congress). That includes the fact that the Puerto Rican government can’t even decide if they want to leave this whole weird relationship.
And that is noteworthy because on the same day that CNN airs my episode about going to Puerto Rico, the people of Puerto Rico are once again going to vote about whether or not they become an actual — star-on-the-flag — state.
But here’s the rub. Even if the people of Puerto Rico vote to become a state, it doesn’t mean anything unless (again) the United States government allows it to mean something.
Puerto Rico can’t even leave if they want to leave. It’s basically like my children saying that they voted to have ice cream for dinner. It doesn’t mean anything unless I – Who am I kidding? – unless my wife (the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of my family) says it is so.
And to put it bluntly, this sucks, because Puerto Ricans are not children. They are adults whose island is one the most beautiful places on Earth. And have plenty of good ideas and natural resources (yes, beauty is a resource) that they need to thrive, but they are also in a financial hole that many people (both Puerto Ricans and non-Puerto Ricans) feel like they aren’t going to be able to climb out of on their own.
This past spring, Puerto Rico filed for a kind of bankruptcy. It is a bankruptcy to the tune of more than $70 billion. They have a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 68%. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds bad.
Last November, President Obama signed a bill into law known as PROMESA. It is set up to allegedly help Puerto Rico restructure it’s debt. But the one fact that I took away from it is that the seven-member board charged with carrying out the restructuring doesn’t feature anyone from the Puerto Rican government. The governor of Puerto Rico is only on the board as an observer, not a voting member.
And before you start to say that it looks like Puerto Rico shouldn’t be independent because they can’t handle their own finances, again you have to remember: Puerto Rico hasn’t been in charge of itself since 1952. When U.S.-based companies have done business in Puerto Rico, they’ve reaped tax benefits as “foreign” investors, and business dealings between US states and Puerto Rico are complex and expensive.
And also because of weird maritime laws, Puerto Rico, an island of American citizens, pays way more for cars and groceries than makes sense. It’s like when you get to the front of the line at a chain supermarket but you don’t have your preferred card, and the cashier just looks at you like, “NO BUY ONE GET ONE FREE FOR YOU!”
And yet when I was there, everything felt so simple: beautiful weather, delicious food, amazingly hospitable people, incredible natural resources, a rainforest, and waters that literally glow at night! How did the United States manage to screw that up?
I don’t know the answer. Growing up in the Midwest, Boston and Alabama, I didn’t know any Puerto Ricans… at least I didn’t know if I knew any Puerto Ricans. The only Puerto Rican that I had ever even heard of was Juan Epstein, one of the students from the classic 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
And he was only half Puerto Rican … and 100% fictional. Having spent time in New York City, I know things would have been different for me if I had grown up there. New York City has so many Puerto Ricans that they invented a whole new spin on the Puerto Rican identity, Nuyorican. And the same day that the citizens of Puerto Rico are headed to the polls to vote and what they want their future to be, the Nuyoricans of New York City are having their annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And this year, at least in part, it is, in part, being used to celebrate the release of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, a man who just got out of prison after 35 years. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his involvement with the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, a group that wanted independence for Puerto Rico and was responsible for bombings in the 1970s and 1980s. And now Lopez Rivera is free, because President Obama – a president Lopez Rivera had no voice in electing – commuted his sentence in his final days in office.
I told you Puerto Rico was complicated.