Photo: Ricardo Arduengo – AP

While the Presidential elections monopolized the media, another, older battle seemed to be winding up: in a November 7 referendum, 61% of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of becoming the United States’ 51st state.

It wasn’t the first time Puerto Ricans tried to clarify their ill-defined political status. The question has been put to them four times since Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory 114 years ago.

But even though Puerto Ricans seem to have finally made up their minds to join the Union, in reality, Puerto Ricans’ are still ambivalent about giving up their sovereignty.

The Weight Of History

That ambivalence has a long history. The United States took control over Puerto Rico in 1898, after what U.S. ambassador John Hay called a “Splendid Little War” that lasted ten weeks – a war that also gave the U.S. control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The U.S. take-over sparked an independence movement in all the former Spanish colonies, but Puerto Rico’s was notably weaker, especially compared to Cuba’s. The most extreme of the early Puerto Rican “autonomists” weren’t even calling for independence: they wanted to become an official Province of Spain.

The U.S. government was just as ambivalent about Puerto Rico. In a famously ambiguous 1901 ruling, the Supreme Court declared that Puerto Rico “belonged” to the U.S. but was not “incorporated” into it. One judge pushed the ambiguity as far as stating that Puerto Rico was “foreign to the U.S. in a domestic sense.”

Puerto Rico is a territory with the vague status of  “Commonwealth”. In 1917, Congress granted U.S. citizenship to all Puerto-Ricans, but the island never became a part of the Union.

An Ambiguous Referendum

President Obama is in favor of incorporating Puerto Rico – in other words, turning it into a bona fide U.S. state. But he faces a number of problems, starting with the nature of Puerto Rico’s referendum, itself.

The referendum was not just to decide between joining the Union or becoming an independent country. There is a third party – the “territorialists” – who favor the status quo. And then there’s a fourth party who are calling for Puerto Rico to strike some sort of new deal with the United States – though they haven’t nailed down what that deal will be.

So the November referendum had two questions, with four choices. The first was whether or not to remain a territory of the United States: 54% voted against remaining a territory. That eliminated the “status quo” option.

But then what?

The second question asked voters if they wanted to become an American State, remain independent or come up with a new arrangement. Here, the vote was 61% in favor of joining the U.S., 5% in favor of independence and 33% for striking a new –still undefined – deal. But the abstention in the second vote was high, and some people who voted ‘no’ on the first question still answered the second question anyway.

In short, Puerto Ricans still haven’t made up their minds.

Other Reasons for Keeping Puerto Rico Out

But what Puerto Ricans decide might not matter, anyway, because Congress will resist any attempt from them to join the Union.

The first reason is political. Puerto Ricans vote Democrat – their local parties lean in that direction and Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. vote Democrat. In Florida, Puerto Ricans probably offset the Cuban vote in the last presidential elections, which was predominantly Republican. This does not endear Puerto Ricans to the Republican-dominated Congress.

Secondly, incorporation would make islanders eligible for Medicaid, Obamacare and other social programs. This is problematic since Puerto Rico would be the poorest State in the U.S. by far – it is 33% poorer than Mississippi for per capita income.

The third problem is language. Admitting Puerto Rico to the Union could turn Spanish into an official language of Congress and of American institutions. This is a bigger threat than ever before, since 15% of the U.S. population is now Hispanic, and Hispanics are close to forming the majorities in a number of States.

Naturally, Congress could solve this problem telling Puerto Rico that to join the Union, it has to become officially English speaking. But that’s not likely to fly. Puerto Ricans have always shown themselves to be strongly committed to preserving their language. In 1898, the American government tried, but failed to apply English-only education and government policies in Puerto Rico, though the formula had met no resistance in the Philippines. Puerto Ricans demanded the right to be schooled and governed in Spanish. Today, English is widely spoken on the island, but 95% of Puerto Ricans still speak Spanish as a mother tongue.

Inside the U.S., Puerto Ricans have played a disproportionately strong role in promoting Spanish. Puerto Ricans are not immigrants, properly speaking, so they move freely in and out of continental United States. In 1964, 10% of the population of New York City was Puerto Rican. Nearly 2.7 million Puerto Ricans came to the United States during the 20th century, a remarkable figure considering the population of Puerto Rico today is only 3.6 million inhabitants. The list of famous Puerto Rican artists is stellar: Sammy Davis Jr., Luis Raul, Jennifer Lopez, Joaquin Phoenix, Ricky Martin and Tito Puente – to name some of the most famous.

If anything, Puerto Ricans’ political clout is growing. It’s even possible some influential Puerto Ricans, like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed in 2009, could tip the balance in Congress to favor incorporation.

But Then There Is Race

Like it or not, racial politics might put an end to the question.

When the U.S. Army took control of most of Mexico during the Spanish-American war of 1846-1848, the question was whether to annex Mexico or not. In the end, the U.S. decided against annexing the whole territory and only took the Northern part of Mexico, which is today’s New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Why did the U.S. limit territorial expansion to the north? Because there was nobody living there. The U.S. wanted Mexico’s territory, not Mexicans. The vice-president and Senator of North Carolina John J. Calhoun explained during the 1848 debate in Congress:

“We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race.”

Today, opinions like Calhoun’s would never be expressed as crudely – at least not in public. But the lingering controversy over Obama’s birth certificate should remind Americans that race is still a divisive issue in the U.S.

And that definitely won’t help the Puerto Rican “incorporationists” carry the day.

The Story of SpanishMore stories on Spanish in the United States can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish, to be released in April 2013 (St. Martin’s Press).