On Tuesday (July 17) morning, Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló spoke to attendees at the 2018 NAACP Annual Convention in Texas. While the civil rights organization’s invitation for the governor to speak was a seemingly genuine effort to build bridges across the diaspora, the backlash demonstrated how much further we have to go to achieve true allyship.
Gov. Rosselló spoke to the convention attendees, citing the civil rights injustices the people of the island have encountered. Beginning with the legacy of José Barbosa, an Afro-Puerto Rican and founding father in the statehood movement, he told the history of the island’s colonization and the lack of civil rights Puerto Ricans have in terms of Medicaid, voting eligibility, voting power in Congress, and of course, the lack of assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane María.
After Rosselló’s speech, the NAACP declared its support of Puerto Rico becoming the United States’ 51st state, saying, “The Puerto Rican Admission Act [is] a major step towards realizing the democratic will of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.” However, as many Puerto Ricans have pointed out on social media and beyond, the issue with Puerto Rico’s potential statehood status is so much deeper than what Rosselló led the organization to believe in his speech.
The debate on Puerto Rican statehood versus nationhood has gone on for decades and is so much more complex than a “this or that” decision. Those in favor of statehood believe that they’ll be granted more opportunities to rebuild the island, especially in the aftermath of a debt crisis and catastrophic hurricane. But as nationalists point out, Puerto Ricans have a dark history with the U.S., as the mainland has routinely used the land for exploitation and the people for scientific experimentation.
In 2017, Puerto Rico held a vote on a non-binding referendum concerning the commonwealth’s potential statehood. The outcome was misleading—while 97 percent of ballots were cast in favor of statehood, only 23 percent of eligible voters actually participated in the election. Many people on the island boycotted the election, saying the process was rigged due to the ballot language.
Still, with a 97 percent vote in favor, Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela told CASSIUS that he sees how the NAACP could be in favor of the statehood narrative if its leaders don’t have an understanding of Puerto Rico’s history of U.S. colonization and imperialism.
“It’s not a statehood question, it’s a Puerto Rican question”
“People don’t see the connections in issues of discrimination and segregation and inequality that have been part of Puerto Rican society for centuries,” Varela said. “It’s not a statehood question, it’s a Puerto Rican question… [we can’t] just fall into the trap of political status parties, who have done nothing to progress the island at all.”
Afro-Puerto Rican professor and activist Rosa Clemente, who was a member of the NAACP for years, told CASSIUS she was so appalled by the group’s statement and decision to bring in Gov. Rosselló—who has been criticized for his own civil rights crimes against protestors in Puerto Rico—that she canceled her membership. She believes that the NAACP chose to “not only ignore history, but ignore the majority of Puerto Ricans.”
“I was astonished that the leading civil rights organization for Black people in the United States would take such a stance,” she said. “Saying they believe in statehood is a slap in the face to Puerto Ricans, on the island and the diaspora. It’s a slap in the face to the experience we’ve had as colonial subjects of the USA, and lastly, it’s a disrespect to all the freedom fighters in our history that have been fighting for Puerto Rico to be free.”
On Thursday, NAACP released a vague statement in light of the backlash, rescinding its support for statehood, saying that it seeks “to advance the prosperity of the people of Puerto Rico” and “ensure that Puerto Ricans receive the resources and support required to aid their recovery efforts.”
“The NAACP stands with the people of Puerto Rico now more than ever and we affirm our ability to work together in our joint struggle for equal protection, equal opportunity, and free will,” the statement continues. “Puerto Rico should be free to decide its preferred option in a fair and inclusive manner.”
Across the board, many believe that while the NAACP might still be the largest civil rights organization, it is largely out of touch with the modern grassroots movement. Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda, who has worked in activist spaces both on the mainland and on the island, said that when she was working with Black Lives Matter in Boston, the groups did not align at all, citing a “very clear disjunction between both organizations.”
“I believe that at this point, while the NAACP might be the largest civil rights organization, but I don’t think they know if they’re even in tune with the majority of African-Americans in this country who are poor, working class, and also younger people,” Clemente said. “I think they’re out of step with what younger African-Americans that are part of movements support.”
The ultimate takeaway for the NAACP and Black Americans? There needs to be more dialogue about Black folks across the diaspora to form a true alliance against white supremacy. According to Arianna Cuesta, an Afro-Boricua educator and artist, inviting a white governor who is a “walking contradiction” to a convention of people rallying behind the civil rights of Black people is completely misguided and needs to be addressed. She addressed the savior complex that U.S. citizens have when it comes to her island and said that Black Americans need to listen rather than take action based on what they think is best from their own cultural perspective.
“Afro-Boricuas are working extra hard to preserve their culture right now,” said Cuesta. “It’s clearly something the U.S. government does not want and some Black Americans don’t see. Sometimes to help someone, you need to be in their shoes. Giving your say as a complete outsider is just making it worse. How would you know what’s best for a Black community when you don’t know how they live?”