It shouldn't take a hurricane to learn that Puerto Rico is part of America

Sunday , October 08, 2017 - 6:00 AM

ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group

CHICAGO — Puerto Ricans are Americans.

However, a recent survey by The Morning Consult, a research company, found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.

The island, a territory of the United States, may exist in people's minds as not related to us because it's not clear that it will ever pursue statehood, despite years of nationwide referendums with varying outcomes. Until it does, Puerto Rico remains something of a distant cousin to the United States — one of those so-distant cousins that most people aren't sure they're actually related.

The myth that Puerto Rico is not part of America is so pervasive and ingrained in our society that even children internalize the misunderstanding.

At the beginning of the school year, I was observing a classroom in which high school seniors were learning how to form arguments to defend their opinions. The task was for small groups of students to decide on which flavor of ice cream was the best and then persuade the rest of the classroom toward consensus.

At this predominantly Hispanic — and overwhelmingly Mexican — school, the students nominated flavors ranging from ordinary, like plain vanilla and chocolate, to decadent and tropical. One young woman wrote on her group's poster: "The best flavor is coquito, because it soothes my foreign soul."

Coquito is a Puerto Rican treat — an eggnog-type of drink made with coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk and spices — and when I read the student's comment, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Only respect for another teacher's classroom kept me from calling a timeout to discuss this student's egregious mistake.

When the bell rang, I ran to catch her and asked, "Are you Puerto Rican?" She shyly said, "Yes." I told her, "Don't ever call yourself a foreigner again — Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Your soul is not foreign here, it's as beautiful and as part of America as everyone else's."

She broke into a big, wide grin and gave me a sheepish nod. It was a moment that struck me because we were standing less than three miles from Humboldt Park, the epicenter of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and the only nationally recognized Puerto Rican neighborhood in the country.

Still, it wasn't that surprising.

As with all subjects that are taught in school — with the exception of writing and math — geography and civics are pretty watered down. In units about the geography of the United States, it's rare for much time (if any) to be spent on Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands or other American territories.

As such, Puerto Ricans are not alone in these sorts of misunderstandings. My younger son's best friend is from St. Croix, and he is forever forced to deliver his elevator speech about it being part of the U.S. Virgin Islands and that he is a U.S. citizen. (And in stark contrast to the media's albeit late reaction to the plight of Puerto Rico following recent hurricanes, few are talking about the devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands.)

As a music geek, the media and public's anemic handling of the aftermath of Puerto Rico's hurricane-related destruction - largely because too few realize that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. — got Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's "America" looping through my brain.

"West Side Story" has always been my favorite musical, but the tragedy made me listen with new ears.

Anita and Rosalia duel about the charms and challenges of Puerto Rico with Anita complaining: "Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing." Later the chorus sings the fundamental misnomer, "Immigrant goes to America, Many hellos in America," before it immediately corrects itself:

"Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico's in America!"

Repeat after me: Puerto Ricans are not immigrants or foreigners. If anything good can come out of the suffering and devastation our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico are experiencing, let it be that they can rebuild their community to be stronger than ever. And, maybe, their fellow citizens on the mainland can finally understand their citizenship status better.

It's past time to do so. After all, Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic-origin group in the U.S., there are more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland of the United States than on the Island, and the majority of them were born here. It really shouldn't have taken a weather tragedy to bring these facts to light.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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