Panoramic photo of Old San Juan by Chad Sparkes

From Foraker to María

The Porto Rico Experiments

Written by Kelli Swedish, SFS'20

On Tuesday March 13th, CLAS hosted Professor Pedro Reina Pérez for a discussion of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States entitled “From Foraker to María: the Porto Rico Experiments”. 

The title of the talk referenced the Foraker Act, which in 1900 granted civil government to Puerto Rico, and Hurricane María, which devastated the island last year and from which it has not yet recovered. The apparent typo in the title of the lecture was not really a typo; Professor Reina explained that in the early twentieth century, many American lawmakers could not pronounce “Puerto Rico,” and so the name was temporarily shortened to “Porto Rico.” In many ways this example may be representative of the attitudes of some mainland Americans towards Puerto Rico even today.

Professor Reina explored Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States as a series of four experiments, the first being the Foraker Act. In 1917 a new experiment began when the Jones-Shafroth Act granted Puerto Ricans United States citizenship. The next stage was initiated with Public Law 600, also known as the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, which in 1950 permitted Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution. The experiment in which we find ourselves today is defined by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) of 2016.

Each of these legislative acts redefined the relationship of Puerto Rico and its people to the government of the United States. Professor Reina pointed out that, in some ways, they and intermittent court decisions have —with the help of clever turns of phrase by politicians— both sanctioned discrimination against Puerto Rico and failed to fully answer some critical questions. “Does the Constitution follow the flag?” Is there a “permanent union” between Puerto Rico and the US, and if so, what is the nature of the union? Commonwealth? Estado Libre Asociado?

A New Experiment?

Professor Reina commented that the military invasion of Puerto Rico is emphasized in Puerto Rican history classes, but that it is important to recognize that “along with the army of soldiers came an army of businessmen and an army of missionaries,” amounting to a “cultural invasion” that is frequently overlooked. The US government went to great lengths to culturally transform Puerto Ricans into “good Americans,” but the same cannot necessarily be said about its dedication to ensuring that they are treated as such in the face of political, economic and humanitarian crisis. Perhaps a new experiment will soon be necessary