You lovely island . . .”
“I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!”
(From West Side Story, “America,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
With much of the focus by Republicans on “demographics” and as conservatives review their positions on immigration and attitudes towards American Hispanics post-election disaster, they should be paying more attention to one historic vote that took place on Election Day 2012.
A majority of the electorate of Puerto Rico voted on that day to follow in the footsteps of Hawaii and Alaska in achieving full American statehood and becoming the 51st state.
Congress will still have to admit Puerto Rico before it can become a state, and it is doubtful that the Republicans who now control the House of Representatives would support a move that would probably result in Democrats winning two more Senate seats and increasing their numbers in the House.
After all, while the residents of the Atlantic Ocean island are not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections, close to 85 percent of stateside Puerto Ricans did vote for Barack Obama on November 6th. You do not have to be a political expert to presume that Obama’s margin of victory on the island would have been as wide as among Puerto Ricans in New York.
So expect the issue to become a central debating point in Washington and certainly among Hispanics, with Democrats pledging to support Puerto Rican statehood if they take the House in 2014.
More than 3,700,000 people live on the island that came under U.S. control in 1898 and an even larger number of Puerto Ricans (more than 4,600,000) reside in the 50 states and DC. As the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S., Puerto Ricans represent a significant electorate bloc.
And in the aftermath of the 2012 election, just as the party tries to recover from Mitt Romney’s abysmal performance among Latino voters, GOP opposition to admitting Puerto Rico into the union could help Democrats in promoting their Republicans-hate-Hispanics narrative even if GOP lawmakers suddenly declare their support for comprehensive immigration reform that until recently many of them decried as “amnesty” or if party activists draft Senator Marco Rubio to run for president in 2016.
For what it’s worth, the 2012 Republican Party platform did express support for the right of Puerto Rico to be admitted into the union and President Obama has yet to state his position on the issue. But according to a recent FOX News Latino report, most GOP House members are opposed to the idea, and with conservative House Democrats in decline, it is more than likely that Democratic members will back statehood if politicians in Puerto Rico decide to push the issue.
In any case, while Republican politicos will face an electoral dilemma — whether opposing statehood for Puerto Rico would antagonize Latino voters — conservative intellectuals will have to consider whether admitting a state whose official language is Spanish and one that would immediately become the poorest American state (with a median household income of about $18,000, half that of Mississippi, currently the poorest state) squares with the movement’s traditional principles that reject multiculturalism and bilingualism and discourage economic dependency on government largesse.
That stateside Puerto Ricans are a culturally segregated community that is largely poor (with the average income of its members lower than that of Cuban and Mexican Americans) raises the specter of an additional 4 million Puerto Ricans that will be in position to use their new political power to promote a distinct cultural identity and to squeeze more cash transfers from Washington.
At the very least, the dilemmas involving Puerto Rico’s prospects for statehood make it clear that the notion of winning the hearts and minds of Latino voters goes beyond making compromises on the issue of illegal immigration or picking Hispanics to run for political office.
Many Republicans like Rubio because, among other things, he comes from the Cuban-American community whose members are perceived to be more successful than Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in terms of assimilating culturally and economically (although in reality the average income of Cuban-Americans is much lower than that of whites and Asian-Americans).
But when (not “if”) the Castro family falls from power and Cuba goes as expected through a speedy process of economic liberalization, the 4 million Cuban Americans, including those who live in Miami and have helped transformed the city into a Latin American metropolis, would ensure that the neighboring free Cuba would become a social and economic extension of the United States and vice versa: Demographic pressure and economic ties would probably create an integrated Latino Miami-Havana Zone. Calls for admitting Cuba as the 52nd state would not be far behind.
And then there is the resurgent “nation” of El Norte, as author Colin Woodward describes as the area that spreads from the United States-Mexico border, and encompasses south and west Texas, southern California and the Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, most of New Mexico, and parts of California. Together with the northern states of Mexico the area is gradually becoming overwhelmingly Hispanic, a “hybrid between Anglo- and Spanish America, with an economy oriented toward the United States rather than Mexico City,” as Woodward puts it.
In American Nation: a History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Woodward compares the border between the United States and Mexico to the Cold War’s Berlin Wall and speculates that at some point in the future the Mexican and American areas of El Norte will re-unify a la post-Cold War Germany.
But you do not have to buy into Woodward’s vision of an independent El Norte to recognize that much of Samuel Huntington’s notions of “Who Are We?” with its emphasis on the Anglo-Protestant culture and the America Creed that emerged from it are becoming irrelevant against the backdrop of these dramatic demographic changes under which 13 million Mexicans, or 32 percent of the foreign-born U.S. population, are becoming a dominant political, economic, and cultural force in the western part of the country that borders Mexico.
At a minimum, Puerto Rico and Mexican- and Cuban-Americans who regard Mexico and Cuba as sections of the geographical neighborhood where many members of their families continues to reside believe that their Latino heritage is an integral part of their “dominant culture.” They may eventually learn English but bilingualism and forms of “Spanglish” are going to become part of the dominant culture in El Norte, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and by extension the rest of America.
The point is that Republican “Hispanic strategy” will have to go beyond “tolerance” and immigration policy. Traditional conservatives need to reassess Huntington’s guidelines for “Who we Are?” and start a serious debate about what it means to be an American today and how to define the emerging collective identity that is losing its Anglo and Protestant characteristics. “I like to be in America.” But what kind of America?