“Mamá Blanca will never get to do this.” That’s what crossed my mind every time I thought about casting my ballot in New York City on Election Day. My 85-year-old grandmother has believed in the political project of statehood for Puerto Rico all of her life, but she’ll likely die without ever voting for a president or having real congressional representation. The very country that calls itself a beacon of liberty and democracy will never allow her the opportunity to exercise the right to vote in federal elections. That’s the curse of being born in the oldest colony in the world: Knowing that innumerable decisions affecting boricuas’ everyday lives are made by people hundreds of thousands of miles away whom they didn’t elect.
Being forced to leave Puerto Rico in 2014 to seek a better future allowed me the privilege of voting beyond local island elections, shedding the weight of boricuas’ second-class U.S. citizenship. Ever since then, I’ve cast a ballot thinking of the 3.2 million Puerto Rican sisters and brothers, and the more than 350,000 other colonial subjects in American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, who are denied the right to vote. I choose a president, as they can’t. I choose senators, as they can’t. I choose representatives who can actually vote in Congress, as they can’t. “Growing up, my parents taught me that voting wasn’t just about me and what I wanted but about my community and what it needed,” Micaela Torregrosa-Mahoney, who is boricua and lives in Florida, told me. “Some of the people I vote for here will have decision-making power over Puerto Rico, where half my family and friends still live.”
There is so much on the line for my loved ones back in Puerto Rico today: the island’s political status, that most of Congress refuses to address; the U.S. policies that keep the island in poverty; the all-consuming debt crisis that will be felt by generations; the disastrous handling of Hurricane Maria; the lack of access to affordable health care made worse by Medicaid caps; and so much more. Axel Diaz, who moved to Florida five years ago, voted in his first presidential election with the hope one day he’ll be able to return to Puerto Rico. “We need leadership that will help back home,” he said. The 20-year-old even registered 127 new Puerto Rican voters who moved to Florida after Maria.
Voting is an infuriating reminder that my home remains disenfranchised after 122 years of U.S. ownership.
Making home better can sometimes look like attempting to protect it from foreign adversaries for people like Hunter Blas, who is from the Chamoru diaspora and votes in California. “I’m thinking about the militarization of the region,” she told me. “[My family members said] the 2017 North Korea threat to Guam definitely felt brutal because it once again felt like, ‘We don’t call the shots, we didn’t vote for this president, and yet we’re in the crossfire of this foreign policy fight.’ I vote out of concern for my island, while at the same time with a lot of frustration over their disenfranchisement.”
I also feel the weight of this injustice. Voting is an infuriating reminder that my home remains disenfranchised after 122 years of U.S. ownership, that the racist U.S. Supreme Court decisions that determined our destiny a century ago remain the law of the land. Known as the Insular Cases, they determined that Puerto Rico and other territories “belong to, but are not part of” the United States and therefore, its citizens have limited constitutional rights. The court’s reasoning was that the islands were “inhabited by alien races,” and therefore governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.”
Since then, our people have been given crumbs and expected to be grateful. To be understanding when people have no idea of your existence or only prop you up as a “fellow American citizen” when it’s convenient. To smile when they throw you paper towels as death surrounds you, to say “gracias” when they force you to follow the mandates of an imposed, undemocratic, unelected board. To proudly serve in the U.S. military at the highest rates in all the nation while maintaining second-class citizenship, or no citizenship at all. To accept being governed by people you can’t elect, or eject from office.
The list of indignities is long. But just like I’ve learned to live with the brutal winter cold away from my home, I’ve learned how to navigate the anger and powerlessness that comes from being a child of the colonial experiment. While some feel that their vote won’t make a difference, I believe casting a ballot is a small way to push for a better future on the island. “Voting here felt like a superpower I had never had,” Viviana Tirado, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican who relocated stateside last year, told me. “I thought of the political and economic reasons that brought me to Texas. I thought of my mom, who always told me I should vote because women had to fight for that right. I thought of my dad, who died in April in the midst of the pandemic.”
There is power in casting a vote from the diaspora, and there is power in reminding Americans of the four million colonial subjects who still have no voice in the federal electoral process. It’s undemocratic, and it should end. But until that happens, my ballot will be a quiet love letter to Mamá Blanca and los míos.