Gabriela Medina was around 10 years old when she first learned in school that the United States’ president was her president, too. The Congress she’d heard about? The one that met thousands of miles away across the ocean? Well, they made laws that applied to her as well, laws that often superseded the ones enacted by leaders at home in Puerto Rico.
But what really stuck with Gabriela was something so fundamentally unfair, so mind-blowingly unjust, it began shaping her political identity. As a Puerto Rican living in the archipelago, she would never be able to choose who represented her in the White House, or on Capitol Hill. Her place of birth made her effectively voiceless in the democratic process. This is the curse of living in the oldest colony in the world, which the U.S. took control of following the Spanish-American War nearly 123 years ago.
Gabriela’s newfound knowledge made her furious. The way she saw the situation, Puerto Rico had two options to solve this stalemate: become a U.S. state or an independent nation. But independence felt drastic, as did the thought of losing the American citizenship Puerto Ricans have had since 1917, and with it the ability to easily see family members who had relocated stateside. Statehood, with all of its benefits, seemed like the logical solution.
“It was a little bit more simplistic back then. I thought of this in 10-year-old terms, but it actually hasn’t changed that much in the fundamentals,” said Gabriela, 33, now president of the Young Democrats’ Puerto Rico chapter. “My arguments have just become more refined.”
The status question is the beating heart of politics in Puerto Rico today. It’s the issue that anchors its major political parties, fills the airwaves, and triggers family arguments on Mother’s Day. For estadistas like Gabriela, welcoming Puerto Rico into the union is a long-overdue matter of civil rights. But unlike the status of Washington, D.C., where nearly 90% of the population supports statehood, there are other schools of opinion on the island.