Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

PUERTO RICO: Pride in Sotomayor Rekindles Debate Over Status

Valeria Fernández

SAN JUAN, Jul 9 2009 (IPS) - Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court has turned her into a reason for national pride in Puerto Rico. But it has also added fresh fuel to the perpetual debate for self-determination of the people in the Caribbean island, which has been a commonwealth of the U.S. for over a hundred years.

Local artist Luis Rivera hopes Obama does "something radical" to revive the question of Puerto Rico's status. Credit: Judith Wolert-Maldonado

Local artist Luis Rivera hopes Obama does "something radical" to revive the question of Puerto Rico's status. Credit: Judith Wolert-Maldonado

“In Puerto Rico, they might not know how she decided even one of her cases but for them, and for us, she’s Puerto Rican,” said Susanne Ramírez de Arellano, news director at the Univision affiliate in Puerto Rico.

Sotomayor, 55, was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents. She has served as a federal district judge and for more than a decade now, she has sat on a federal court of appeals. Her story of success has become an inspiration to many boriquas – the indigenous name for people born in the island of Puerto Rico.

Her confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin on Jul. 13 at the Senate Judiciary Committee. If confirmed, she will be the first Latina to have a seat in the country’s highest tribunal. The court has made landmark decisions from de-segregation to abortion rights.

Puerto Ricans are following the process closely. Some women have even started to display pins that read “Confirm Sotomayor”.

“This has been a major event in our country, very flattering,” said Marcial Díaz, a Humacao resident who chose the Spanish word país, or country, to refer to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth of the U.S. and whether it should become a state is a divisive issue for the local electorate.

Currently, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can serve in the Army, but can’t vote in the presidential elections unless they live in one of the 50 states. They have a representative in Congress who can’t vote.

Expectations are high for a decision regarding the island’s status during the Obama administration. Any conversation in Puerto Rico about Sotomayor inevitably leads to that subject.

“We’ll have to see if he does something radical to resume the issue about the status of Puerto Rico,” said Luis Rivera, a writer and photographer who lives in El Viejo (Old) San Juan. “There’s just too much instability because of that.”

Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primaries in the island, many are starting to see Obama as a “symbol of change and democracy”, he said.

Others view Sotomayor’s selection by the president with cautious optimism.

“It gives me a certain degree of anxiety. Before, people wanted sovereignty, but now they’re in love with Obama,” said Damery Burgos, an art professor in the city of Ponce who believes Puerto Rico should become an independent nation. “We need to remember that this is not a lifetime in the White House, it’s just a rental.”

Burgos thinks that if confirmed, Sotomayor would be in a unique position that would enable her to review or vote in favour of hearing cases related to Puerto Rico’s status.

“I know she wants Puerto Rico to have a more dignified position, but she’s been very smart by not locking herself into an opinion about Puerto Rico’s situation,” Burgos said.

Three years ago there was a lawsuit challenging Puerto Ricans’ lack of the right to elect the U.S. president. After a U.S. Circuit judge ruled against it, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

“The Supreme Court avoids the issue like the plague, when it was the Supreme Court that created the dilemma in the first place,” said Juan Torruella, a judge at the United States Court of Appeals for the first Circuit.

Torruella, a Puerto Rican, has been outspoken about the question of the status of the island from a jurist point of view, authoring a book “The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The doctrine of separate and unequal,” and several journals.

He indicates that it was precisely a series of Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases that at the beginning of the 20th Century helped define the status of Puerto Rico. So is only the Supreme Court which has the power to reverse them, addressing matters related to its status and that of its people.

“One would think that having four million U.S. citizens that have less rights than the rest of the nation should be addressed,” he added.

But only time will tell which role Sotomayor could play if a case regarding Puerto Rico’s status comes to the tribunal, which position she would take and how much power she would bear as the new justice in town, said Torruella.

Currently, Congress is looking at the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009, a resolution that would allow the U.S. federal government to start a process for Puerto Rico to decide about its status.

But the legislation for people like Hector Pesquera, a leader of the Puerto Rican Independent movement, “is just a montage” to pretend the government is actually doing something when they won’t change “the colonial status of Puerto Rico”.

Pesquera, a member of the National Hostociano Independent Movement, believes Obama’s election was of historical significance, equally to Sotomayor’s nomination. But he thinks the president would be limited when it comes to major reforms by the influences of the long-established military power residing in the Pentagon.

In the end, Pesquera and others recognise that Sotomayor’s nomination says more for Latinos in the U.S. than it does about the Puerto Rico-U.S. relations.

“She represents a victory for the Hispanic population and the Hispanic community and not only that, for female Hispanics who had such a tough one to get to the top,” said the journalist Ramírez de Arellano.

The reporting about her nomination has also revealed a lack of education and understanding on the part of the mainstream media of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S., pointed out Ramírez de Arellano.

She was critical of the media referring to her as a daughter of immigrants when in fact Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens.

“America only thinks about people from Latin America in terms of immigrants,” Ramírez de Arellano said. “They don’t understand how far we have been woven into the framework of American society.”

Some boricuas simply hope this is a positive step to eliminate disparities and discrimination towards Latinos in the U.S.

“I just grew tired and left (the U.S.), there’s too much persecution against Spanish-speaking people,” said José Cruz Candelaria, a business owner in San Juan. “I hope she brings changes. After all, she has something for Latinos in her heart because she grew up on ‘arroz y habichuelas’ (rice and beans) like us.”

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