island is green and lush. Its a small, offshore island
of a vast continent, long conflicted over its colonial status, continuing
to live in the long, historical shadow cast by its ties to a superpower.
The place is well known for its music, its poetry, its dance and its greatest
export, its people. The sons and daughters of the Diaspora routinely head
to that resented and loved colonial power to make their fortune. Back
home, intellectuals and politicians periodically worry about a brain drain.
The political relationship with the colonial capital has occasionally
been a violent one, with episodic political violence, assassination attempts,
and struggles to create a durable political compromise between a small
and great power.
Political prisoners become the stuff of legend
their long resistance
to colonial government only burnishes their reputations among the most
revolutionary and romantic elements of a people spread across time zones
and continents. Many of the best-loved and best-remembered songs are laments,
with lyrics that recall loves strained by distance and time, and yearning
for a home left far behind.
You might have concluded that these are the opening lines of a story about
and it is. But it is also a story about a place that
might have a story to tell to La Isla del Encanto The Irish Republic.
During a trip to Ireland, bolstered by a closer examination of its modern
history and cultural resurgence, I kept getting a nagging feeling: Ive
heard this story before. So many aspects of the two islands stories
are in remarkable parallel, even without resorting to tortured reaches
to find coincidences.
The two places have a culture legacy stretching from before written history
that shapes their self-concept today. In Ireland, it is the cultural deposit
of the Celts that is celebrated alongside more recent Viking and British
contributions. In Puerto Rico, the Taino past is evoked and placed alongside
the more easily accessible influences of Spain and Africa. Poverty and
political domination intertwined to usher in mass migration. And the identity
of emigrant families, even generations later, is still tied to the island.
Ask Chicagoans in neighborhoods just a few miles distant from each other,
What are you? They would reply, without hyphen, without long
qualifications or explanations: Im Irish, and Im
In both islands histories, politicians have had to accept half a
loaf politically, in order to wrest away some measure of freedom and self-determination
from the colonial power. The Irish choice, before the 1920s, seemed to
be a stark one, between closer incorporation into the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland, or complete independence. As Irish nationalists
launched a short-lived rebellion and agitated for emancipation, a minority
favoring continued political union with Britain flexed its muscles.
In the years after World War I, the choice segued perilously to one between
independence and partition. Self-government and separation from the British
Empire for three quarters of the island was finally accepted, as the British
muttered veiled threats about taking their deal off the table and reincorporating
all of Ireland into the old kingdom. A Protestant mini-state was established
in six counties in the northern part of the Ireland, and a family feud
began inside the Irish people that rages to this day.
The leaders who chose incomplete liberation over a unitary state still
tied to London put their lives on the line and ushered in a brief, bloody
and traumatizing civil war, in which comrades in the long independence
struggle were now shooting each other instead of their old enemy. The
memories of that fight still echo in modern Irish politics. The leading
parties in the Dail, the national parliament, don't differ all that much
on the day-to-day governance of the country. Their blood feud dates back
not to splits over independence from Britain, which both favored, but
partition. Imagine if today, the major U.S. parties were northern and
southern, tracing their roots back to the War Between the States.
More than a hundred years after
the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, the main parties on the island also
split along status lines: The Partido Nueva Progesista is an increasingly
pro-statehood party; The Partido Popular Democrático seeks a renegotiation
of the Estado Libre Asociado, Associated Free State, relationship with
the U.S.; and the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno wants a full
break and full national sovereignty for Puerto Rico. That so much of modern
politics revolves around status issues is no surprise. Puerto Rican self-government
was derailed soon after it was born.
Puerto Rico seemed finally to have achieved the self-government its intellectuals
had spent much of the 19th century demanding, finally living out the dreams
of the rebels who raised El Grito de Lares decades before. Then the decaying
Spanish Empire lost its grip and surrendered to the new empire on the
block, the United States of America. The island and its people moved from
infant self-government to complete political powerlessness in just a few
months. For decades to come they would have no voice in choosing their
government, their future or their status. Momentous decisions regarding
tariffs and trade were made in Washington with no Puerto Rican at the
table. Appointed governors from Washington had little familiarity with
the island, its history or its language.
All these political developments mirror chapters in Irish history
as centuries of outside influence and political rule at times tried to
destroy, and at other times ignore the native language, culture
and desire for self-determination.
Language is one area where the two histories have diverged. The native
Irish language, one of a group of Celtic languages spoken across Western
Europe, is on expensive government life-support. There are still, in the
islands western reaches, regions where Irish Gaelic is still the
language of daily life. But those places are small and lightly populated.
The pretense of bilingualism is maintained for political, rather than
linguistic reasons. The preference given to the Irish tongue, on street
signs, the national currency, on the national broadcast networks, and
in schools, has done little to turn the tide against the tremendous power
In Puerto Rico, bilingualism is also a pretense, but in a very different
way: since Spanish was never the multi-century target of a culturally
dominant colonial power, it is now and may always be the language of daily
life. Purists fret about the quality of the Spanish, the steady incursion
of English terms and the use of English in official life. Authors working
in Spanish and English, like Esmeralda Santiago and Rosario Ferré,
find themselves at the center of controversies when they write first in
English and then publish in Spanish in translation. But the penetration
of English as a language of commerce, of social intercourse, as the language
of dreams, is still pretty meager outside the touristy enclaves and military
Could Spanish on Puerto Rico ever go the way of Irish? Nationalists and
defenders of Puerto Rican exceptionalism might see the example of Irish
as a warning against the crushing embrace of the United States and English.
Statehood advocates often talk of a place where the two tongues can live
side by side. Have two working languages ever successfully lived side
by side in the mouths of the same people for any sustained length of time?
Spanish language advocates have long talked of the disappearance of what
is unique about Puerto Rican culture, about it simply being swept away
if the primacy of Spanish is lost. Obviously, the scale is different;
the time frames vary by centuries. But is anyone willing to say the Irish
are no longer a separate and distinct people because of the dominance
of English? It may be a mark of the modern Irish triumph that the English
attempts to snuff out Irishness ended with the oppressed people making
their new language sing. Yes, Irish was chased to the margins of the island,
but W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, John Synge, Oscar Wilde, Roddy Doyle, and
countless others have made English their own, and the English-speaking
world is better off for it.
Today, in a junior high in Caguas or an after-school center in the Brooklyn,
there is a budding Puerto Rican writer who will make English dance for
her, a cultural straddler who will make the new tongue do his bidding.
Perhaps Puerto Ricans can pioneer a linguistic syncretism for the new
millennium, and learn to live well with both languages. Our writers working
in English have already accomplished a great deal after just fifty years.
Even greater achievement could be waiting down the road.
Much of that outcome will be decided by the huge historical decision awaiting
the Puerto Rican people. When they choose between a closer relationship
with the United States or greater self-determination and sovereignty,
the trajectory of English in Puerto Rican life will also be set on its
As the Irish have found, everything gets easier if youre not poor.
It was the poverty and famine of the 19th century that drove millions
of Irish out into the far reaches of the globe to start over. Political
sovereignty and cultural self-determination were offered as the enticements
to independence in the 20th century. When the Irish joined the European
Economic Community, now the European Union, they were among the poorest
of all Europeans and were net recipients of aid from the EEC for decades.
Now, after a decade of breakneck growth, low inflation, and improving
standards of living, the Irish no longer pour out of their island to head
to London, New York and Sydney to make a living. When I spoke to Prime
Minister Bertie Ahern a few years ago, he told me of educated and skilled
Irish men and women coming back to a new and exciting Dublin to help continue
the economic transformation.
During the early decades of The Troubles, the simmering political violence
between Irish nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland, Ulster residents
cited the poverty of the rest of the island as an easy excuse for remaining
tied to the United Kingdom. Today, as rank and file Irish in the republic
told me, it is the poverty, antiquated industries, unemployment and welfare
costs of a declining Northern Ireland that would make southerners think
twice about a union of all the counties of Ireland.
It isnt a stretch to see analogous terms for debate about Puerto
Rico. In my work in Washington, members of congress, think-tankers, and
fellow journalists talk about the poverty of Puerto Rico as an impediment
to a frank examination of its future status. The Conventional Wisdom puts
it this way: With an income per head significantly lower than the poorest
mainland state, Puerto Rico is purposely kept out of the American Union
for fear of the tremendous social welfare costs of giving its citizens
mainland benefits. Even if Puerto Ricans voted clearly and convincingly
for statehood, goes the rationale, its poverty (and its new Democratic
members of Congress) would bar its entry and a new star on the flag.
The one-two punch of a U.S. passport and Spanish fluency makes educated
Puerto Ricans very desirable hires for US-based multinationals, from the
Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. Many of the brightest lights from island
universities can be found today, not raising the GDP of their home, but
helping make Orlando, Atlanta, LA, New York and Miami wealthier places.
As it was in Ireland for 130 years, from 1790 to 1920, the question of
status for Puerto Rico leaves the future of economic development, brain
drain, wealth creation, and support for the poor murky.
When Ireland stopped being a colony and became a self-governing territory
within the British Empire, it did not immediately set out to sever all
its ties to its colonial master. The moves were gradual. Irish landing
in the Home Islands of Great Britain were granted immediate legal residence,
even allowed to vote in local and national elections. Even now, as the
Irish Republic has left the British Commonwealth of Nations, become militarily
neutral, and continued to chafe under partition of their island with the
United Kingdom, Ireland remains intimately linked to Britain through the
Ireland has leveraged its history as a place that is not England
but speaks English, as a place with links both to Europe and the United
States, as a place with low wage structures and a first-world infrastructure
into a burst of wealth, self-confidence, and finding a role for
itself in the 21st century world.
There are important lessons here for Puerto Rico as a place that
is not the U.S. but is; a place that speaks English but is not English-speaking;
a place with long ties to South America and the Caribbean along with the
U.S. mainland about how to find a role to play in a world of borderless
capital and easily exported talent.
Early on, Ireland made a decision to plough large amounts of educational
money and capital investment into wiring the island for computer work.
Its improved educational system, small population, and strategic location
made Ireland the perfect production point for multinationals building
computers for the European market and a perfect back-office for businesses
in Britain and the United States. It is not a stretch to imagine a Puerto
Rico that fills a similar role, bridging markets in Latin America and
the United States. When a consumer in Caracas and an office manager in
Hialeah both have trouble installing an internal modem, why shouldnt
the help desk phone ring in Mayagüez, where a helpful young geek
who studies days at the university talks them through their troubles?
Its just one example of using the difficult history of life within
large empires as a strength instead of a weakness. It might not be a bad
idea to get away from the binary thinking that has marked so much of the
status debate as in, we must be this thing or this other
thing. The thinking on the island and in the halls of the U.S. Congress
hasnt been expansive enough about what a future relationship might
be and the possibilities new status might create.
Economic success has made decades of pressing insecurity disappear in
Ireland. Insecurity about identity, a place in the world, the relationship
to the former colonial power and to the Diaspora have all been muted by
a resurgent pride and self-confidence. The tremendous fatalism underlying
much of the Puerto Rican consciousness, an almost palpable sense of worse
news down the road, thrives on the never-ending struggle for existence.
Ireland once knew life in the shadow of the Worlds Greatest Empire.
Ireland once was a place to leave to make your fortune. Ireland was once
a place whose sons and daughters were viewed with contempt and condescension
in the new places they called home. Ireland became a farm country where
farming didnt pay and rich outsiders seemed to own all the things
worth owning. Those events now belong to the past, and being Irish in
2002 doesnt carry the undertow of melancholy that it had for so
Just as the Irishness of Riverdances principal dancers was not much
questioned as the show became a worldwide sensation (they were both Irish-Americans),
Jennifer López and Marc Anthony, Benicio del Toro and Rosie Pérez
all may point the way to a transnational puertorriquendad that provides
a model for a similar new sense of self, a cultural self-confidence like
the one felt in Ireland today. Its not just okay to be Puerto Rican.
Its cool. A gift.
A tragic and conflicted past can give way to a hopeful future, if we keep
our eye on attainable goals, and build on them, one by one. Weve
been at it a long time already. But remember, it took Ireland centuries
longer. If youve gotten this far you may be saying, Oh come
on. Maybe you found some of the examples and parallels a stretch.
But having spent time in ambos países in recent years, I was hit
with the strongest sense that being small and poor and dominated by a
great power doesnt have to be a recipe for disaster. Maybe its
time to think bigger and broader about the Puerto Rican future.
Call it, in the words of the Dean of Trinity College in Dublin, and the
author of Gullivers Travels, Jonathan Swift, a modest proposal.
© 2002 El Andar Magazine