anchoring an island
to the future

by Ray Suárez

How the author found shades of Puerto Rico — and lessons for its future — far from the Caribbean










The island is green and lush. It’s 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 Puerto Rico… 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: I’ve 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: “I’m Irish,” and “I’m Puerto Rican.”

In both island’s 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 island’s 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 of English.

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 bases.
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 future course.


As the Irish have found, everything gets easier if you’re 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 isn’t 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 European Union.

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 shouldn’t the help desk phone ring in Mayagüez, where a helpful young geek who studies days at the university talks them through their troubles? It’s 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 hasn’t 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 World’s 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 didn’t pay and rich outsiders seemed to own all the things worth owning. Those events now belong to the past, and being Irish in 2002 doesn’t carry the undertow of melancholy that it had for so many generations.

Just as the Irishness of Riverdance’s 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. It’s not just okay to be Puerto Rican. It’s 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. We’ve been at it a long time already. But remember, it took Ireland centuries longer. If you’ve 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 doesn’t have to be a recipe for disaster. Maybe it’s 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 Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, “a modest proposal.”

© 2002 El Andar Magazine