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Massachusetts Lawmakers, Cities Help Lead Puerto Rico Self-Determination Push

Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen
The Republican / MassLive.com
Springfield State Representative Orlando Ramos at a Puerto Rican flag raising ceremony in Chicopee, Massachusetts in November of 2020.

Puerto Rican leaders and their allies, like U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, voiced support this week for federal legislation that would allow the island territory to decide its future status as a state or something else, and urged state and local governments to join them.

Pressley joined two Puerto Rican state lawmakers and members of the Boricua Solidarity Movement to press for passage of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021, which calls for the creation of a status convention made of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters to chart the island's future.

The delegates would work to come up with a plan for statehood, independence, free association or some other option, and the plan would be submitted for a binding vote by the people of Puerto Rico. The bill was filed by Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of New York, and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

"It would give the people, not Congress, the ultimate decision of the political future of the island," Pressley said.

Massachusetts is home to the fifth largest population of Puerto Ricans in the United States outside of the territory, with a population of more than 300,000 that has grown 60% since 2000.

Five city councils in Springfield, Holyoke, Worcester, Boston and Easthampton have passed resolutions in support of self-determination by Puerto Rico, and Sen. Adam Gomez and Rep. Orlando Ramos, both of Springfield, said they plan to introduce a resolution in the legislature in the coming months.

Gomez said the plan is to discuss the proposal first with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and then file a resolution of support once lawmakers are clear of their budget debates, which end in late May.

"Us, as the diaspora, need to show that every single voice counts," said Gomez, who is the first Puerto Rican elected to the state Senate.

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the council unanimously passed a resolution on Wednesday to support the bill, making Boston the fifth city in Massachusetts to go on record in support of self-determination.

"We did that because we understood this is an issue that should be decided by Puerto Ricans to determine their own future," Arroyo said.

The legislation is supported in Massachusetts by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, as well as Pressley and Reps. Richard Neal of Springfield and Jim McGovern of Worcester.

The House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on two competing bills Wednesday, including the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act and a separate bill that would offer Puerto Rico statehood.

Critics of self-determination say it ignores the record of non-binding votes on the island in support of statehood and introduces possible outcomes that may not be constitutional. Puerto Ricans have voted six times on non-binding referendums about the island's territorial status, including most recently in November.

A majority — 52.5% — in November said they supported statehood, compared with 47.5% opposed. Turnout on the island was under 55%.

Former San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who moved back to Massachusetts in February, said up or down votes on statehood in the past have not been fair because they leave unanswered many questions that Puerto Ricans care about, such as what will become of citizenship in the United States.

Puerto Ricans living on the island are citizens of the United States, but they do not pay federal income taxes and they are not allowed to vote for president or have representation in Congress. They do pay other taxes and receive financial support from the United States.

Yulin Cruz said Hurricane Maria exposed the downside of Puerto Rico's territorial status, when the recovery response from the mainland was slow and she said Puerto Rico was forbidden from buying generators from other countries offering help because the United States didn't purchase generators from those countries.

"This is a country that was founded from people that did not want to be a colony ..." Yulin Cruz said. "That is exactly what we want. We want our voices to be heard."

The coalition urged Massachusetts residents to contact their representatives in Congress and ask them to support the self-determination act.

U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, a Lowell Democrat and member of the House Natural Resources Committee, is among those in the delegation who has not taken a position on the bill, though her staff has spoken with members of the Boricua Solidarity Movement and leaders said they hope to meet with her directly soon.

Pressley is an original co-sponsor of Velazquez's self-determination bill and was the first member of the delegation to sign on in 2020. The newest bill has 76 House co-sponsors.

"This is really a matter of justice as we affirm the fundamental right of the Puerto Rican people to determine their own future," Pressley said.

Libby Hernandez, a city councilor in Holyoke, said she has lived in Massachusetts since 1994 and is a "strong believer" in Puerto Rican independence. She helped pass a resolution of support for self-determination in Holyoke in February.

"The people of Puerto Rico have the ability and are intellectually capable of choosing their own fate and moving toward being self sufficient because we have all the resources there it's going to take to become independent and free ourselves of all this oppression over the years," she said.

Gomez and Ramos both declined to say whether they support statehood, independence or something in between, but said their primary goal is to allow the people living in Puerto Rico to finally decide for themselves.

"I think moving forward the Puerto Rican people need to take this vote, it needs to be binding and the diaspora needs to be the ones to push Congress to give them that right," Gomez said.

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