Politics, Moderate



It shouldn't take a hurricane to learn that Puerto Rico is part of America

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- Puerto Ricans are Americans.

However, a recent survey by The Morning Consult, a research company, found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.

The island, a territory of the United States, may exist in people's minds as not related to us because it's not clear that it will ever pursue statehood, despite years of nationwide referendums with varying outcomes. Until it does, Puerto Rico remains something of a distant cousin to the United States -- one of those so-distant cousins that most people aren't sure they're actually related.

The myth that Puerto Rico is not part of America is so pervasive and ingrained in our society that even children internalize the misunderstanding.

At the beginning of the school year, I was observing a classroom in which high school seniors were learning how to form arguments to defend their opinions. The task was for small groups of students to decide on which flavor of ice cream was the best and then persuade the rest of the classroom toward consensus.

At this predominantly Hispanic -- and overwhelmingly Mexican -- school, the students nominated flavors ranging from ordinary, like plain vanilla and chocolate, to decadent and tropical. One young woman wrote on her group's poster: "The best flavor is coquito, because it soothes my foreign soul."

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Coquito is a Puerto Rican treat -- an eggnog-type of drink made with coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk and spices -- and when I read the student's comment, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Only respect for another teacher's classroom kept me from calling a timeout to discuss this student's egregious mistake.

When the bell rang, I ran to catch her and asked, "Are you Puerto Rican?" She shyly said, "Yes." I told her, "Don't ever call yourself a foreigner again -- Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Your soul is not foreign here, it's as beautiful and as part of America as everyone else's."

She broke into a big, wide grin and gave me a sheepish nod. It was a moment that struck me because we were standing less than three miles from Humboldt Park, the epicenter of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and the only nationally recognized Puerto Rican neighborhood in the country.

Still, it wasn't that surprising.


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