LAWRENCE — Juan M. Gonzalez and Domingo Melendez count themselves as among those Puerto Ricans living in the Merrimack Valley who want statehood for their island homeland.
“My love for Puerto Rico is strong, but I think being a state would do more good,” said Gonzalez of Lawrence.
“I think it’s time Puerto Rico becomes a state,” said Melendez, who moved to the mainland in 1963. “We’re one of the oldest territories in this part of the world and are treated as second-class citizens. It’s time we’re considered first-class citizens.”
The island has been a U.S. territory since 1917. It’s inhabitants are U.S. citizens but are prohibited from voting in presidential elections. On Nov. 6 they were not allowed to vote in the U.S. presidential election, but a slim majority of Puerto Ricans sought to change their ties with the United States and become the 51st state in a non-binding referendum that would require final approval from Congress.
The two-part referendum asked whether the island wanted to change its 114-year relationship with the United States. Nearly 54 percent, or 922,374 people, sought to change it, while 46 percent, or 786,749 people, favored the status quo.
The second question asked voters to choose from three options, with statehood by far the favorite, garnering 61 percent. Sovereign free association, which would have allowed for more autonomy, received 33 percent, while independence got 5 percent. President Barack Obama earlier expressed support for the referendum and pledged to respect the will of the people in the event of a clear majority. It is unclear whether U.S. Congress will debate the referendum results or if Obama will consider the results to be a clear enough majority.
Puerto Rico also held non-binding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, with statehood never garnering a clear majority and independence never obtaining more than 5 percent of the vote.
“A lot of people want statehood and I don’t understand why,” said Ray Silva of Lawrence, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved here at age 3. “I’m against it being a state because what can Puerto Rico offer to the U.S.? Basically nothing. All the resources are gone.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Lawrence has 76,377 residents of which 16,953 or 22.2 percent are Puerto Ricans.
Silva also questioned the timing of the referendum when the United States could have made Puerto Rico a state many years before, going to the island persuading residents to vote for it. He also said as a state, the residents will be subject to pay property taxes.
Lejia Domenech, who teaches world civilization and U.S. history at Northern Essex Community College also does not believe Puerto Rico will become a state.
“The majority of the people don’t want it, not right now,” said Domenech who moved from the island just a year ago.
While the majority of voters favored statehood, Domenech said 26 percent of voters who left the ballots question blank as a longstanding sign of protest in the country, were not taken into account.
“It’s like buying a one-way ticket not knowing where you’re going. People want to know what is going to change and how it’s going to affect me,” Domenech said.
Others like Ramon Gonzalez said Puerto Ricans have seen the results of being a commonwealth, now is the time to say ‘yes’ to statehood. As a state, he said Puerto Ricans will learn English at school, get better health care and give companies an incentive to open factories on the island.
“We’re grateful to the U.S. because thanks to them, we were able to buy our homes, get an education and good jobs, but Puerto Ricans are tired and we want to become a state.
Gonzalez, who emigrated 10 years ago, believes if Congress approves the statehood, it would be “a win-win” situation for both.
“This is an opportunity given to us on a silver platter and we should take advantage of it by getting organized,” Gonzalez said.
Pro-statehooders say Puerto Rico would benefit from becoming a state because it would receive an additional $20 billion a year in federal funds to boost the local economy and fight crime. The island currently has a higher unemployment rate than any U.S. state at 13.6 percent, and last year it reported a record 1,117 killings.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.