Three lucky people will share a $546 million Powerball prize, and one of them is in Puerto Rico. This is the first time a player from Puerto Rico has won, and the responses in social media show that the event is bringing out the foolishness in the American public. Tweeters are questioning whether Puerto Rico is eligible to win Powerball prizes, asking whether the Euro is the local currency, and suggesting that there might be a language requirement to win the game.
There may be some fun in mocking foolish tweets, but there is a more significant point to be made. The average American doesn’t understand the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. At all.
Move away from the states with large Puerto Rican populations, stop 100 random people on the street, and ask, “What’s the relationship between Puerto Rico and U.S.?” Some will think that Puerto Rico is a state, some will believe that it is an independent nation like Cuba, and a handful will know that people born in Puerto Rico are citizens. Maybe three will answer, “Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S.”
This information is not taught consistently in schools on the mainland, and the government of Puerto Rico muddies the waters by coyly talking about being a commonwealth in its tourism marketing — as though “commonwealth” had a legal meaning. People who have visited Puerto Rico as tourists know they didn’t have to take a passport, but they often have no idea that Puerto Rico is a territory.
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Just as the Commonwealth of Kentucky was a territory before it became a state, Puerto Rico is a territory.
The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. English is one of the official languages of Puerto Rico (the U.S. does not have an official language). Puerto Ricans pay federal taxes. Puerto Ricans are eligible to play Powerball, just as they are eligible to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Some of the tweeters may be racist as well as ignorant. But those who are tweeting, “Someone in Puerto Rico won the Powerball?” might think that’s the same as tweeting, “Someone in the Netherlands won the Powerball?”
The consequences of this level of ignorance go far beyond being snippy over a Powerball win. Americans who don’t know that Puerto Ricans are citizens don’t feel ashamed of the fact that the United States has had control over the Island for over a century and has never settled the status of Puerto Rico. They don’t speak up about the civil rights issues involved in making laws for and collecting taxes from people who cannot vote for their president. They don’t understand that treating Puerto Rico differently from States under federal programs is harmful to their fellow citizens living in Puerto Rico.
This is an opportunity to educate people who have a right to know that Puerto Rico belongs to the United States, that the people of Puerto Rico have voted against territorial status, and that it is time for Puerto Rico to become a state.