People who favor statehood for Puerto Rico — that’s the majority of people in Puerto Rico and in the states, according to polls and the 21st century plebiscites — are sometimes called “estadistas” or “statesmen.” The statehood option is sometimes called “annexation” but usually just “statehood.” The small minority that favor independence are often called “independentistas” but may also be called “separatists.” Which terms are more accurate?
Spanish or English
“Estadistas” and “independentistas” are Spanish words. This makes them a good choice for use in Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the most commonly used language. But this formation in Spanish is familiar to lots of English speakers in the states as well. Think about popular U.S. terms like “fashionista” or “barista.” Both he Spanish words are close enough to their English translations for English speakers to understand them, and we usually feel comfortable using them here without any translation or explanation.
“Statesman” makes sense to Spanish speakers as a term for statehood supporters. However, the word is used in English to refer to a respected politician. It is part of common phrases like “elder statesman,” meaning an experienced political leader, and “statesmanlike,” which refers to someone who behaves in a dignified and courteous manner. This means that it is not usually the best English language choice for a statehood supporter.
Calling statehood “annexation” is inaccurate and insulting. Annexing a place means that a larger area adds a smaller area to its official boundaries. For example, a city might annex a small town which has become so closely connected to the neighboring city that there is no longer a clear border. This often happens when the small town loses its post office and schools and really becomes a neighborhood in the bigger city.
That’s not an insult. “Annexation” is an accurate description of what is happening in that case, and it is the correct word to use.
The United States did annex Hawaii before Hawaii became a territory, and we could also say that the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico when Spain gave its colony of Puerto Rico to the United States in the Treaty of Paris, again before it became a territory. Both of these events took place in the 19th century.
When a territory belonging to the United States, like Puerto Rico, becomes a state, it is not being annexed. It is already under the U.S. flag, and statehood is not a question of becoming a part of another country. It is a question of gaining the sovereignty and dignity of a state.
Independence is an accurate description of what independentistas want. They want a separate sovereignty for a new nation of Puerto Rico. We respect this. It is not a colonial position. If the people of Puerto Rico actually wanted it, it would be a good choice. They don’t.
However, the word “independence” has specific connotations in America. We celebrate Independence Day every year. We think of it as a synonym for freedom. It sounds like a good thing — why wouldn’t someone want it? This is what may come into the minds of people living in a state. They are not thinking of the hardships that would be faced by an independent Puerto Rico, especially since so many independentistas present fantasies of independence that suggest that this new status would include guaranteed U.S. citizenship, U.S. financial support, and complete freedom to work and travel in the states.
No former territory has ever actually gotten these things as an independent nation. Cuba and the Philippines were territories and are now independent nations. The Marshall Islands were a territory and are now an associated republic. None of these places has U.S. citizenship. None has benefits equal to what Puerto Rico’s independence supporters are imagining.
Many members of Congress have also stated firmly that they don’t expect to give an independent nation of Puerto Rico any special treatment.
Nor would independence give individuals living in Puerto Rico greater freedom than statehood. As a state, Puerto Rico would be equal to all other states, and would have decision making power over everything not laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
It might be more accurate to call independence supporters “separatists.”
Here’s a definition of the word from Wikipedia: “Separatism is the advocacy of cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial, governmental or gender separation from the larger group. As with secession, separatism conventionally refers to full political separation. Groups simply seeking greater autonomy are not separatist as such.”
Both supporters of independence and supporters of free association want to be politically separated from the United States, and not under the sovereignty of the U.S. government. If Puerto Rico were a state, we could call this “secession.” That word only applies to states, though, so separatism is a better description of the concept.
Puerto Ricans are already members of the larger group of Americans. Those who want to give that up and become a separate sovereign entity are in fact separatists. Often they defend their idea by looking at historical wrongs done to Puerto Rico by the United States. They often suggest that Puerto Rico would get better economic terms from other nations if the Island could make treaties with China or Mexico on its own terms, separately from the United States. They should recognize the simple truth that a nation unwilling to give guaranteed citizenship under the Constitution to people living in the territory of Puerto Rico will surely not give it to people living in a foreign country, so they are willing to lose their U.S. citizenship for the sake of separate sovereignty.
For this reason, we think that “separatists” is a better term for supporters of the non-territorial, non-statehood options. What do you think? Tell us in the comments, or on our social media pages.