Leave it to a British comic to school us all on the least talked-about race problem in America—well, except the millions of Americans living in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. John Oliver’s recent viral video about the Insular Cases, and their role in this country’s ugly racial past entertained and shocked a lot of Americans, just hours after President Obama told a crowd gathered in Selma that “our work is never done.” Oliver’s wit, framed around Obama’s words, created a perfect storm of discovery. Though, you would think, in 2015, this wouldn’t seem so surprising—yes, the American government was blatantly racist toward peoples conquered as spoils of war. But anyone from non-state territories like the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, or Puerto Rico—especially, Puerto Rico—could have told you that. The problem was no one was really listening until Oliver gave the Insular Cases comedic street cred.
For years, Puerto Ricans such as myself have been writing and speaking about the island’s perpetual limbo relationship with the United States; a relationship—formed in 1898 when the US invaded and annexed Puerto Rico at the tail end of the Spanish-American War—that was glaringly lopsided from the start. As US citizens, Puerto Ricans can fight on behalf of America in foreign wars, but they can’t vote for the president who sends them there. They pay taxes, but don’t have a representative in Congress who can vote on how to spend them. It’s definitively anti-American: modern-day taxation without representation.
All these years, we Puerto Ricans both on the island and the mainland (about eight million of us) have tried to convince our fellow Americans to pay attention to the injustices playing out in their own back yard. We are mired in obvious inequities, but are distracted by political status options (statehood, commonwealth, independence) with non-binding status plebiscites leading nowhere (in 2012, Puerto Ricans rejected the status quo and favored statehood). And if that weren’t enough, the island’s neo-colonial economy is about to go bankrupt, too.