Support for Puerto Rico autonomy grows in western Mass.  

  • A man waves a Puerto Rican flag June 22, 2017, during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar López Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/15/2021 9:00:36 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Considered the world’s oldest colony, Puerto Rico has been under U.S. control since the United States invaded the island during the Spanish-American War in 1898. And some of the first U.S. soldiers to come ashore during that invasion were part of a volunteer regiment from Massachusetts.

That fact was highlighted Thursday by state Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, at a meeting of Puerto Ricans in Massachusetts fighting to give Puerto Ricans the right to determine the future of their homeland — be that statehood, independence or the status quo. He said that Massachusetts now has the ability to “clean up the mess” that it helped create back then.

Hosted by the Boricua Solidarity Movement, the event highlighted the support of many of the state’s elected leaders for a bill in the U.S. Congress that would give Puerto Ricans the right to self-determination.

“After 123 years, Puerto Rico — or Borikén, its indigenous name — continues to be a colony of the United States,” said Springfield’s Gladys Franco, a co-founder of The Boricua Solidarity Movement. “Self-determination is a people’s inalienable right to choose our destiny without the imposition of a colonial power.”

Introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in March, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 would create a convention on the territory’s status. Puerto Ricans would elect delegates to the assembly, which would then put forward options to the Puerto Rican people in a binding referendum vote. New York City congresswomen Nydia M. Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both Democrats, introduced the bill in the House and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., introduced it in the Senate.

Co-sponsors of the bill include both Massachusetts senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. In the U.S. House, representatives Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston, have cosponsored the bill.

Speaking at Thursday’s event, Pressley called Puerto Rico’s status as a colony “a fundamentally unjust and undemocratic arraignment that has relegated Puerto Rico and its nearly three million residents to second-class citizenship.”

“That’s why we’re here today,” Pressley said, noting that five city councils in Massachusetts have already passed resolutions supporting the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. “To stand in solidarity at every level of government.”

Those five municipalities — Easthampton, Holyoke, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston — include three communities in western Massachusetts. Puerto Rican elected officials in those cities introduced the resolutions, receiving the backing of their colleagues to support the federal legislation.

“I am a strong believer of independence for Puerto Rico, and that the people of Puerto Rico have the ability and are intellectually capable of choosing their own fate and moving toward being self-sufficient,” Libby Hernandez, Holyoke’s Ward 4 city councilor, said Thursday. “We have all the resources there that it’s going to take to become independent and to free ourselves from this oppression.”

In Easthampton, District 2 Councilor Homar Gomez put forward the resolution in support of Puerto Rico’s self-determination earlier this month.

“Resolving Puerto Rico’s status is one of social justice, and the bill ... gives Puerto Ricans the opportunity to resolve it,” Gomez said in a statement at the time.

Western Massachusetts communities and their elected officials have thus far featured prominently in the efforts in Massachusetts to promote the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act.

Franco, of The Boricua Solidarity Movement, noted that the state is home to over 300,000 Puerto Ricans — the state with the fifth-highest number of Puerto Rican residents in the country. Franco said 115,000 of those reside in the 1st Congressional District alone, with Springfield having the state’s highest total of Puerto Rican residents and Holyoke one of the largest populations per capita of Puerto Ricans on the entire U.S. mainland.

“We have strong roots in our communities, but we still have strong connections to our families and friends” on the island, Franco said.

State Rep. Orlando Ramos, D-Springfield, said Thursday that it is important to remember how interconnected many Massachusetts communities’ economies are with Puerto Rico’s.

“This is where those families come whenever life on the island and the economy on the island is suffering,” Ramos said. “There’s a very close correlation between the economy of Puerto Rico and the economy of Massachusetts.”

And Thursday’s speakers were clear: Puerto Rico should have autonomy over its own affairs. They noted that the territory’s colonial relationship with the United States plays out on many levels of life on the island: budgets and policies its people have little control over, health care disparities, debts, and a lack of adequate COVID-19 relief and hurricane assistance.

Another political figure to lend her voice to that cause was former San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who this year has accepted a fellowship at Mount Holyoke College’s Weissman Center for Leadership.

“Let’s make sure that our voices are heard and that the people of Puerto Rico are finally free from the shackles of colonialism,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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