Why Puerto Rico Won’t Become a State

Why Puerto Rico Won’t Become a State

By Sofia Isabel Marxuach-Cardenas; Image by CNN

Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States is one that is flawed, complex, and difficult. In today’s age, there are three possible solutions: Independence, Statehood (becoming the United States’ 51st state), or keeping the status quo.

After being ceded to the United States in 1898, Puerto Rico has been through a rollercoaster of a relationship with the United States. In 1901, it was stated by the Supreme Court that residents in US territories may not have all the rights stated in the Constitution (1), such as people living in Puerto Rico. This exclusion of rights includes the right to vote for federal positions. In addition to this Supreme Court decision, Puerto Ricans were only granted American citizenship in 1917. This was about a year before the end of World War 1 (2), which inspired conspiracies that it was for the sole purpose of having more soldiers on the behalf of the US in the War.

As many know, Puerto Rico is considered a commonwealth. This is dictated in Puerto Rico’s own Constitution, which was established in 1952 (3). It was decided that Puerto Rico would be “Un Estado Libre Asociado (ELA)” or what directly translates to “Associated Free State of Puerto Rico” (official translations state commonwealth).  This means that Puerto Rico is not a state, and also not independent. It is in a strange middle ground where we have some rights as American citizens, and also have our own government, our own constitution, and even our own taxing entity.

This strange middle ground in which Puerto Ricans are reflects its complicated relationship with the United States. It is a middle-ground which will only become more difficult to change as Puerto Ricans continue to leave the island (4) and the Puerto Rican diaspora grows in the United States. This middle ground has both created Pro-Independence movements and Pro-Statehood movements alike.

For example, in 1945, Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Truman (5). This was an attempt to bring attention to the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, which arose as a response to the new constitution of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico’s badly hidden colonial status. There were strong sentiments of Puerto Rican independence in the past, and there is still a political party focused on independence today. While in the last elections the party had its best performance yet, it still ended up 4th place.

That same election included a plebiscite which asked citizens in Puerto Rico if they wanted statehood. The results found that 52% of voters wanted Puerto Rico to become a state (6). This is a very different sentiment compared to the one which existed in 1945. The last plebiscite before this (in 2017), which had a 97% decision to become a statehood, was decided by only 23% of those registered to vote. Although it may seem significant, it was a non-binding vote.

Some believe that Puerto Rico should just become a US state, but that is not going to happen and if it were to happen, it would not happen soon. First, Republicans are worried that if Puerto Rico would become a state this would ultimately impact balance of political power within the US given that Hispanics usually vote for Democrats. Even if the Democrats had the power to change the status, not much would be done to change it since there is the possibility that Puerto Rican vote for Republican candidates instead. It would also change the make-up of the House of Representatives (Puerto Rico would have 5 seats) since Puerto Rico has a higher population than several states, including Kansas, Wyoming, and Nebraska. The Supreme Court is also not interested in overturning the Insular Cases, and has denied hearing recent petitions regarding them (7), meaning that Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status will also not change any time soon.

Second, some young people on the island are not interested in joining the United States. They are worried about what it means for Puerto Ricans culturally and in terms of the island’s identity. I’m also worried about this, and I am also worried about what it would mean for Puerto Rico’s education system (which is in Spanish), and how it would affect younger students who are still struggling to learn because of the effects of COVID-19 (8). This cultural issue can be seen in the manner Hawaii changed after being colonized by the United States, losing part of its culture and identity due to oppression and the enforcement of an American education system.

Third, while I only have shown a small glimpse of the history of the United States and Puerto Rico, there are many more and many worse things that have been done by the United States. An example of this would be how Puerto Rico was used as an experimenting ground for the birth control pill (9). Another example is how Vieques (a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico) was constantly bombed by the US military, causing constant displacement of citizens and higher cancer rates for those who live in Vieques (10). Even more recently, Puerto Rico has not received equal treatment from federal institutions (11) and citizens in the island also do not have equal access to welfare programs (12).

All of these events can create a negative depiction of the United States, and may influence people to choose independence over statehood.

With that said, becoming a state would not be entirely bad for Puerto Rico. Its people would receive more healthcare funds, our voting rights, representation in Congress, SNAP eligibility (we currently are not eligible), and more federal funding in general. The only issue is that the price to pay is one that scares many..

Puerto Rico’s identity is incredibly important to Puerto Ricans and is something that me and fellow Puerto Ricans are extremely proud of. Being Puerto Rican is being part of a culture that has not disappeared under American Colonialism. That is something that we are all proud to represent and proud to fight against– especially since it still affects us to this day. The idea of becoming a state is difficult because it feels as if we would lose part of our identity, our resilience, and culture– that is something that no one ever wants.

Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States is a difficult one. There are many factors to take into consideration, such as economic effects, respecting Puerto Rican’s opinions, the effects on identity and culture, its effects on US politics, and more. There is no clear answer to how to address Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status and Puerto Rico also has its own domestic issues that it is trying to address, such as corruption within the government (13, 14, 15). It gets even more complicated when one considers the character of pro-statehood politicians, the manner the statehood plebiscites were worded, and the difference in opinion between Puerto Ricans living on the island and the Puerto Rican diaspora. The issue of if Puerto Rico statehood has been hotly debated since the last century, and it will probably continue to be debated in the next one. As a Puerto Rican studying outside of the island, it has been strange to know that I have access to all of my rights as a citizen while those back home do not have all of them. It’s exciting that I get a chance to vote in the upcoming elections, but I can’t help but feel guilty about it too.


  1. Advocacy Groups Call on President Biden to Condemn the Insular Cases | American Civil Liberties Union. (2023, August 22). American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/advocacy-groups-call-on-president-biden-to-condemn-the-insular-cases
  2.  Sullivan, M. (2009, November 16). Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens, are recruited for war effort. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/puerto-ricans-become-u-s-citizens-are-recruited-for-war-effort
  3. ‌Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. (2024). Topuertorico.org. https://welcome.topuertorico.org/constitu.shtml
  4. QuickFacts: Puerto Rico. (2023). Census Bureau QuickFacts; United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/PR/AGE775222
  5. ‌ The Plot to Kill President Truman. (2015, November). Pieces of History. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2015/11/01/the-plot-to-kill-president-truman/
  6. Official Results of the 2020 Plebiscite, (2021, January 12). PUERTO RICO REPORT. https://puertoricoreport.com/official-results-of-the-2020-plebiscite/
  7. Court declines to take up petition seeking to overturn Insular Cases. (2022, October 17). SCOTUSblog. https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/10/court-declines-to-take-up-petition-seeking-to-overturn-insular-cases/
  8. NAEP Mathematics: State Average Scores. (2022). Nationsreportcard.gov. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/states/scores/?grade=8
  9. The History Behind Your Birth Control | NWHN. (2019, November 13). National Women’s Health Network. https://nwhn.org/thxbirthcontrol/
  10. ‌Chan, W. (2023, May). “I thought they’d kill us”: how the US navy devastated a tiny Puerto Rican island. The Guardian; The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/30/vieques-puerto-rico-us-navy-base-training#:~:text=To%20the%20US%20navy%2C%20Vieques,still%20bear%20the%20devastating%20consequences
  11. Johnson, L. M. (2019, January 22). Hurricane disaster aid was faster in Texas and Florida than in Puerto Rico, study says. CNN; CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/22/health/hurricane-maria-funding-study-trnd/index.html
  12. Hurley, L. (2022, April 21). U.S. Supreme Court allows Puerto Rico’s exclusion from welfare program. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/us-supreme-court-declines-extend-federal-benefits-puerto-rico-2022-04-21/
  13. ‌Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary Is Sentenced to Prison (Published 2021). (2024). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/17/us/puerto-rico-education-corruption-keleher.html
  14. ‌Press, A., & Gamboa, S. (2022, August 4). Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez arrested on bribery charges. NBC News; NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/former-puerto-rico-gov-wanda-vazquez-arrested-bribery-charges-rcna41517
  15. ‌Florido, A. (2022, May 12). In Puerto Rico, the arrests of elected officials worsen trust in government. NPR; NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/05/12/1098585366/in-puerto-rico-the-arrests-of-elected-officials-worsen-trust-in-government

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