Should Puerto Rico join the United States as the 51st state? Although the currently Republican-controlled House would most likely vote “no”, Edwin Pagán Bonilla, a Puerto Rican spokesperson, educator and civil rights activist, passionately believes “yes”, and will explain the reasons why on Thursday, September 18 at 1:00 in Raritan Valley Community College’s Edward Nash Theatre.
As the keynote speaker for the event “Modern American Apartheid”, and as the opener for RVCC’s Hispanic Heritage Month, whose theme is “Hispanics: A legacy of history, a present of action and a future of success”, Pagán Bonilla will address the most critical debates surrounding the country’s relationship with the U.S.
Topics will include Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth; how statehood could affect Puerto Rican and American culture; and Puerto Rican citizens not having the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections—even though they are born as U.S. citizens, they can be drafted into the military and their soldiers have fought in every U.S. war in the twentieth century, with the second highest casualty rate of any U.S. state in the Korean War.
Puerto Rico and the United States
Pagán Bonilla is not alone in his belief of statehood. According to the Puerto Rican status referendum, 2012, 61.16% of voters said they preferred statehood, though the results are still being debated.
Puerto Rico has spent much of its history as a commonwealth as a major economic contributor to the U.S. According to the book “Harvest of Empire” by Juan Gonzalez, “Puerto Rico has provided more wealth to the United States than perhaps any country in history. That wealth, together with the numerous U.S. military bases…and the enormous sacrifices made by Puerto Rican veterans who fought in U.S. wars…dwarfs the value of any federal aid its residence has received.”
From the 1970s to 2005, many U.S. companies with high research, development and marketing expenses, but low production costs, turned a loophole in Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code into a “secret gold mine”.
Gonzales writes that these companies outsourced “factory production to wholly owned subsidiaries in Puerto Rico, then transferred the patents and trademarks from their U.S. subsidiaries as well, thus shielding all revenue from the product from federal taxes.” Together with cheap labor from Puerto Rico and not having to pay federal taxes, by 1974 110 of the Fortune 500 companies had Puerto Rican subsidiaries, and between 1980 and 1990 Johnson and Johnson saved $1billion in federal taxes through their subsidiaries in Puerto Rico.
Furthermore, Gonzalez describes Vieques, a fifty-five-square-mile island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, as the U.S.’s “crown jewel of naval training facilities”.
This affection, however, does not go both ways. In the 1970’s, many Viesques's residents began to complain of major health problems they suspected were caused by the military presence. In the 1990’s several health studies showed Vieques had a 27% higher cancer rate and a far higher incidence of heart disease than the rest of Puerto Rico. The island also experienced daily deafening sounds from the base, and soon became Puerto Rico’s poorest municipality. It wasn’t until April 19, 1999, when a pair of U.S. F-18 jets missed their targets and killed 1 civilian and injured 4 others, that outsiders started protesting.
And despite all of this, the school system in Puerto Rico still teaches American history over Puerto Rican. Generations of Puerto Ricans grew up not learning about Tainos or great poets like José Gautier Benítez, but of the Revolutionary War and Walt Whitman instead.
Bonilla the activist
Edwin Pagan Bonilla was born in Paterson, NJ and went to High School in Puerto Rico. Eva Fontanez, the Administrative Assistant to the Dean of Multicultural Affairs at RVCC, has known Pagan Bonilla since he was 14 years old and used to consider him “like a little brother.” Back then, she used to call him “El Viejo” or “Old Man” in English. She said that even when he was young, she found he had an “old soul”.
Pagan Bonilla grew up to pursue politics and activism, spreading the word about Puerto Rico's troubled status as a common wealth and relationship with the U.S. In 2009 Pagan Bonilla served as Executive Director of Humacao District Senator’s Office, and from 2006-2008 served as Legislative Advisor for the Office of the Speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. As co-founder of the Civil Coalition for Puerto Rico Statehood, he was a petitioner before the United Nations Decolonization Committee in 2014 and the Civil Rights Commission of Puerto Rico in 2013. He has also taught psychology, social work studies and philosophy at several universities in Puerto Rico.
With an office in the Capital Building in Old San Juan, Pagan Bonilla is now 45 years old and a leader in Puerto Rico. He serves as Legislative Advisor for the Puerto Rico House and president of Generación 51, a civic organization that believes in a choice for statehood in Puerto Rico and decolonizing Puerto Rico through education, legal action and civil disobedience. He is a regular panelist on the weekly radio program, “Dándole Vueltas al Asunto” (Looking at the Matter From All Angles), speaking about current socioeconomic events in Puerto Rico. He also routinely marches all over Puerto Rico and the United States fighting for equal rights of all people.
Fontanez said that all students, no matter their cultural background, should listen to Pagan Bonilla talk because, “This is history happening right now. It’s a national and global thing that will affect us all. We need to be educated on what’s happening. We need to continue to fight any injustice and our civil rights, whether it’s Puerto Rico, Ferguson or Gaza. We need leaders who will stand up, educate us and show us how to fight for our human rights.”
On her first day in the Multicultural Affairs Office last summer, Fontanez mentioned to Dean Dashield that she had an incredible friend, who she knew as a young kid, who has become a great leader in Puerto Rico, and is fighting for equal rights for Puerto Ricans in and out of the island. She then said one day she would love to have him come and speak, or Skype, to students at RVCC.
Fortunately, Fontanez did not have to wait long for this to happen. Not knowing of the conversations between Phi Theta Kappa, Student Government Association and Dean Dashield; her idea was a perfect fit with what they had discussed for the Leadership Series program that they were planning for Hispanic Heritage Month. The committee for Hispanic Heritage Month then decided that Edwin Pagan Bonilla was the best choice, among other choices, for the opening event.
What to expect at Modern American Apartheid
Fontanez’s idea for the event has reached those both inside and outside of RVCC. After mailing flyers for the event to numerous NJ, NY and PA colleges and universities, she received several replies back from schools, with many of them saying they were going to attend. Rowan University replied that after hearing about the event, they wanted Bonilla to speak at their school too.
Fontanez said that some political figures and El Diario La Prensa, a Puerto Rican newspaper in the United States, “may” attend, and Pagan Bonilla’s father and aunt will be in the audience. At the end of the event there will be a Q&A, which Professor Carl Lindskoog, who teaches the course Modern Latin American History, and Professor Isabel Gutierrez, who teaches Psychology courses, will be moderating.
Dr. Lindskoog emailed the RVCC community copies of a chapter on Puerto Rico from “Harvest of Empire” and will have a discussion on the history and culutre of Puerto Rico on September 16 at 2:30 in room ATCC 101; the Tuesday prior to Edwin Pagan’s event. At Lindskoog’s the event, he will connect his lesson to “Modern American Apartheid”.
This event is being sponsored by Office of Multicultural Affairs, SGA, PTK and Orgullo Latino Club. Students interested in learning more about Pagan Bonilla’s organization can visit his website www.generacion51.org.