The long and drawn Republican primaries, much like the Democratic ones four years ago, accomplished at least one good thing. They reminded many Americans about a small but not so tiny U.S. territory in the Caribbean.

So many people around me were perplexed in 2008 at watching Puerto Ricans on CNN going to the polls to have their say in the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Having been born in Puerto Rico, I might as well hail from Venezuela or Peru as far as many of them are concerned. Bragging about friends and family on the island voting in the primary was my way of educating people about where I was born and its century long connection to the United States.

But then they asked me about the general elections. I was almost ashamed to explain that my parents couldn’t vote in the November. It’s fine for Puerto Ricans to help pick a party nominee but not have a final say in deciding who their next president will be. Such a contradiction is emblematic of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. It’s that complicated relationship that has contributed to an identity crisis in the hearts and minds of so many Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth and have been for generations. They carry U.S. passports and the American flag flies sovereign throughout the island. It stands proud at schools, fire stations, even at McDonald’s — just like on the mainland. The U.S. dollar has long been the official currency and the Star Spangled Banner is played at official events along with the Puerto Rican anthem. I remember learning the “Oh say can you see…” in music class at school and always putting my right hand over my heart when singing along. More importantly, Puerto Ricans serve honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces. Examples of American influence and rule are abundant in Puerto Rico. Many people don’t think twice about them; it’s just the way things are. Yet, Puerto Ricans living on the island are technically not American. And even though I have always been proud of my citizenship and I now live on the mainland, I still feel illegitimate when calling myself an American.


Site of U.S. military landing. Guánica, Puerto Rico.

In a way it makes sense for me to feel that way. Puerto Rico is very much another country. It may be a U.S. territory but it’s an unincorporated one. And locals are officially known as Puerto Rican and not American. But alas, things are not so simple in the “Island Of Enchantment.” Former pro-statehood Governor Pedro Roselló’s statement that Puerto Rico is not a nation sparked controversy. The fallout was a clash between culture and political reality. While many Puerto Ricans enjoy a strong national identity, the island is not an independent nation-state. It has no seat in the United Nations. And all foreign and military policy is federal prerogative. Puerto Rico may be another country but the United States patrols its borders. Puerto Rico may be another country but locals follow federal law and are under the protection of the mighty U.S. Constitution.

Therefore, does having been born Puerto Rican ultimately mean that I was born American? It depends on who you ask. Most mainlanders would be surprised to know Puerto Ricans observe the 4th of July. It may not be the biggest and most significant holiday on the island. But many people do take out the Stars and Stripes and celebrate American independence. There’s even an official commemoration that attracts many pro-statehooders. I remember buying a pair of American flag boxer during my teens to celebrate. In stark contrast you can also easily find “Yankee go home” graffiti. And when it comes to cheering on beauty queens and sports teams, many Puerto Ricans like rooting for “their own.” Watching the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies I wondered whether to cheer for Puerto Rico, the U.S. or both. Puerto Rican participation in the games is an example people of the same citizenship and loyal to the same Constitution competing against each other in the international arena. Still, there are many Puerto Ricans wondering for what country to cheer.

The island’s so-called Commonwealth status is an imperfect political arrangement that has allowed Puerto Ricans to put off deciding whether to be independent or American. Island and mainland leaders often argue before the international community that Puerto Rico is not a colony of the United States because it’s a self-governing entity. Some go as far as interpreting the island’s Commonwealth status as a pact of equals between Americans and Puerto Ricans. After all, Puerto Ricans do handle local matters through their own legislature, governor and court system. But doesn’t every other state do as well? Many Puerto Ricans forget several U.S. states also call themselves Commonwealths. They often don’t realize that the island’s government and legal system pretty much works like a state’s. The governor may be the island’s chief executive but the President of the United States remains the Head of State — a leader that Puerto Ricans ultimately don’t have a say in choosing. Puerto Ricans are subject to congressional action but their sole delegate to the U.S. House can only vote in committee. Some describe the system as the best of both worlds. But to what world do Puerto Ricans ultimately belong?

It was more than one hundred years ago in 1898 that the United States armed forces bombarded the old city of San Juan. Soldiers marched through the island and were able to put down Spanish resistance within weeks. Many locals resented Spanish rule and welcomed the Americans as liberators. Flags representing the already-faded Spanish Empire began coming down only to be replaced by the Stars and Stripes. It was a flag Puerto Ricans were supposed to obey. Many remember pledging allegiance to that red, white and blue banner in school. In 1917 the Federal government granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. And with that came their duty to fight for the flag and the ideals for which it stands. Yet, while carrying their weapons in defense of Old Glory, presenting their blue passports when entering foreign land and following federal law, many Puerto Ricans don’t feel they can or should call themselves Americans. Technically they’re not.

The island’s status remains the chief political sticking point in Puerto Rico. It shapes the ideology of the three main political parties. People talk about it when getting their warm morning loaf of “criollo” bread and cup of coffee. Puerto Ricans have held referendums. Congress has held hearings. Yet, the island remains in this murky in-between. Perhaps one can compare the situation to a relatively new popular dish called “pavochón.” It’s turkey but seasoned like old fashioned country pork. Many people eat it during Thanksgiving or the holidays. It’s an American staple Puerto Rican style. It’s the culinary best of both worlds.

Puerto Ricans and Americans have had a special relationship for more than a century. The island is not a state, it’s not an independent nation and experts have been trying to figure out the meaning of the status quo since the Commonwealth constitution came into effect in 1952. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, struggle to define who they are.