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Puerto Ricans greet President Obama’s motorcade in San Juan, 2011. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

Puerto Rico: The 51st State?

For the first time, a majority of Puerto Ricans have voted in favor of statehood

When Americans went to the polls on November 6 to choose the president, residents of Puerto Rico sat on the sidelines, unable to vote. They did, however, cast ballots that day in a referendum on the island’s future. And for the first time, a majority voted in favor of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state.

“We are not happy being second-class citizens,” says Xavier Caraballo- Sandoz, a 23-year-old graduate student at Eastern University in Puerto Rico who voted for statehood. “We are ready to become part of the Union.”

A self-governing U.S. commonwealth located 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 as part of the settlement of the Spanish-American War. Today, Puerto Rico—which is home to 3.7 million people—has its own governor and legislature, and the U.S. president as its head of state.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but only those living in the U.S. enjoy full constitutional rights. Residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote in presidential elections (though they can vote in primaries) and have one non-voting member of Congress.

Statehood supporters say Puerto Rico would benefit economically from increased tourism and investment. Opponents, however, point out that if Puerto Rico were to become a state, residents would have to pay federal income tax. Some also fear the loss of the island’s unique culture and identity.

“If we become a state, some people will want to enforce English as the main and only language in government and education,” says Daniel Cruz Ramírez de Arellano, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican at Purdue University in Indiana.

Nearly 5 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S., mostly in New York, Florida, and Illinois, making up the nation’s largest Hispanic group after Mexicans. In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico, became the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.

The November referendum was the fourth on statehood since 1967 and the first in which a majority (54 percent) voted against the current territorial status.

Statehood opponents, however, dispute the significance of the vote. They say the wording was skewed to favor statehood.

It may be a moot point. Congress would have to approve statehood for Puerto Rico, and that seems unlikely anytime soon.

“Honestly, I don’t expect Congress to do much except hold hearings,” says Amílcar Antonio Barreto, a Puerto Rico expert at Northeastern University in Boston.

But that isn’t stopping statehood supporters from dreaming.

“For me, being a U.S. citizen is a lot more than carrying a passport,” says Caraballo-Sandoz. “I’m very hopeful that one day we are going to be a state of the Union.”

This article originally appeared in the February 18, 2013 issue of The New York Times Upfront. For more from Upfront, click here.

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