Guests gather for the Festival del Coqui following the Greater Hartford Puerto Rican Day Parade Sunday Oct. 8, 2023. Thousands marched and gathered along the parade route that finished in Bushnell Park, in the shadow of the Connecticut State Capitol. Joe Buglewicz / Connecticut Public

Puerto Ricans living in Connecticut say new U.S. Senate legislation would let island residents decide whether to become a sovereign nation associated with the U.S., declare independence or start on a pathway to statehood. But it’s the latest chapter in a long and painful history between Puerto Rico and the United States.

Last month, U.S. lawmakers made a significant move towards addressing the challenges Puerto Ricans faced on the island with the introduction of the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) S. 3231.

“I think that the people of Puerto Rico should have access to understand very clearly what each of these options really mean. What does independence really mean? What does statehood mean? What does sovereignty with free association really mean?” Amilcar Hernandez said.

Hernandez, a native of Utuado, Puerto Rico, now serves as a city council member in Hartford. He said Puerto Ricans have long been treated as second-class citizens of a U.S. commonwealth without voting members of Congress.

Hernandez views the bill as a democratic step to hear Puerto Ricans on the island and what they want for their future. He said it would be important for the bill to address the educational and informational outreach about the proposals to the Puerto Rican public. The bill needs a more straightforward explanation of the three proposals, he said, making it easier for people to understand their options fully.

“The people of Puerto Rico need to get this information,” he said, “neutral, unbiased information.”

Initially introduced into Congress in 2020 under H.R. 2757, this legislation was reintroduced in April 2023 by Democratic Sen. Rail Grijalva of Arizona and gained support from 88 co-sponsors, including 76 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats from Connecticut, are among the supporters of the Senate’s version of the bill, which was introduced at the end of last month.

[RELATED: CT senators back bill on Puerto Rico deciding its political status]

In recent years, there has been a growing movement of young Puerto Ricans who desire independence for their island, citing reasons such as being let down by the U.S. in critical situations like Hurricane Maria. Some fear that becoming a state would result in the loss of their cultural identity, while others believe that the island is already experiencing colonization and gentrification.

“I did grow up, also, hearing about these fears of ‘we’re gonna lose our culture. We’re gonna lose our tradition and we’re gonna lose our language,’” Hernandez said. “There’s a lot of different ramifications to statehood that Puerto Ricans are afraid of.”

The proposed bill has brought up painful memories for many Puerto Ricans, such as Law 53, also known as La Ley Mordaza, which was enacted in 1948 to suppress the independence movement by making it illegal to display or own a Puerto Rican flag.

“I don’t think that the Puerto Rican flag will vanish. However,the identity of Puerto Ricans may be impacted by a decision to become a state,” he said. “All of those historical pieces are still playing today, even 60, 70, 80 years later, because we know that there was a time where the American intrusion in Puerto Rico, got us to a point where the Puerto Ricans had to get up and fight against the different injustices that were happening even today.”

Puerto Rico’s current status also denies its residents the same rights and representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, such as representation in the Senate, voting rights in the House and for President, and equal treatment under federal laws and programs.

“We’ve been citizens of the United States for 106 years now, and throughout that whole time, we’ve been just kind of like second class citizens in many ways,” Hernandez said.

Under the current status quo, Puerto Rico lacks economic sovereignty as a U.S. territory, with federal regulators overseeing its businesses and federal laws dictating its trade policy. Despite this, Puerto Rico’s contributions to the U.S. totaled over $4 billion in fiscal year 2021, according to the Council for Foreign Relations.

“There’s a lot of other issues with our current status,” he said. “Puerto Rico sends billions of dollars to the federal government every year, but we don’t get the same benefits that other states get.”

If the current legislation is passed, Puerto Ricans on the island would hold a binding referendum to determine Puerto Rico’s status in November 2025.

This story was first published Nov. 13, 2023 by Connecticut Public.