Hispanic Coalition Press Conference

Washington, D.C.
September 16, 1998

RICK DAVOLINA: Good afternoon, thank you for being with us today. My name is Rick Davolina, I am the national president of LULAC, the League of Latin American Citizens. LULAC is the oldest and largest membership-based, civil-rights organization in the United States, representing the interests of Hispanics.

I'm happy to be here today [SPANISH]-which holds a special place in my heart, because it's the day that Mexico won its independence from Spain-and we celebrate it throughout the country. It's a day in which Hispanic-Americans begin celebrating the National Hispanic Heritage Month. It's also that the Hispanic-Americans unite to address an issue of monumental importance to all of us here today. That is the self-determination of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico.

We come together as a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, to issue a Declaration of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico. LULAC, along with my colleagues from the Hispanic Coalition for Puerto Rican self-determination are here to ask senate majority leader, Trent Lott, to allow a debate for Puerto Rican self-determination to take place on the Senate floor. Congress can no longer ignore Puerto Rican's colonial status. Congress must meet is constitutional responsibilities to allow the people of Puerto Rico to determine the own political fate.

It has been over 100 years since the Unites States gained possession as a result of the Spanish-American War, and 81 years since the people of Puerto Rico gained American Citizenship. There has been ample time for discussion and now it's the time to take some action. We are not here to advocate any one possible status for political action. We're here to allow, to show our support for self-determination.

We are here to tell the Senate now how important self-determination is to the 3.8 million U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico, and to the entire Hispanic-American community in this country. The Legislature of Puerto Rico specifically petitioned the 104th and 105th congress to sanction a referendum on this critical issue. To date, the House of Representatives has acted by passing HR 856, this past March, and that was almost six months ago. And still the Senate has yet to move with its companion bill in the Senate 472, out of committee.

Extensive hearings have been held, and numerous studies have been done, but as of yet, there has been no action by the Senate. Could it be that it's Puerto Rico's language, or could it be Puerto Rico's culture, or some other issue of partisan politics. There's some in the Senate who say there's simply no time for this issue to be considered by the full Senate before the October recess.

MR. DAVOLINA: -- for nearly 30 million Hispanics is that there's no time for democracy for Puerto Rico. What we are talking about here already seems to be an extraordinary amount of time to spend on an issue that directly hits the very heart of this nation's fabric, and that is democracy. This coalition believes that there is ample time for the Senate to respond to the aspirations of the people of Puerto Rico to express their views on their political status through a referendum. Democracy cannot afford any more delays.

Certainly, the Senate recognizes that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens. Not only are Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States but they are loyal citizens of this country, almost 200,000 sons and daughters have served the U.S. in times of war. Over 6,000 Puerto Ricans have been wounded, 1200 have been killed in action defending this country. Four Puerto Ricans have received this country's highest honor, that is, the Medal of Honor. Moreover, Puerto Rican citizens have made outstanding contributions in the areas of business, the arts, law, medicine, and activism(?). They are a vital part of our proud Hispanic American tradition of patriotism, dedication to this nation's greatness.

I understand that there may be a resolution coming out of the Senate floor for a vote today. We appreciate that after a hundred years of colonial rule the Senate acknowledges the nature of its relationship with Puerto Rico. If it passes this resolution it will be a significant step forward in the self-determination process. However, we want to ensure that Congress will respond positively to the results of the referendum that is planned for Puerto Rico this December. We intend to continue working actively toward that goal. We are here today to say that we will no longer tolerate this injustice. I invite my colleagues to speak to the issue from their own perspectives and experiences.

I again welcome you to this briefing. I encourage you to continue to follow and to report on this issue of self-determination, which the Hispanic community considers a very high priority on our national Hispanic agenda. And now may I remind you that the national Hispanic agenda is the American agenda. Thank you very much. [Applause]

MR.--- : We have a Senator from New Jersey, Torricelli, that just entered the room and I'd like to grant him the opportunity to address this conference. Senator? [Applause]

SENATOR TORRICELLI: Thank you all very much for this opportunity, it's a pleasure to be with you and to share a moment and walk in the long history of the United States government and the people of Puerto Rico can be a memorable day. It is my hope that within a few hours the United States Senate will pass a resolution calling upon and congratulating the people of Puerto Rico and holding a plebiscite to determine their own future. Making clear not only our recognition of the importance of self-determination of the people of Puerto Rico, but making a clear and convincing commitment to deal with the results of that election I believe in a timely fashion within the United States Congress.

I am very grateful in this effort to have received the help of Senator Murkowski, Senator D'Amato, Senator Landrieu, and Senator Graham of Florida, and Senator Craig. It is a bipartisan group of Senators, both liberal and conservative, from across the United States who understand that Puerto Rico is genuinely the unfinished business of American democracy. [Applause]

I recognize that the question of the determination of the future of Puerto Rico is exclusively a matter for the people of Puerto Rico, but whether the people of Puerto Rico have a choice, and that it is a free and fair choice about their future, is the responsibility of all Americans. And that is the distinction. What we endorse today is the right for them to make their own choice. It is not possible that the 20th century, having begun with an American experiment in colonialism that was against our traditions and our founding principles, this country would now enter a new century without having assured the world that it is unequivocally clear the United States maintains relationships with people only to the extent they want that relationship, in the manner and form that such people choose.

For all of you who have given so much time and effort to bring us to this point, I am very grateful. I hope and trust we are no more than a few hours away from this vote. If anything should happen in the Senate schedule, that it happens tomorrow or the day that follows, I do not believe that it is a change in support for this in the Senate calendar. Nevertheless, I hope and trust that we are that close to this vote. Thank you all for your help and for your efforts. [Applause]

MR. FERNANDEZ: Thank you, Senator. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am David Fernandez, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is the leading national Hispanic business organization in the United States, representing the interests of over 1 million Hispanic-owned businesses and over 250 Hispanic Chambers of Commerce across the country. We are the umbrella organization that actively promotes economic growth and development of the Hispanic entrepreneur.

As an Hispanic-American, I am personally disturbed by the United States Senate, which continues to stall on the self-determination process of Puerto Rico. As we just heard from the Senator, there is some activity which we're happy to here and I hope we will have some great news later on today and whatever the news is, it's not the end. I think we still have to pursue the ultimate situation where there is self-determination for Puerto Ricans.

This issue of basic civil rights should be an urgent priority for all members of Congress, particularly Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln. Although the Chamber's mandate is the economic of our community, we do not separate fundamental issues of fairness and equal treatment under the law from our agenda of advocacy. In our view, Puerto Rico's economic future is solidly bound with its political status. The nearly 4 million American citizens of Puerto Rico need and deserve political empowerment in order to attain economic empowerment. The Hispanic-Americans of Puerto Rico cannot realize their full economic potential until a self-determination process is accomplished.

Political certainty and stability are central elements of a sound economy. This is why the USATC has supported this referendum in self-determination for years. Congressional action on Puerto Rico is in the long-range economic interest of the entire nation. The island's commerce is responsible for over 225,000 jobs in the mainland. Puerto Rico imports over $12 billion of goods from the mainland, purchases hundreds of millions in services, and has approximately $33 billion in trade with the 50 states. Puerto Rico is situated on one of the world's most important commerce crossroads, as over 70 percent of hemispheric trade passes through or near this U.S. territory. This is good news. The bad news is that the island's economy has experienced both very little growth in recent years, and current trends indicate further stagnation.

At present, Puerto Rico's economic growth and indicators are lagging, particularly when compared with those of most states. Because Congress, especially the U.S. Senate and its Republican leadership, to recognize the grave consequences it could grow from the continuation of Puerto Rico's political and economic situation. Further, we call on them to meet their congressional responsibilities under its territorial powers to provide our fellow Hispanics and Puerto Rico a chance to stabilize their future.

Our nation's fundamental principle of government is self-determination by the people in democracy. Our U.S. House of Representatives have already stepped up to the plate and reaffirmed this principle [inaudible]. Now it is the U.S. Senate which must do the same. The U.S. Senate has a unique opportunity to set a major example of our unyielding support of political freedom throughout the world by acting on and passing the Puerto Rican referendum. Thank you very much, and I appreciate being here, as well. [Applause]

MR. RIVERA: My name is Jose Rivera and I am the Chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. I also happen to be a Puerto Rican who was born, raised and still lives on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. But today I speak to all of you on behalf of the millions of Hispanic Republicans that I represent within the Republican National Committee.

The Republican National Hispanic Assembly is an active member of the Hispanic Coalition for Puerto Ricans for Self-Determination, as granted by a resolution passed in our last convention. And my organization of the Republican National committee. The assembly is charged with increasing Hispanic support for the Republican agenda of ensuring that the needs of the Hispanic community are properly addressed by the Republican party in the legislative process.

We need to caution the Republican leadership against heeding those who state that no Puerto Rican Hispanics do not care about self-determination for Puerto Rico and that there is no compelling reason for Congress to act this year. Make no mistakes about it, Hispanic-Americans do care about the future of Puerto Rico. We are concerned that some members of our delegation are giving in to the ugly and deceitful campaign that has been waged against the self-determination of Puerto Rico. It is a campaign that plays on misplaced fears and prejudices against all Latinos, not just Puerto Rican, and I am sad to say that most of this campaign has been waged by my own people.

Today, the Republican party finds itself at a crossroads as Hispanics across the nation are watching what route we take today. Our party has supported self-determination for Puerto Rico as part of its platform since 1940, and every Republican president since has advocated it. For this reason, the hesitation to embrace the pending legislation by some is totally incomprehensible.

For Hispanic-Americans, this issue represents a deeply-cherished right that we have earned. This is a defining moment for us. If we work together to make our promise of self-determination a reality, not only will America benefit but Republicans will be able to proudly let all Hispanics know that we believe in what we stand for, and that we're truly the party of inclusion. In less than 20 years we expect that one out of every four votes cast in this country will have a Hispanic surname. That's 25 percent of the voting force. As a Republican -- as Republicans, we need to be aware of the power behind these numbers, we need to deliver on our promises; actions speaks louder than words.

This is why we are working on this issue. It is not enough for Congress to ask Puerto Rico to do it, just do it alone, that's for Nike commercials. As we have argued in several forums, congressional involvement is essential to the promise of self-determination for all Puerto Ricans. They hold the key to this issue.

The Congress is showing a genuine interest in participating in the self-determination effort of 4 million Hispanic-Americans in Puerto Rico. I hope that the Republican leadership of the Senate will also do what is right and lead the way, starting with today's resolution. Thank you very much. [Applause]

MR. TOBAR: Buenas tardes, my name is Andres Tobar -- [Speaking in Spanish] [Applause]

I'm the Executive Director of the National Association of Hispanic Publications, an organization that represents over 120 Hispanic publications with a circulation of 7 and a half million in the United States. We are proud to be here today as members of the Hispanic Coalition for Puerto Rican Self-Determination to urge the Senate to meet their responsibility and to uphold democracy in all corners of this great nation, including the territory of Puerto Rico.

My organization has been a member of the coalition for the past year. We become involved in this effort because we believe that it is our duty to inform the Latino community of issues that are of concern to them, such as this one, and we have an obligation to join our leaders in advocating for our common Hispanic agenda.

Self-determination for Puerto Rico is part of the Hispanic common agenda. With that in mind, we have taken strong editorial positions which we have published across the country, defending the rights of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico to have a vote of self-determination sanctioned by Congress. We do not take stand on which road the people of Puerto Rico should take, but we do believe that the people of Puerto Rico have earned the right to choose their own destiny. Congress has the responsibility to guarantee that all citizens of this country are treated equally under the Constitution. Prompt action by the Senate is needed for Puerto Rican self-determination legislation to eliminate the second-hand, second-class citizenship of Puerto Ricans.

We commend the House of Representatives for acting on this issue, but are disappointed by the lack of action on the U.S. Senate. Lack of legislative time remaining has been given as a reason for inaction, but this is a poor excuse. The Senate could have acted on this matter at any time over the past two years during its legislation session. The publications of our membership have reported on this issue extensively and will give the issue even more prominence in this election year.

Until Congress responds to the repeated requests of the Puerto Rico legislature to create the process by which 3.9 million people of Puerto Rico can vote in a congressionally-authorized referendum, we will continue to voice our support for their plea and our outrage at the inaction of our elected representatives. Muchas gracias. [Applause]

MR. QUINTERO: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Jess Quintero, and I am the National Secretary of the American GI Forum of the United States. Most of you know our organization, which was founded by Dr. Garcia, Hector V. Garcia, in Corpus Christi.

If you recall that since 1948 we have confronted discrimination directed toward Hispanic-Americans in whatever form it has taken. The motivation to found the American GI Forum was to mobilize our community to confront the prejudice directed toward our veterans returning from wars in Europe and the Pacific. When Felix Umgoya [phonetic], the decorated World War II veteran, was not allowed to be buried in his hometown of Corpus Christi, we came together to fight for what was just. He now rests at Arlington National Cemetery.

Through every military campaign, Hispanic soldiers have fought for freedom and equality, but many others wish them to return to a role of second-class citizens. Among those returning soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators, were many Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans. Many of them are American GI Forum members who have rallied to the nation's defense in overwhelming numbers but those whose right to decide their political future is being denied by legislators in these hallowed halls and in these buildings. Therefore, the 170,000 members and associates of the Forum today recognize the patriotism and loyalty demonstrated by the more than 200,000 Puerto Rican Americans who have defended our nation in all and every conflict in this century, by joining together with other Hispanic organizations to support the Puerto Ricans to fight to achieve full self-determination.

Since Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory one hundred years ago, its American citizens have rallied to defend democracy as members of the Armed Services of the United States in two world wars, in Korea, and in Vietnam, and also in the Persian Gulf and in countless smaller conflicts in Latin America, Africa, and Asian. In fact, Puerto Rico is the second-highest American jurisdiction in per capita war casualties. Not many people know that Puerto Rico and its citizens have died in the Korean War and that more than any other ethnic group in this nation, in all, over 200,000 Puerto Rican Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend democracy all over the world. For one hundred years Puerto Rican Americans have fought and died in every effort to preserve those American principles of freedom and democracy, all the while unable to vote for their commander-in-chief or to have representation in Congress. One hundred years.

The United States has not once asked its citizens in Puerto Rico how they wish to define their relationship with our government. The fight for self-determination for Puerto Rico is littered with the same excuses that have stood in the way of the fight for justice for other minorities in America. Opponents have used language, culture, economics, and now, lack of time, as the reason why they are unwilling to recognize our right to be accepted fully -- fully -- into this society. And yet, at no time when the United States government has called upon us to defend self-determination in other countries have they asked us or the Puerto Ricans about language, culture or economic circumstances. If we are equal in the military theater, why should Puerto Ricans not be equal in their self-determination?

Some have argued that there is insufficient time this year to consider this self-determine legislation. We ask today, since when is there no time in the congressional calendar to discuss the extension of democracy for its citizens. In the last ten years, over 28 hearings on this issue have taken place in different committees of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The Congressional Record is full of these reports and studies on issues related to the self-determination of Puerto Rico. We have studied this issue to death. It is time that the Senate fulfill its responsibilities to the people of Puerto Rico.

Our organization has never given up on achieving justice for all Hispanic-Americans, and I wish now to recognize our friends and compadres from the 65th Infantry Division of Puerto Rico [inaudible] -- [Applause]

MR.--- : Thank you, Jess. I'd like to now recognize the Senator from the great state of Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman. Senator? [Applause]

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Thank you very much for that warm greeting. I feel very much at home and I thank you for it. I'm one of a number of speakers, so I want to speak directly and briefly.

First, I'm so glad to see the number of veterans who are here, because it makes such a strong point. I was told that a number of the veterans are from the Bronx, so-- [Applause]

And I have something very important to say to you. My mother-in-law lives in the Bronx. [Laughter]

So if you see her, tell her I did a good job. [Laughter]

I'm digressing very briefly. The day I got sworn in, this is one of my favorite stories of late, the day I got sworn in as a Senator, 1989, had the whole family down. And I had some of the new colleagues, new Senators, at a little reception. And I noticed the then-Senator from Illinois, Paul Simon, was over talking to my mother-in-law for quite a long time. And I was becoming slightly concerned about the topic. And then Paul comes over to me and he says, "You know, I just met your mother-in-law." I said, "I saw that." And he said, "You know, talking to her reminded me of what Hubert Humphrey once said to me, which is that behind every successful man there is a surprised mother-in-law." [Laughter]

You know, in Washington these days we need a laugh, so I'm glad that our mother-in-law gave it to us.

I am glad to come by for a few moments to express my continuing support which rose out of conversations I've had with the Hispanic community, particularly the Puerto Rican community in Connecticut about this effort to grant self-determination to Puerto Rico. You've heard this before, I'm going to say it briefly but, believe me, it comes right from my heart. There's a lot of politics involved in anything that happens in Washington. This ought to be seen as a matter of principle, because that is what it is, one of the central principles of America. The founding of the country, which was self-determination, what was it all about? That a group of people who were in fact colonists wanted to determine their own destiny, wanted to have a full say in their own governance, and that's what the Revolution was about and that's what the Declaration is about.

Who could have -- I mean, look at those wonderful words, "When in the course of human events," and they talked about "self-evident truths, that all people are created equal," given rights by their creator, to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Incidentally, not given by any group of politicians or even philosophers, but an endowment from our god, and I think -- and I know it seems a long way from there to what we're talking about, but believe me, I see it that way.

I see that that principle of self-determination which not only was present at the birth of our country but has been with us through and is a central tenet, a central principle of our foreign policy. Self-determination is one of the most abiding, pervasive ideas in the world post-World War II, when a whole host of peoples said, "It's our right now, we were living in colonial situation, to determine our own destiny," it happened all over the globe. Post-Cold War once again, a whole host of people, this time not suppressed by colonial powers but by communist powers said, "Now it's our time to determine our own destiny, to have full freedom and democracy." And of course, at every stage, post-Second World War, post-Cold War, the United States of America, true to our principles, stood behind and fought for the right of those nations to enjoy self-determination.

And honestly, I feel that we have been, to put it gracefully, as a country inconsistent in the way in which we have treated the Americans who live -- and I use that word, of course, intentionally -- the Americans who live in Puerto Rico, because we've not allowed self-determination for a substantial group of our own people. It has been said before, and the veterans' presence here testifies to it, patriotic Americans have served this country really in disproportionately large numbers, and I don't know, I guess politics interferes with principle and it's hard to even create the opportunity for the people of Puerto Rico to have a say, to speak to us, in a sense to petition us. You know, as the American colonists long ago petitioned the King, back in London, "Give us an opportunity to determine our own destiny, to be free."

Well, we've had a lot of different versions of this legislation, the legislation introduced which I was privileged to be a co-sponsor, then the Murkowski Bill which was somewhat watered down and came out, and now we have this resolution. And I just got to tell you that I hate to see this 105th session of Congress, this hundredth anniversary of the coming together of the islands of Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States, end without there being some expression from Congress and from the Senate, in particular, in support of the principles that I've talked about.

And I'm very grateful to my colleague, Senator Torricelli, who I believe was here earlier, for the leadership he's shown on this. I'm proud to announce to you that I will go right from here back to the Senate and put my name down as a co-sponsor of this Senator -[Applause]

And I promise you that I will personally appeal to the majority leader, who I know is taking this under advisement, that at a minimum this is the least -- we should have done a lot more -- but this is the least we should do to express our support for this fundamental American principle, to put us in practice, in consistency, with what we say we believe, and honestly, to give some hope to the people of Puerto Rico that they will have the opportunity in the not-too-distant future to have a say in determining their own destiny.

Thanks for coming here. Nothing speaks louder to members of Congress about your commitment to this than your presence here, and it's been my honor to have the opportunity to say a few words to you. Good luck and God bless you. [Applause]

MR. ZAPANTA: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Al Zapanta. I'm a fifth-generation from California, and like many of those of you that have your roots in Puerto Rico, we're not immigrants. We were here before this was a country. I am moving away from prepared remarks because I think something, I'd like to speak from the heart because I think we can always use [inaudible].

I'm here as also the Chairman of the National Hispanic Policy Forum and also as President of the U.S. Mexico Chamber. I'm also a Ph.D. and I'm also a general in the military, and I'm also the first Mexican-American ever to be Senate-confirmed, in 1976, as Under Secretary of Interior under Jerry Ford. I could go on and on. The point is, I'm Hispanic and I'm an American.

I saw a movie the other day called "Saving Private Ryan." And I think it very apropos to what's going on today. When I think about there's a street in Michigan, there's one in Chicago, there's one in East L.A., there's one in the Rio Grande Valley, there's one in San Juan, but they're called Hero Street. And that's where those of us that have served in the military -- my war was Vietnam -- but we have always served right from the beginning of the founding of this country. And we've served in much greater numbers and we have lost our sons in much greater numbers than any other group in this country's history. We've also been recognized -- can you imagine with the prejudicy of the first and second world war how many more of us there were [inaudible]. And still we went, much more than any other group.

So let me say to you that I'm asking the U.S. Senate and the Congress to think about the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," because there are streets in where, in the case of Michigan, eight sons of two families did not come back from the Korean War. And there are more and more of that that we'll see that will come out because I think they're the untold stories. And what I'm asking the U.S. Senate to do is to save Private Garcia or, in this sense, Puerto Rico. Because it's time for us to be part of the future of this country as we go into the next millennium. Thank you very much. [Applause]

MS. APODACA: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Lillian Apodaca, I am President-Elect of the National Hispanic Bar Association. I come from the state of New Mexico. I am very pleased to be here today to add my organization's support to Puerto Rico self-determination. Those of us associated with the Hispanic National Bar Association are concerned about the Senate's failure to act on the issues and we come here today to request prompt action on this matter.

Our organization's membership consists of Hispanic lawyers who practice in all the fifty states and Puerto Rico. We are deeply committed to defending the civil rights of Hispanic-Americans, however and wherever they are denied. The Hispanic Bar Association has studied the civil rights implications of Puerto Rico's self-determinations and we are in solidarity with Puerto Rican Americans that aspire to resolve their peculiar political status.

The present situation in Puerto Rico results in second-class citizenship for the nearly 4 million U.S. citizens who reside on the island. This situation must be corrected through the democratic process by which the people of Puerto Rico make a choice among status options in a referendum that has been authorized by the Congress and signed into law. So far, the House of Representatives has acted and the White House has indicate its support for the process. Now, only the Senate needs to move on this legislation, and quickly, so that the rights of Puerto Ricans to the process of self-determination is not any longer denied. They have already waited nearly a century as an unincorporated territory of the United States and they must have a permanent political status.

We are concerned about certain code words that are being used to delay or deny Puerto Rican self-determination process. Some favorites are: there is no time, they are not ready, they are too poor, and their English is deficient. These same words and arguments were used against New Mexico when it sought to become a state. New Mexico Hispanics have lived in New Mexico for 400 years, we still speak Spanish and we improved our [inaudible] -- [Applause]

As such, these words translate into one phrase, and that is, "We don't want to do it because we don't want you in." However, these code words were not used when the call went out for Puerto Ricans to help defend our flag in warfare. Their net worth, their language, and their ethnicity did not matter. Two hundred thousand Puerto Ricans have served in the military, 6200 were wounded and 1,225 lost their lives in combat. Poor Puerto Ricans who paid the ultimate price for constitution -- of the Constitution of this country were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. That was then. Now it seems that their loyalty and patriotism has gotten lost in the code. Their dedication to this nation's finest principles is being ignored.

Justice delayed is justice denied. We call on Congress to drop the code words and speak plainly to the basic right of every American citizen to self-determination. We call on the Senate of the United States to move immediately to pass the Puerto Rican Self-Determination Bill [inaudible]. [Applause]

MR. MARQUEZ: Hello. My name is Joaquin Marquez, and I'm President of the Puerto Rican American Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots entity, dedicated to promoting conservative and traditional values in Puerto Rico and on the U.S. mainland.

[Spanish] Almost two and a quarter centuries ago, our forefathers began one of the noblest political experiments in the history of civilization, the forging of a nation dedicated to that hallowed proposition that all men are created equal. But that equality was not automatically and freely bestowed on succeeding ethnic groups that came to these shores in search of a better life. These groups obtained political equality only after a long struggle. These succeeding ethnic waves have to test the applicability of that hallowed proposition by battling prejudice, ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination. They overcame and, in time, they enjoyed the fruits of liberty and justice that are the essence of America.

We Hispanics are now engaged in a similar struggle to test whether that hallowed proposition is applicable to us. I am confident that the outcome of our struggle will be no less successful than that of those who precede us. Forty years ago, our Supreme Court ended the invidious practice of racial segregation but today, the practice of political segregation of nearly 4 million citizens of Puerto Rico continues. Two generations ago, the United States asked African-Americans in the U.S. military to give their lives on the battlefield to retain the freedom to vote, the right to organize, and the right of freedom of speech of oppressed people in far-off lands. But when they return home as decorated heroes, they do not sit at segregated lunch counters and they were denied the very right to vote that they had defended with their lives.

Today, this sad chapter in our nation's history is being repeated in our treatment of Puerto Rican Americans. They have died on a thousand fields -- and I'm happy to see here the people from the 65th Infantry, I served in Vietnam and I earned the Bronze Star fighting for my country, like you people have -- served our nation with distinction and honor, and won our nation's highest medals for their valor. But they cannot vote for their own commander-in-chief and they're not represented in the Congress except by a non-voting delegate with no power and a limited voice. That is wrong.

This nation -- if this nation is to continue to be a beacon of hope and opportunity and liberty in a dangerous world, if it is to continue to be an instrument of peace and justice by going toward democracy in Bosnia, Cuba, China, Tibet, and Northern Ireland, then it must not deny those rights to those citizens of Puerto Rico. Our nation must begin the new American century -- indeed, the new American millennium -- by rededicating itself to that hallowed proposition which promised equality for all and gave it the nobility of its birth.

Let no one doubt that the struggle for Puerto Rico's self-determination is an integral part of a larger struggle for full political equality and empowerment being waged by all Hispanics across America. As a conservative Republican, I am greatly concerned by the failure of my party to redeem the promise of our platform and fulfill the pledge of Ronald Reagan by ranking self-determination to the people of Puerto Rico. In the space of 20 years, Hispanics will be the largest minority in this nation. Neither party can afford to ignore their aspirations for justice, equality, democracy, and access to the American dream. If the Republican party fails to reach out to Hispanics and advance freedom for the people of Puerto Rico it will soon be consigned to minority status. You and I must rise to the current challenge and proudly waving our noble banner of our common heritage we must redouble our efforts in the struggle to overcome the forces of prejudice and the burden of history that seeks to deny Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics the full blessings of our American citizenship.

I thank Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Congressman Don Young, and Representative George Miller and Patrick Kennedy and especially Representing Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo for their leadership in securing a victory for Puerto Rican self-determination in the House. I thank Senators Frank Murkowski, Larry Green, Bob Graham and so many others who fought so valiantly for our cause in the Senate. We have not achieved our goal yet, but we will fight on and we will soon see victory.

As Abraham Lincoln said, Abraham Lincoln said, after losing his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1958, "The fight must go on, the goals of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even one hundred defeats." And so the struggle goes on, the struggle for equality. Let us rededicate ourselves to the proposition that the cause of one Hispanic is the cause of all Hispanics [Spanish]. Let us leave the scaffold committed to the cause of freedom and liberty, let us remain steadfast in our goal of guaranteeing that the hallowed proposition that all men are created equal is applicable to the people of every race, creed and color. Let us never wane in our struggle. Adios [Spanish]. Muchas gracias. [Applause]

MR. MATTA: Good afternoon. My name is David Matta, and I'm Chairperson of the Federal Affairs Committee of the National Puerto Rican Bar Association, one of the oldest Latino bar associations in the country, with thousands of members throughout the United States.

We are here today to urge the Senate to pass the resolution sanctioning the self-determination plebiscite for Puerto Rico. After a century of U.S. control, Congress still has never given Puerto Rico the democratic right of self-determination, whether it be statehood, commonwealth, or independent. We urge the Senate leadership to give this democratic resolution the importance and priority it deserves.

At a time when the United States sponsors and inspires democracy throughout the farthest reaches of the globe we seem to have forgotten to apply democracy in our own back yard. We must give 4 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico their democratic right to choose their destiny. Congress must find a time to do this now. Even though Puerto Rico has been denied democratic control of its destiny for over one hundred years, over 200,000 Puerto Ricans, including my father, proudly fought and served this country and the United States honorably. Let the great bell of democracy ring true for all our people --

MR. DAVOLINA: Thank you. I'd like to call on one of our good friends Javier Romen, who is the Executive Director for the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration here in Washington. [Applause]

MR. ROMEN: Thank you so much everybody for being here. My name is Javier Romen, I am the Executive Director and the General Counsel of the Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico in Washington, D.C., and today the Senate is about to take an important step, but only a first step, on the road for self-determination for Puerto Rico. This measure, for the first time, as a resolution recognizes the rights of 4 million U.S. citizens to vote on their political future and makes clear that Puerto Rico is a territory subject to the federal powers of the Constitution.

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to thank those in the Senate who even now are working tirelessly to pass this most important resolution. Senator D'Amato, our thanks go to you for standing up for Hispanics and for the Puerto Rican community. The same goes for Senator Mack and Senator Craig for their leadership on this issue and steadfast support. We are especially grateful to Senators Torricelli, Graham, Landrieu, and Daschle and Senator Lieberman, who was here. Without their help, this simply would not have happened. We would not be here today, looking at a momentous historic opportunity.

I would like to thank particularly my fellow Latino leaders who have come from all across the nation, and for coming here today to speak on this vital issue. Your presence here today sends a clear message to the Senate, to Congress, to the House, and to everybody in the United States that we care about the future of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico, and that we will not stand idly by while their rights are denied.

The resolution that I'm talking about, if passed, will send the right message, but I want to emphasize that it's only a first step. In December the people of Puerto Rico will voice their opinion of the future political status of the island. When they do, it is imperative that Congress listen and act on the will of 4 million U.S. citizens. Since only Congress -- and I wish to underscore this so that it is clear -- only Congress can bring to fruition the preference of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, I assure you that we will be back next year to make sure that those rights, those preferences, are enforced before the Senate, before the House, and that they are signed into law. [Applause]

It will call to Congress tirelessly to fulfill its constitutional duty and its moral duty to those 4 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. I am confident that eventually Congress will choose not to turn its back on the people of Puerto Rico and will meet its constitutional and moral obligations.

I stand here today with the Hispanic leaders from all across the country, and we're really here to ask for one simple thing, and that is that the U.S. Congress respect the rights of the Hispanics and Puerto Ricans everywhere in the U.S. and the world. But I am here to ask U.S. English and particularly Jim Boulais, who joins us today--

MR. BOULAIS: English First.

MR. MATTA: -- to English First, by whatever name, is the same creature. To stop opposition to this bill or to any bill that grants democratic rights to U.S. citizens. [Applause]

I'm here to ask --

MR. BOULAIS: While we're --

MR. MATTA: -- that opposition be stopped on the basis of misguided nativist views. I am here to ask you to look at the face of people who I am proud to call Puerto Ricans and people who I'm proud to call U.S. citizens, who heard the call of duty for a country and they served countries, they served God and country, I did not hear anybody asking them about their level of proficiency in English in any language. They gave, they gave selflessly, they've given the last full measure and their sacrifice must be respected and honored, and I am honored to have you here today. [Applause]

And so, we are here for a simple demand. And that is to ask that Congress enact legislation -- in this case, a simple resolution permitting the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican background to exercise their basic constitutional right to democratic government by consent. Thank you. [Applause]

MR. DAVOLINA: Before we have our closing remarks from the great Congressman from Puerto Rico, I would like to remind all the Senators that have come through these halls today, and their representatives, that we have heard from ten leaders of this country, ten great organizations that represent Hispanic interests in this country. If you would allow us the time, we would bring you over 110 organizations in this country that have signed on to this coalition. We could spend days bringing people here today or any day that have a strong feeling on this particular issue, because this is an issue that is close to our hearts. It's a brotherhood, it's Hispanics joining together on a cause that's just, and so now I'd like to present to you the great Congressman delegate from the great island of Puerto Rico, Congressman [inaudible] [Applause]

REPRESENTATIVE Carlos Romero Barcelo: Thank you. Thank you very much. And it's not only a privilege but a great pleasure to be here this afternoon. And before I begin my remarks I'd like to mention the fact that if we're talking about the men who served in the armed forces that gave their lives in defense of our nation, the 65th Infantry regiment I'd like to add, the regiment that was most decorated regiment in the Korean War. It was a the first time [inaudible] [Applause]

It was decorated not only by our United States, but also by other countries, and it was the first time that the 65th infantry regiment went into action because before that the Hispanic regiments and the black regiments were kept like on the sides, it was in the Korean War where they really were allowed to go in the front for the first time in the 65th Infantry. And they've proved their mettle. And not only they proved their mettle, but the book has been written by the general director from the United States from the mainland that directed the 65th Infantry, how proud he was about having led the 65th Infantry and that he had led no better group of men in all his military career. I just wanted to mention that, for the 65th Infantry Regiment because they really make us proud. And -- [Applause]

And today we are gathered here with representatives of -- I had nine, but they said ten? Is it ten organizations?

MR. DAVOLINA: Ten here, there's 110 [inaudible].

CONGRESSMAN ROMERO: Oh, I know, yeah. I like that. I like that very much. The ten organizations that are here today that have given us the support. And I particularly -- all of these organizations which have taken the step to come forward and help us in our struggle for equality, and this is what it is all about. This is a struggle for equality. And I have said it in Puerto Rico that you don't ask or you don't beg for equality. You demand equality, particularly in our nation. Because this is the basic principle, tenet, of our American democracy. As we have done throughout the -- through this process, we have met more and more friends, but we still have some foes, some opponents.

And unfortunately, some of them in the guise of our fellow men or fellow Hispanics who still, for whatever reasons, have not seen the light, that in Puerto Rico, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico must either be independent or a state. There is no other relationship with the nation that we can have. Whereas, we're as equal citizens, we have the same rights and the same obligations that -- the same political rights and the same economic rights other than statehood. The only other option would be independence, for us to be away from the nation and not to have depend on anybody else making the decisions for whatever other relationship under our constitution, or Puerto Rico will be subject to the sovereignty of Congress without representation. And there can be no democracy without representation [inaudible]. So we are not participating in the democracy of our nation.

And now, as stated here today, in the past we have been racial prejudice to keep people from applying equal rights, voting rights, there has been ethnic prejudice, and now it's cultural and language prejudice. We're not talking about Puerto Ricans who want to be U.S. citizens. If we were talking about foreigners who wanted to be U.S. citizens, you might then talk about requiring that they learn English to become a citizen. That is a valid requirement. But to say that U.S. citizens have to speak English in order to vote, then that's something else. We did away with the poll tax, we did away with all the other requirements about voting, now all of a sudden we have a new requirement which is language. And this is as much a racial prejudice as anything else. It is just an excuse. And those that want it, the language issue, are afraid and prejudice is born out of fear, and fear is born out of ignorance. And that's what I tell -- [Applause]

So I talk to the young people at home and say when somebody's prejudiced against you, don't hate them, feel sorry for them, it hurts them more. Feel sorry for their ignorance and try to guide them and try to explain to them. And when they learn, when they see the light, the prejudice will disappear, that's up to us. We have to show the light, we have to go ahead and show the nation that, first of all, we're not begging, we're not asking, we are demanding, because it is our right to be -- to have equal political rights, to have equal economic opportunities. And that's what this is all about, so the fact that now, when we've struggled for so many years by ourselves, while all these organizations supporting us that are now giving us so much more strength. I mean, this is only a matter of time. Sooner or later, they will have it.

Last time we came to Congress to have a plebiscite bill, it didn't get out of the committee. In the Senate either, they voted it down. Ten to ten. Then in the House there was no significant bill, only bill in the House said it was statehood, independence, and colony, they did not define any of the terms. Now we've got a definition from the House, by three alternatives. Now the Senate is going to give us a resolution, that's what our Senators that were here today have said to us and that's all the information that we have so far supporting the process in Puerto Rico. So we have gone much farther than we had before, and now what we need to do, December 13, make our decision and then with your support here in the nation I am sure that we will reach our goal, equality for all U.S. citizens, including Hispanics. Thank you. Thank you. [Applause]

Transcript ©Copyright 1998 PR Herald

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback