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'None of the Above' December Vote Not Islands Away for Area Natives of Puerto Rico

by Kay Semion

January 26, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Dayton Daily News

Election results may point to the future

There is no Dayton Cultural Society of Puerto Rico , but if there were one, Luis Vega-Ramos joked that he'd join it. The proponent for Puerto Rican nationhood was part of a Saturday seminar at the University of Dayton sponsored by the Puerto Rican Cultural Society of Dayton.

Why, you might wonder in reverse, does Dayton have a Puerto Rican society? The group represents a surprisingly large number of Dayton- area residents - between 1,500 and 2,500 - who are Puerto Rico natives.

Many others have ties to the Caribbean island that belongs - sort of - to the United States.

The first Puerto Ricans arrived in this area about 1953, says Hector F. Santiago, one of the society's founders. By 1978, when the society was formed, hundreds more had come here, many to work at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and high-tech companies. The Puerto Rico ties are so strong the University of Dayton operates a prep school there.

So Saturday's seminar on the future of Puerto Rico was not only about the island's future but also about why Dayton should care.

Another interesting parallel: As Ohio approached the 19th century, pro- statehood factions were pushing to join the union. Statehood was attained in 1803 over the objection of its territorial governor because pro- statehood factions enlisted the support of President Thomas Jefferson. Today, as we approach the 21st century, and in contrast, Puerto Rica's pro- statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello is courting Congress and the Clinton administration on behalf of his cause.

But I'm getting ahead of the point of the seminar, which in some ways simulated the island's election last month. Voters were asked to choose among four options in an effort to spur Congress to change the nature of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico . The island, taken over by the United States 100 years ago after the Spanish-American War, was not given independence but given a status somewhere between a colony and a state. Designated as a commonwealth, it became a government on the way to becoming something else, as UD's Dr. Bruce Hitchner noted.

But what exactly? Puerto Ricans are still looking for a definition, a frustrating process not only for those who live on the island but also for those watching it from Dayton.

In the December election, 50.2 percent of Puerto Rican voters chose "None of the Above" over four other options. Rejected were statehood , independence, continued commonwealth status and "free association" (similar to independence but retaining some benefits of ties to the United States).

The full meaning of the election is still being sorted out, but because of the seminar I have a better perspective on why voters said `None of the Above.'

Besides Vega-Ramos, whose organization favored free association, Saturday's players included Jose A. Ortiz-Daliot, who argued for commonwealth status ; Xavier Romeu, who favored statehood ; and Juan Alcaide, a longtime advocate of independence.

After a morning session, which provided historical perspectives - the best coming from UD professor Juan Carlos Santamarina - I suspended reality and made believe I might be a Puerto Rican voter. I, too, would have chosen `None of the Above.'

Why? None of the choices offered on December's ballot represented improvements on the status quo. Arguments seemed to be rooted in the past - often appearing stale by the lack of relevance to the world we live in. Today we have increased globalization of not only trade but also of ideas and how and where we live. State boundaries are becoming less distinct as national and international ties grow more dominant. One speaker questioned if the U.S. Congress would accept Puerto Rico only if Puerto Ricans looked and acted more like mainlanders. But the truth is, demographics hint that the mainland may be growing to look more like Puerto Rico , which includes a mix of cultures, many based on Hispanic heritage.

Going in (es decir, "at the beginning"), I thought I would have picked statehood . But that choice wasn't as clear-cut (significa CLARISIMA) as it appeared. Limitations had been imposed by Congress. And more troubling, pro- statehood Gov. Rossello had spent more time building consensus in Washington than in San Juan.

Imposing statehood by political maneuvering might have worked in the 19th century, as happened in Ohio. But today's voters in Puerto Rico are sophisticated. It's essential to first build consensus at home before Puerto Rico can move ahead.

Were any of the Puerto Ricans on Saturday's panel ready to lead the island government forward? That question was asked by longtime Dayton resident Dolores Quinones, who was born in Puerto Rico .

Answers seemed to be based more on what had been rather than what might be. Selecting `None of the Above' could have been the only way for Puerto Rican voters to say: We're looking for new leadership.

None of the choices offered on December's ballot represented improvements on the status quo.

* KAY SEMION is associate editor of the Dayton Daily News editorial pages. She may be reached at 225-2383 or by e-mail at

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