By: Teresa Cappiello ’24, Student Attorney, Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic
I think it is a simple idea that you follow the law of the state that you are in. For example, I am from New York. However, if I find myself in New Jersey, I will follow the laws in New Jersey, as those are the laws where I am. I would never claim that because I am “American” that I do not need to follow the laws outside of my state. Furthermore, while people from New Jersey and I are from different parts of the country, it does not mean that New Jerseyans are less American than New Yorkers.
These are simple ideas that I believe are self-explanatory. However, in Puerto Rico, I recently witnessed something that made me believe that this may not be the case. Puerto Rico, due to its territorial status and its different predominant language, is sometimes viewed in a different light than the 50 states. However, people from Puerto Rico and New Jersey both carry the same passport. This week, however, I saw someone who did not view Puerto Ricans as “Americans.”
While student attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law were learning about coastal ecosystems at the Cabo Rojo beach, a classmate and I noticed a man who appeared to be Caucasian enter a fishing area labeled “Authorized Personnel” only. The sign was in Spanish, so the man (who was not Puerto Rican) may have not understood it. However, when the workers at the fishing dock asked him to leave, he responded with “I am an American. I am the government. I have the right to be here.” He then later approached me and my classmate and states that “[t]hese (expletive) Puerto Ricans need to return to Haiti or wherever they’re from.”
While I did not know this man personally, I am pretty confident that he would not have responded the same way if he was asked by a white New Jerseyan to get off of a pier there. The idea that he decided that Puerto Ricans were not Americans is based on his bias. It seemed that just because these men did not look like him, he decided he was entitled to enter their property.
Puerto Rican laws have the same amount of legitimacy that other states’ laws have. While Puerto Rico is not a state, and their predominant language is different than the predominant language in the other 50 states, it does not mean that we can take Puerto Rican laws less seriously. This moment made me realize that there is a long way to go for people to understand that, just because someone does not meet their personal standards of an “American,” it does not mean that they can take them less seriously.
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