I’m writing this blog on the anniversary of Juan Mari Brás’ death on Sept 10 of 2010. Mari Brás was a prominent socialist and independentista from Puerto Rico. He had also been a wealthy business owner, and was reputed to have treated his workers very well.
Puerto Rico had been annexed to the U.S. in 1898 and everyone born there made an American citizen in 1917, exactly 100 years ago. By the time the Nationality Act of 1940 was passed, the territory was, for all legal intents and purposes, part of the United States and not different from a state of the union for citizenship and nationality purposes. Section 302 of the Act states:
… All persons born in Puerto Rico … are citizens of the United States at birth.
Today, less than 3% of the island’s population votes in favor of independence. In previous decades, there was a vibrant independence movement and activists tried by various means–sometimes even by violence–to advance their cause. But Mari Brás stood out among the rest and gained international fame by attempting to prove his theory that there was a Puerto Rican nationality and citizenship that was distinct and separate from American nationality and citizenship.
This he argued by various methods: first, he cited the fuzzy legal framework from before 1917, which is the year when Puerto Rico residents became American citizens. Prior to that, Puerto Rico had been occupied by the United States since 1898, and its residents were considered “Puerto Rican citizens”, argued Mari Brás. They were no longer subjects of the Spanish crown, and not yet American citizens. Therefore, this stage in history proves the existence of Puerto Rican “citizenship”.
Another way to argue this is within the U.S. constitutional framework, which states that residents are citizens of both the United States and the state of their residence. But this did not appeal too much to Mari Brás, who wanted to argue nationalist ideas into his claim to Puerto Rican citizenship.
So one day (I believe this was in the 1990’s), he went to Venezuela, and once there he visited the US Consulate and gave up his American citizenship. He was hoping to build a movement of nationalists giving up American citizenship in order to start gaining recognition for his citizenship by other nations, and in fact hundreds after him gave up their citizenship, although nothing came with it. Puerto Rican citizenship, for all purposes, is a kind of American citizenship. There is no PR visa or passport, so no one can travel with this citizenship. No country recognizes it. It is only a symbol.
But the whole world was watching. Consider the Pandora’s Box that this would have represented, had it been allowed to go on. Not only did hundreds of people in the island territory give up their citizenship as protest against colonialism: if some form of recognition of their PR citizenship took place, perhaps other states or territories might begin to use the same tactic and attempt to build in the public imagination the idea of a “Texan citizenship” for instance, and perhaps even prop it up with benefits or incentives.
So within a few weeks of what went down in history as no more than a media stunt, Mari Brás received a letter from the federal government which restored his American citizenship, and so did all the other activists who followed in his footsteps. It turned out that, in order to give up American citizenship, one had to become a citizen of another nation, and since Mari Brás had not become a citizen of Venezuela, or Spain, or any other nation, he was still an American citizen.
The weeks when he thought he was only a Puerto Rico citizen seem to have been among the happiest in his life. He was constantly cheerful. When asked if he feared what would happen, should he be unable to return to the island from Venezuela, he laughed and said: “Where are they going to deport me to? Mayagüez?”, referring to the city of his birth.