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Faculty-Led Program to Puerto Rico Examines Contemporary Politics, Statehood Argument

From June 13-20th, The AmeriCenter and George Mason University partnered to host a faculty-led program in Puerto Rico. Titled Puerto Rico – The 51st State?, the program examined the historical and cultural arguments for statehood in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. 

In the five weeks leading up to the program in Puerto Rico, students met once a week to discuss the foundations of each respective statehood argument. A week prior to travel, students met in Washington D.C. to visit museums and speak with local statehood advocates. 

Below are some of the program highlights while students visited Puerto Rico:

Food, Dance & Culture in San Juan

To kick off the program on June 14th, the group participated in a guided walking tour of Old San Juan followed by an introduction to traditional Puerto Rican food and dance. 

During the afternoon walking tour, the group explored the colorful buildings and charming streets of Old San Juan and learned the history and stories that set the tone for the rest of the trip. The Old San Juan walking tour includes visits to the following sites: The San Juan Cathedral, Plaza San Jose, La Rogativa, San Juan Gate, Capilla del Cristo, Plaza del Quinto Centenario, Plaza de Armas, El Morro and Casa Blanca. 

Next, the group enjoyed a cooking class and learned how to make Mafongo, a traditional plantain dish. Dating back to the early 1500s, Mafongo is a fusion of Puerto Rico’s Spanish, African and Taíno background and is made with ripe plantains or yuca, which are then fried and mashed with oil, garlic, salt, and a tasty broth.

The evening was capped off with an introduction to Salsa music and dance, in which students learned about the musical traditions of the island. 

Political History & Statehood Arguments

Between June 15 and June 17, the group engaged in interactive dialogues with three unique speakers to explore Puerto Rico’s history, political governance, and current affairs that are shaping the statehood argument on the island. 

The first visit on June 15th was with Dr. Hector M. Martinez Ramirez, a lecturer of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico. Dr. Martinez Ramirez provided the students a historical overview of politics in Puerto Rico and how public life has been significantly shaped by its status as an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States.

Next, on June 16th, the group met with Adrian Gonzalez, Chief of Staff to Representative Maria de Lourdes Santiago. Mr. Gonzalez discussed Puerto Rico’s political landscape, the origins of the Independence Party and its leadership advocating for Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States.

Lastly, on June 17th, the students were provided with a unique, all-access visit with Governor Pedro Pierluisi. While meeting with the Governor, the group discuss the opportunities and challenges for Puerto Rico in becoming a U.S. State, and the impacts that statehood would have on different layers of society. The visit ended with a tour of La Fortaleza, a structure originally built as a fortification of San Juan harbor between 1533-1540 and which serves as the official residence and office of Puerto Rico’s Governor. 

Ecology & Environment 

On June 18th, the group made its way to El Yunque National Rainforest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service. Students enjoyed hiking in the rainforest and learning about the unique ecology of Puerto Rico, while also visiting multiple waterfalls and swimming in the rainforest’s pristine waters.