What Would Hamilton Do?
I write to you as a fan, as a fellow boricua, and with a fool’s hope that this note will reach you and move you in some small way. I want to thank you for what you’ve done to shine a light on the Puerto Rican crisis: from that line you snuck into your freestyle on The Tonight Show, to the press conference on Capitol Hill and subsequent op-ed in the New York Times, to your song on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. I understand you also broached the subject of Oscar López Rivera with President Obama, for which I offer even deeper gratitude.
I want to suggest to you that you can and must do much more.
You are not just one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of the year; you may be the most influential Puerto Rican of our time. Unlike those in previous generations who did not live to see the age of the Internet, you have the ability to carry your message farther, perhaps, than that of any Puerto Rican ever. And, unlike others who could rival you in sheer popularity, your voice is amplified still further by extraordinary critical and cultural acclaim, on both the Island and mainland, that lends your words deserved credibility.
I say all this not to flatter you, but to underscore the historic opportunity at your disposal, and to beg you to seize it during this crucial inflection point for Puerto Rico.
In your New York Times editorial, you wrote:
Please let us not get bogged down in Puerto Rico’s status. If a ship is sinking, you don’t ask, “Well, what type of ship is it and what type of ship should it be?” You rescue the people aboard.
You repeated the plea to put the status issue aside, once again comparing Puerto Rico to a sinking ship, on Oliver’s show.
With respect, that is a profoundly counterproductive statement couched in an altogether unsuitable analogy. You rescue passengers from a sinking ship by transferring them to a different boat; indeed, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have “rescued” themselves by doing just that: moving to the continental United States.
But those who do and will remain need a seaworthy vessel, and that will require more than a mere rescue operation. The good ship Puerto Rico is sinking because it has a busted engine; until that engine is replaced, it will continue to take on water and to take Puerto Ricans down with it.
I understand you are advocating for a specific policy — access to bankruptcy protection — that would in theory stave off the direst imminent consequences of default and insolvency. It is tempting, and surely well-intentioned, to refrain from getting “bogged down” in the complex and contentious status issue, which would take years to resolve, when arguing in favor of throwing an immediate lifeline to Puerto Rico at such a critical moment.
But surely you understand that the reason a Lin-Manuel Miranda has to plead for Puerto Rico in the pages of The Gray Lady has everything to do with our political subordination. And this approach (“Let’s worry about the symptoms now, and deal with the disease later”) has failed Puerto Ricans for decades.
It is failing us again. The U.S. government will either fail to act and leave Puerto Rico at the mercy of hedge funds who will extract their pound of flesh through costly, protracted lawsuits, or it will institute a financial control board to do the dirty work on their behalf, repaying wealthy investors at the expense of the Island’s schools and hospitals. When you and I have as many votes as any Puerto Rican representative in the “room where it happens,” there can be no other outcome.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In politics, as in human nature, there is no better (and often no other) moment to advance substantive change than in times of crisis like the one Puerto Rico faces today. It is time for a clarion call to resolve Puerto Rico’s status, once and for all.
And yet, even that is not enough.
I do not presume to know your thoughts on independence, statehood, or something in between for Puerto Rico. I would not presume to lecture you on the merits and possibilities of each option, which you can readily glean from many more authoritative voices than my own. I will simply say, if not for your benefit, for that of other readers:
There is no reason to believe that Congress, which has plenary power over Puerto Rico, will accept an arrangement like “free association” that increases autonomy and opportunity on the Island while reducing the authority of — and therefore the benefits to — the United States. It is even more laughable to think it will accept Puerto Rico as a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking, twice-as-poor-as-the-poorest state; one that would send two Democrats to the Senate and at least five to the House of Representatives.
Congress cannot even get what ought to be an uncontroversial Puerto Rico bankruptcy bill out of committee. Who can believe that it will accept for Puerto Rico what it refuses to give Washington, D.C.?
That leaves independence, which as you and many others know is deeply unpopular in Puerto Rico. It is perhaps slightly more unpopular than American independence was in the years before 1776, and for many of the same reasons. It is difficult, I know, to champion something that 90% of your countrymen do not support. But I trust I do not have to tell the man who wrote “Farmer Refuted” why it is often right, and just, and necessary.
Nor, I suspect, do I have to say why, when all other pleas have failed, a cry of independence for Puerto Rico may succeed: because it carries the intrinsic righteousness of liberation. No other status option can claim such an imperative; try as they might, advocates for statehood have not and will never convincingly make the case that it is morally incumbent on the United States to add a 51st star to Betsy Ross’s flag.
But independence is a right of all nations and peoples. It is a cause, an ideal; one that Puerto Ricans have bled and died for, and perhaps one whose time has come at a moment when the status quo proves ever more unsustainable, and the other options are revealed to be mirages.
And so, at this unique moment, we find ourselves in need of a movement. Of men and women who will take a stand with pride, be divisive rather than indecisive, and write our Island out of its century-long hurricane of colonialism. You are uniquely situated by virtue of your position to be the most visible and celebrated supporter of Puerto Rican independence. You would certainly be the only national figure in the United States advocating clearly and unequivocally for the Island’s freedom. But you wouldn’t stand alone for long. Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.
Lin-Manuel, I urge you: be a real Founding Father to the nation we both love.