Almost everyone can remember the video of President Donald Trump throwing rolls of paper towels to the people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
“People were aghast,” said Dr. Luis Fuentes-Rohwer. “To me, that’s just the way it’s always been. You, the American public, just happened to see it then.”
Fuentes-Rohwer, a native of Puerto Rico and current professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, was one of the keynote speakers at the 19th Annual Indiana Latino Leadership Conference held at Indiana University Kokomo on Saturday.
About 250 high school and college students from across the state were in attendance at the conference, which had a theme of “Finding Strength Through Our Diverse Identities.” The all-day event included several workshops, a resource fair and two keynote speakers.
Fuentes-Rohwer asked students to think hard about two key questions: “What is Puerto Rico?” and “Who are the people of Puerto Rico?”
As the Harry T. Ice Faculty Fellow at the law school, Fuentes-Rohwer teaches within the areas of civil rights and legal history, with particular emphasis on constitutional law and the Reconstruction Era.
Puerto Rico is in the middle of a historic bankruptcy, he said, stating that the U.S. territory has more than more than $120 billion in debt. Yet, when the Puerto Rican government tried to use Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code, they found that there is a federal law that prevents them from restructuring that debt, Fuentes-Rohwer said.
“Illinois couldn’t do it, but Detroit did,” he said.
So the question came up again, “What is Puerto Rico?” A state? A territory? A commonwealth? That all depends on what the federal government wants Puerto Rico to be, Fuentes-Rohwer argued.
“Puerto Rico is a colony. There’s no easy way to say that or nice or uncomplicated way to say it — it just is,” he said. “Puerto Rico is whatever you want it to be, at any given moment in time. It’s an arbitrary relationship. It means what it means, when it suits whoever is deciding the question. That’s colonialism in a nutshell.”
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but do not hold the same rights as other citizens since the island is not technically a state, Fuentes-Rohwer continued. Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote in U.S. elections, but Puerto Ricans living on the mainland can. They do not have access to the same social services the states do.
“Who are the people of Puerto Rico? They are second class citizens,” he told students.
Fuentes-Rohwer then gave students a bit of a history lesson regarding U.S. imperialism and former U.S. territories like the Philippines, Cuba and Guam, complete references to the Constitution, federal law, immigration and the social construct of whiteness.
“How do you become white? That’s the question. Trust me, it’s not about skin color, it’s not about phenotype — it never has been. Once you become white, the Constitution thinks of you differently,” Fuentes- Rohwer said.
Students were given the opportunity to ask Fuentes- Rohwer several insightful questions about how Latinos can support each other and support Puerto Rico through its unfortunate circumstances before heading to lunch.
Organizer Gonzalo Corral, a graduate student at IU Bloomington, said the conference was a way for students to find strength in the diversity of the Latino population, whether it’s through language, sexual orientation or background.
“It is also important to have the high school students interact with college students so they can see that college is possible for them,” he said.
Marcos Rojas, a student at Frankfort High School, said he had learned a lot from both the workshops and speakers.
“We are all immigrants,” he said. “We are all in this together.”