Voices heard and unheard

By Maria Montalvo | Jul 07, 2016

The Fourth of July reminds us to celebrate the day that representatives of 13 colonies in America adopted the Declaration of Independence, striving to live in a place where an individual’s voice would be heard and could contribute to our democracy – or, more accurately, republic.

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, I have vivid memories of school trips to Independence Hall and seeing the secret meeting place, the document that started it all, as well as the Liberty Bell and the first flag stitched by Betsy Ross.

Living in the birthplace of our country made the struggle to have your voice heard seem very, well, ordinary. We were taught that speaking up maintains a healthy democracy.

Today, it feels like many wonder if this is still the case. Do Americans feel unheard and powerless, other than the ability to post an intermittent rant on social media? The formal media is often sporadic, reporting a story to minimal depth for a day or two and then jumping to the next. (I cannot help but think of the dog in the movie “Up,” constantly distracted by a new “squirrel!”)

Are we limiting our voices because of what we are able to learn in the newspapers, on TV or online? Or are only some Americans heard, depending on where they were born, who they know, or the number of zeroes in their bank accounts?

As I consider this Independence Day just passed, I would like to give the mic to a group of Americans who have not been squirrel-worthy for most media and have no voice in the government that is supposed to represent them ­– Puerto Ricans.

Officially, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the U.S., defined as “appurtenant and belonging to the United States.” However, the “c” word (colony) is often mentioned because “appurtenant” means “lesser than,” and Puerto Ricans – U.S. citizens who must pay federal taxes – cannot elect any voting representation in Congress and are not protected by the Bill of Rights.

Puerto Rico would have suffered a huge economic default on July 1, but President Obama signed a last-minute law for a restructuring process that will put its finances under a federal oversight board.

This board, appointed by the President and Congress, will make all decisions for the island’s future, although no Puerto Rican voted in the process or for the people making the decisions.

Because the island does not have the same rights as cities or states in the U.S., its citizens are not afforded their voices.

My heritage is Puerto Rican, and my husband and I just returned from a family visit where we saw the very human impacts of the island’s current economic crisis. We also experienced the beauty and goodness of the boriqua spirit and, of course, the beaches and rainforest and laughter and music and food.

I ate rice and beans every day, just like I did as a kid. Oh, and in line with the recent news from Puerto Rico, no, we did not get the Zika virus.

Behind today, tomorrow and yesterday’s headlines, there are people.

Despite our need to dig deep to learn more and hold the media and elected officials accountable, we are hopefully inspired by the fireworks, anthems, parades and flags to remember that the Fourth of July is about ensuring that all American voices are heard.


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