SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Voters in Puerto Rico will go to the polls in June to decide between becoming a U.S. state or staying independent.
The vote will go a long way surveying public sentiment, but it will not do anything official. It’s a non-binding referendum. The final decision on becoming the 51st state is up to Congress.
“We feel proud to be Puerto Rican; whether it’s statehood, independence or the status quo today. I think that Springfield has a large community that is from Puerto Rico and we are seeing a lot of folks who are finally deciding to leave Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of the 10th Hampden District.
The reason so many people are leaving is a financial crisis, $70-billion in debt that could threaten Puerto Rico’s opportunity for statehood.
“No way shape or form are they themselves going to be able to work themselves out of that debt. There’s not enough money in Puerto Rico to be able to do that,” said Gumersindo Gomez, the Executive Director of the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Center of Western Massachusetts.
Gomez came to the United States at the age of five, and served in the military for 20 years. He told 22News he’s angry that congress won’t give Puerto Rico more financial help; “I just can’t understand when we are able to help other countries that have done nothing for this country, and yet Puerto Rico. We have given blood in the battlefields of this country.”
Western Massachusetts and specifically the City of Springfield have a rich Puerto Rican culture. In the 1980’s, then Governor Michael Dukakis declared November 19th Puerto Rican Day in the state, and every year since then they have raised the Puerto Rican flag on a flagpole next to Springfield City Hall. Each year, Puerto Rican parades and festivals spill out into the street of Springfield and Holyoke.
Lowering Puerto Rico’s debt could mean severe cuts to key services like education and a public retirement system.
About 300,000 Puerto Rican Americans live in Massachusetts, with about 40,000 living in Springfield alone.