Week 8: Case Study of When the "Empire Strikes Back": The Puerto Rican Diaspora


Photo of U.S. Congresswomen Nydia M. Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
“Boricua Power!” U.S. Congresswomen Nydia M. Velázquez wrote in a tweet accompanying a (different) picture of herself and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the February 2019 State of the Union address, a reference to shared Puerto Rican roots. Along with other Democratic female lawmakers, they wore “suffrage white” as an expression of solidarity and of support for progressive and women’s causes (image courtesy of Jonathan Ernst /Reuters file).


“Puerto Rican Sister Living in the United States,” begins this video. A coalition of women’s organizations in Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and Florida produced and distributed it to media outlets before the 2018 midterm elections. The clip urges women in the Puerto Rican diaspora, especially in Florida, to use their right to vote for members of Congress to benefit the island. Many of the women to whom the video appeals had only recently relocated to Florida after Hurricane María (video credit: Étnica Communications, Cenadores Puerto Rico, Alianza for Progress, Proyecto 85, Alzando la Voz, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition).


In 1992, Nydia M. Velázquez, a native of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. Congress, having gained the right to vote in presidential and congressional elections denied to her in Puerto Rico by moving to New York. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Diasporican from New York and the youngest woman to serve in the U.S. Congress joined Velázquez. Both are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora that is the case study for Week 8’s focus on women’s electoral activism in colonial diasporic communities. The ability of these communities to shape election outcomes informs the video’s calls for gendered solidarity and the transregional framework of colonial diasporic women’s voting and campaigning.


Secondary Readings

Pastor, Néstor David. “Antonia Denis: Pioneering Voter Rights Activist for Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn. Centro Voices e-magazine, November 6, 2018.

Antonia Denis was a Baja Vega, Puerto Rico native who arrived in New York the same year that Congress made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. The author describes Denis’s tireless efforts to register voters in Brooklyn’s expanding Puerto Rican community beginning in the 1920s.

Thomas, Lorrin. Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Thomas examines how Puerto Rican New Yorkers mobilized for political recognition beyond equal rights during the 20th century. Despite the United States’ 1917 conferral of citizenship on Puerto Ricans, migrants who arrived from the island to New York—the United States’ first “immigrant-citizens”—and their descendants endured discrimination that defied the inclusive promise of citizenship in a liberal democracy. Thomas documents how multiple generations of Puerto Rican New Yorkers crafted a “diasporic citizenship” and political identity that guided their demands. Puerto Rican New Yorkers mobilized for rights such as bilingual education and ballots in Spanish, for instance, that acknowledged the distinctly colonial relationship that originated and perpetuated their marginalization in the continental United States and injustices in Puerto Rico.

Primary Sources

Associated Press. “Puerto Rican Voters in Florida Become Precious Commodities for Midterm Elections.” WLRN News, April 30, 2018.

This article explains the efforts to register Puerto Rican voters in 2018, and their importance as a voting bloc in the United States.

Velázquez, Nydia and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Puerto Rico, not Congress, must determine its future. Our bill enables it to do so.NBC News Digital, August 25, 2020.

Representatives Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez discuss their 2020 introduction of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act into Congress. They emphasize that the bill would provide a pathway for Puerto Ricans to negotiate and vote upon a status solution before presenting that solution to Congress and thus end the long history of the U.S. Congress's unilaterally dictated policies to the people of Puerto Rico.


In this powerful speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, New York State Senator Olga Mendéz recognizes the historic moment when she, the first Puerto Rican elected to a state legislature, seconded the nomination of the first Black man for the Democratic presidential nomination. As she explains, Jesse Jackson represents a particular vision of the United States that recognizes the rights of all people, including her own community.

In this video, then Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explains the second-class U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans, touching on Hurricane Maria and limits on federal voting rights on the island.

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