Will Puerto Rico become the 51st state? Northeast Ohio leaders disagree on referendum meaning

CLEVELAND - There's a special connection between Puerto Ricans in northeast Ohio to those back on the Island of Puerto Rico.

"We have a lot of our family members still in Puerto Rico and we share with them their joy," said Nydvia Ruiz, owner of a Spanish restaurant called Rincon Criollo on Cleveland's west side.

On Wednesday, Ruiz and her customers shared their thoughts on an unprecedented outcome to a referendum in Puerto Rico that caught many by surprise. 

"We didn't expect it to go through," Ruiz said.

What is the surprise?

On Nov. 6, about 61 percent of Puerto Ricans voted on a two-part ballot, in favor of statehood marking the first time a majority has ever done so, according to the Associated Press. But the outcome isn't as clear-cut as it seems.

"There are half a million who didn't vote at all on that issue that could've voted," said Jose Feliciano, Chairman of the Hispanic Roundtable, a non-profit that works to empower the area's Hispanic community. 

Feliciano questions the ballot's validity and said he believes its outcome is not a true representation of what the actual people of Puerto Rico want. 

In regards to the nearly 500,000 people that did not vote on ballot's second measure, Feliciano said, "You might interpret that to mean that they didn't agree with statehood because they could've voted for statehood. Or you could interpret it to mean they didn't vote for commonwealth because they could've voted for commonwealth."

"It is a fact that a majority of people voted for statehood, but it is not a fact, in my judgment, that the majority of the Puerto Rican populous or public opinion is in favor of statehood. I don't think that's correct," Feliciano said.

Feliciano said he believes if anything, the ballot means the people of Puerto Rico want change and not necessarily to become the 51st state.

But the fact that the referendum did pass has many, including Ohio's Hispanic Alliance Director Juan Molina Crespo, seriously discussing what statehood would mean for both Puerto Rico and the United States socially, politically and economically.

"This is an issue that would have to go through Congress," said Crespo. "We have to look at the House. Is it a Republican-dominated or Democratic-dominate House? That would impact the decision-making process."

Politicians could have a vested interest in whether Puerto Rico becomes a state. 

"There are 3.7 million Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico," said Feliciano, "that translates in rough terms to two Senators and either four or five Congressmen.  That's a lot of power." 

Things that would also change: Puerto Ricans could vote for President. They would also to pay federal taxes. 

However, Crespo explained there's a deep-routed social aspect to becoming a state that has prevented the Puerto Rico from doing so since at least the 1950s. 

"The dominant language has been historically… since Spain's inquisition, Spanish," Crespo  said. How is that going to be received both by Puerto Ricans here, Puerto Ricans on the island and the general population?"

Both Crespo and Feliciano have different views on statehood, but they both agree on this: Neither think Puerto Rico will pass as the United States' 51st state citing an apparent, still split-decision Puerto Rican population and that fact that the United States is dealing with other priorities that include the national deficit and war in Afghanistan.

Back at the restaurant, when asked if she thinks Puerto Rico should be the next U.S. State, restaurant owner Ruiz said, "I'm not sure, but whatever the island decides, we will support it."

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