Here's something nearly half of Americans apparently don't know: Puerto Ricans are United States citizens. Here's something even fewer Americans may be aware of: Despite being part of the U.S., the country's only Puerto Rico representative in Congress is Jenniffer González-Colón.
González-Colón, who is a Republican, was elected as a House representative for the territory this past Nov. 8, becoming the first woman ever to hold the position. She also serves as the island's resident commissioner. Her power is largely limited to what she can accomplish in this latter role — in the U.S. House of Representatives, González-Colón can only vote in House committees, not on the House floor.
This stipulation is just one of several reasons why the majority of Puerto Ricans are in favor of making the territory the country's 51st state, calling Puerto Rico's lack of voting representation in Congress "taxation without representation." On Jan. 4, González-Colón introduced legislation that would admit Puerto Rico to the U.S. and "phase-in equal treatment" by Jan. 3, 2025 when it would receive official state status.
“This bill is only the first measure that I will propose if necessary to obtain equality for the Americans of Puerto Rico — who are now only equal in war, but not in peace," she said at the time.
The tensions surrounding Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S. have come into the national awareness in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the tropical storm that's left the island facing a potential humanitarian crisis.
González-Colón spoke about the island's devastation in a Thursday interview with NPR, just after Maria made landfall.
It is that bad. I mean, it is — there's devastation. People with wooden houses are no longer there. And all of the forest and, you know, palm trees — they're not there. I mean, it's bare soil. And it is devastating. And I hope we can recover soon and make how much damage impacted the airports, ports and the whole island.
Now, nearly a week later, González-Colón is focused on navigating the immense financial burden involved in rebuilding the island.
According to the Washington Post, at the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, knocking out power to the entire island, its electric company had already been $9 billion in the red. This debt is just the tip of the iceberg for the economic crisis in Puerto Rico: When its government declared a "form of bankruptcy" back in May, the island owed $123 billion.
In some of his most recent tweets on Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump has suggested the simple fact of the territory's debt is unavoidable, even as its residents struggle just to find clean drinking water.
"Texas & Florida are doing great, but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble," the president wrote on Monday. "It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with."
González-Colón has called on Trump to lessen at least part of the burden. The Puerto Rican House representative requested that the president waive the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cost-sharing requirement for Puerto Rico, which would require the territory's central government to pay a 25% local match to receive public assistance funding.
"With Puerto Rico being unable to make the requisite match, a cost sharing requirement will likely cause long delays in Puerto Rico receiving the federal assistance it needs for cleanup and making emergency repairs to facilities and infrastructure," González-Colón wrote in a letter to the president she posted on Facebook Saturday.
González-Colón may not have a House vote — but she has a voice.