Hamilton’s History Lessons: Bad for Puerto Rico

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton has recently opened its national tour in Chicago and I can’t wait to finally see it. Like so many great works of art, Hamilton reimagines a pivotal moment in history through the zeitgeist of the present. The hip hop songs and show tunes tell the story of the American Revolution and the contentious political intrigues of the Founding Fathers through the biography of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

As a fellow Puerto Rican and Chicago native son, I greatly admire how Miranda draws strong parallels between Hamilton’s origins in the Caribbean to new generations of hard-working immigrants. However, some of the lessons about U.S. history that Hamilton conveys serve to perpetuate shopworn myths about the American Dream. Even more troubling, the fame and celebrity that the show has generated for its creator have given Miranda an outsized voice in public policy decisions that are negatively impacting the lives of Puerto Ricans on the island.

Hamilton elaborates one of the fundamental values associated with the American Dream: that individualism, hard work, and doing whatever it takes will eventually lead to economic success and perhaps fame and fortune. Early in the show Hamilton sings, “Hey yo, I’m just / like my country / I’m young, scrappy / and hungry / And I’m not throwing / away my shot.“ Hamilton’s relentless ambition allows him to rise to the upper echelons of early U.S. politics. It’s a familiar story that Miranda tells with verve and ingenuity.

But many Puerto Ricans have questioned this kind of individualism, as the American Dream has always been a dream deferred. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Puerto Rico underwent an industrial development program called Operation Bootstrap (in Spanish Manos a la Obra). The English name of the program implies individual effort — pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. The program restructured the island’s economy from an agricultural base to manufacturing and tourism through tax incentives for U.S. corporations. This eventually led to massive waves of Puerto Rican migrants who left the island when they could not find work in the new industries, only to find racial discrimination, poverty, and crime upon their arrival to U.S. cities.

In recent months, the long-simmering issue of Puerto Rico’s colonial status has taken center stage with the crushing economic crisis on the island. Puerto Rico has been unable to pay its $72 billion debt to municipal bond holders and a $40 billion shortfall in public pensions. However, unlike any of the fifty states, Puerto Rico cannot file for bankruptcy. On June 30 of this year, President Obama signed PROMESA — the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. This bipartisan compromise paves the way for Puerto Rico to restructure its debt under a controversial, unelected Oversight Board — a junta­ federal, as it’s known on the island. Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez voted against this legislation and continues to speak out against it.

Nevertheless, Miranda has been an outspoken advocate for PROMESA, going so far as rap about his advocacy on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Miranda begged the Republican controlled Congress for “not a bailout just relief” and argued that “the great debate over statehood has to wait.” One lyric from Hamilton — “When are these colonies gonna / Rise up?” — poses the question that many Puerto Ricans still ask today. Miranda’s answer? Calm down. Keep waiting.

Indeed, with PROMESA and the imposition of the Oversight Board, the debate over Puerto Rico’s status is effectively over. The solution takes Puerto Rico back to the era of the Foraker Act of 1900, when the U.S. president appointed all executive members of the island’s civilian government. The current legislation does not require that any elected Puerto Rican official be a member of this junta, so Puerto Ricans will effectively be shut out of, to again quote Hamilton, “the art of the trade” in the room where “the sausage gets made.”

It’s encouraging that Miranda has used his fame and success to bring broad awareness to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis. But while his show Hamilton celebrates the plucky attitude of revolutionaries fighting for freedom, his support for PROMESA has contributed to the perpetuation of a colonial system that further oppresses his Puerto Rican compatriots.

Israel Reyes, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.