Senior anthropology major Yuryssa Lewis fondly remembers her life in St. Croix, one of the Virgin Islands. Growing up, she enjoyed going on hikes every day, picking fruits from orange and coconut trees in her yard and greeting everyone like they were family.
Lewis learned at a young age that she lived in a U.S. territory, but she wasn’t aware of what that meant as a kid. After learning what this means and living on the U.S. mainland for four years, Lewis feels that she is American, with a caveat.
“Citizen-wise I am an American. I can’t deny that I’m American, but I also haven’t lived here long enough necessarily to find out what it means to be American except for, you know, a sense of patriotism,” she said. “But culturally, I’m West Indian.”
Lewis’s home of St. Croix is one of the five inhabited United States territories, according to the United States Census Bureau. Two of these territories, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are in the Caribbean. The islands are home to a combined total of more than 3.3 million American citizens.
But being from a territory is complicated. Although these individuals are American citizens, they cannot vote in United States presidential elections, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. They also lack representation in Congress, because while each territory has a delegate, that person does not have any voting power, according to the United States House of Representatives.
The United States has had these Caribbean territories for hundreds of years. Puerto Rico was acquired from Spain in 1898 and the U.S. Virgin Islands were acquired from Denmark in 1917, according to America’s Library, a division of the Library of Congress.
Alan McPherson, a professor whose expertise includes U.S. foreign relations, U.S.-Latin American relations, and global issues, explained that territories were ways for nations, including the United States, to build their empires.
“To put it simply, nations have had overseas territories to enhance their imperial ambitions,” he said. “Overseas territories, for the French, British, American, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, or other empires, have served as linchpins for those empires.”
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were seized in order to be assets to the military, according to History.com. McPherson said these territories still provide tactical advantages, which is one of the reasons why they’re still the property of the U.S.
Like U.S. citizens in the states, citizens from these territories can serve in the U.S. military, and more military members come from U.S. territories than any state, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review.
Yet even as military members, these citizens still cannot vote in presidential elections. Some have challenged this in court, the Atlantic reported.
Civilian citizens have also challenged these laws. Puerto Rico has held referendums for statehood five times, NPR reported. There have also been organizations, like the American Bar Association, and voting rights advocacy groups, like Your Vote Your Voice, who have advocated for full voting rights for all territory citizens.
Rebeca L. Hey-Colón, a professor whose areas of expertise and research include Latinx studies and Caribbean studies, feels this lack of voting rights is one of the ways people from territories are treated as second-class citizens.
She said in order to vote for president, citizens in territories have to become residents of a U.S. state. However, doing so would mean they could not vote in elections in their territory, NBC News reported.
These were all things Hey-Colón learned herself as she grew up. Although she wasn’t taught much about Puerto Rican history as a child, she sought out knowledge on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean herself when she went to college.
During her junior year abroad at Oxford University in England, she worked with Christian Campbell, a Rhodes Scholar from the Bahamas. Looking back at that moment, she sees a great irony.
“I realize this moment was deeply significant for us both as Caribbean people studying in elite institutions of the very countries that colonized us,” she said.
For Lewis, the right to vote in a presidential election would mean being able to finally have a say in what happens to her island.
“We definitely need to have more of a say if the U.S. is going to have ownership over us,” she said.
Because Lewis cannot represent herself, she feels it is important for citizens from the states to be educated on issues in the territories.
“A lot of the decisions you make here [in the states] also affects us, and because we can make those decisions for ourselves, we can’t vote on our for our interests,” she said. “We kind of need you to do that for us, so it would benefit us a lot if you would educate yourself on the fact that we exist.”