Photo from Frank and Frances Carter Collection.
No shortage of immigrants, refugees and expats scramble for American passports, so when Puerto Rican independence leader Juan Mari Brás renounced his in political protest in 1993, the US State Department was shocked. After a ten-year legal battle he became the first person to receive Puerto Rican citizenship without also having US citizenship:
“I freed myself from the indignity of a false citizenship… that of the country that invaded mine, which continues to keep the only country that I owe allegiance to as a colony.”
Ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898, Puerto Rico is the last remaining colony of the Americas. Born into a family of independistas in Mayagüez in 1927, Juan Mari Brás was regularly taken to political meetings and rallies throughout his childhood. At 18 he formed a pro-independence group at his high school and went on to become president of the independence party’s youth chapter at the University of Puerto Rico, where he went on strike after a nationalist leader was barred from speaking on campus. Because the island was under US government control at the time, the strikers’ actions were considered anti-American and all were expelled, including Brás. He continued his studies in the States and acquired a law degree from American University.
Juan Mari Brás went on to found the Pro-Independence Movement, later changed to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) and in 1973, became the first to speak before the UN on the decolonization of Puerto Rico. That same year, the office of his political party’s newspaper and his home were firebombed. While campaigning for governor on the PSP ticket, his son was mysteriously assassinated — a case that remains unsolved. But Brás continued working as a lawyer and speaking on behalf of the independence movement around the world, saying “Puerto Rico is my only homeland and my only nationality is Puerto Rican.”
In 1994, Brás decided to test a technicality in US citizenship laws by renouncing his American citizenship at the US embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. The US State Department initially approved his renunciation but then retracted it, and Brás had to argue for ten years that he was a citizen of the island of Puerto Rico and should have a document to prove it.
Finally, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico determined that Puerto Rican citizenship exists and was recognized in the colony’s constitution, and its first certificate of Puerto Rican citizenship was given to Juan Mari Brás. “I spent my whole life traveling the world with a U.S. passport to preach independence for Puerto Rico,” he said. “I haven’t been able to get it for everyone, but at least I got it for me.” Since 2007, Puerto Rico’s State Department has developed the protocol to grant Puerto Rican citizenship to Puerto Ricans, but only if they opt for it.