- The US has five territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
- Insider spoke to residents who reject the label “American” and have mixed feelings about their US citizenship.
- Many millennial, US territory residents choose island-specific, or regional identitfiers instead.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Tihu Lujan knows a thing or two about barbecues and fireworks in July.
Every year, the 24-year-old writer sees the US territory of Guam hold its biggest annual celebration to commemorate an important military victory with a summer carnival and a spectacular parade.
There are beauty queens, music, and declarations of patriotism. The island of 160,000 American citizens pretty much mirrors small-town America on Independence Day. Except, that’s not what Guamanians are celebrating.
Instead they gather together for Liberation Day on July 21, which commemorates the date that US armed forces ended Japanese occupation during World War II. The festivities are a much bigger deal locally than the Fourth of July. That’s one of the idiosyncrasies of living in one of the United States’ territories – or colonies, depending on who you ask – in the year 2021.
For all the talk about the “fellow Americans” living in these islands, there are young people there who feel more deeply connected to their local cultures and histories than to the American identity.
Insider spoke with millennials who reject the label “American” and have complicated feelings about their US citizenship.
Islanders said the US has never treated its territories as equal
In Lujan’s case, he sees the affinity of Liberation Day over Independence Day as just one representation of this disconnect.”I am Chamorro. I don’t think I’ve ever really said that I’m American. It’s hard to feel that we’re American when we’ve seen more of the adverse effects [of being part of the U.S.] than what most Americans have,” Lujan told Insider.
“Of course it’s hard to be the people who are crying out that, ‘This isn’t fair, your life is better, you have better services and privileges’ when we were kind of ‘saved’ by America,” he added “There is always an air of guilt when I place Chamorros and Guam above America. But being Chamorro and being on Guam, I feel that’s only right.”
Today, the United States owns five territories inhabited by nearly four million people: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
All residents are U.S. citizens with limited rights, except in American Samoa, where islanders are considered “non-citizen U.S. nationals.” Islanders learn English and American history, pay federal taxes like Social Security and Medicare, and serve in the U.S. military.
But due to their unincorporated status, residents of these territories are not allowed to vote for president nor do they have voting representation in Congress.
The latter means that often the issues that impact the territories go unattended.
From Guam facing a consistent threat of a North Korean nuclear attack to the slow roll of disaster aid for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands following devastating hurricanes during the Trump administration, that erasure contributes to a sense of otherness for young people like Lujan.
“People don’t know how much the decisions made in D.C. and at the federal level really impact us, who are U.S. citizens but have very limited self-government,” he told Insider.
Lujan added that “it doesn’t help when those people have never been here, have a very limited understanding of life here.”
“Yet the decisions that they make trickle down to the price of our gas, the price of our groceries, the quality of our natural resources and environment,” he argued.
It is true that many islanders do identify as American and take pride in their political relationship with the United States. In Puerto Rico, 53% of voters in the last election voted “Yes” in a non-binding referendum asking whether they would like to become a state.
-Rep. Stacey Plaskett (@StaceyPlaskett) March 4, 2021
Rep. Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been leading the charge in asking for Congress to allow people in the territories to vote in federal elections. American Samoa has the highest military enlistment rates in the nation and Guam takes pride in its official slogan, “Where America’s Day Begins.”
But the disconnect that people who do not identify as American feel comes in part because the United States has never really seen its colonies as equal to the states, both in theory and practice.
A slate of U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the early 20th century known as the Insular Cases determined that territories “belong to, but are not part of” the U.S. and its citizens could only have access to limited constitutional rights. The court’s conclusion at the time was that the territories were “inhabited by alien races,” and therefore governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.”
More than 98% of residents in these islands are still racial or ethnic minorities.
A century later, the cases have yet to be overturned, unlike other racist decisions from that era, such as Plessy v. Ferguson.
There is also little knowledge in most states about “fellow Americans” in the Caribbean and the southwest Pacific.
As of 2017, nearly half of Americans didn’t know that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. And during the 2020 Democratic National Convention’s roll call, tweets abounded where shocked U.S.-based users freely admitted to just learning that the Northern Mariana Islands were a territory.
Many territory residents are identifying with their islands instead
Ana* experienced the effects of this ignorance firsthand. The small business owner grew up in a pro-statehood household in Puerto Rico, learning that the United States of America was the best place in the world. But once she went to college in Ohio, she experienced a culture shock.
She barely had an accent in English and could recite the words to the Star-Spangled Banner in her sleep. Her classmates, however, had a hard time believing the island of 3.2 million U.S. citizens had access to modern amenities-including everything from paved roads to the internet.
Their ignorance felt especially biting as she thought of having to learn English and American history as a child. The more questions her classmates asked, the more Ana felt they didn’t come from a place of sincerity.
“With time, and as the comments kept coming,” the 29-year-old told Insider.
“I realized there wasn’t really an interest to learn. It was more a fascination with the little foreign girl who looks like that and could pass as one of us,” she said, acknowledging she’s white-passing in a way that Brown and Black boricuas are not.
“We’re just a footnote in American history. It broke that idea that I had [of being American,]” she added.
After college, Ana moved back to Puerto Rico and has become much more politically active. She also re-examined her relation to Americanness.
“The closest I come to referring to myself as an American now is when I grudgingly say I have American citizenship,” she said. “Puertorriqueña or caribeña feel like more accurate descriptors,” using the Spanish terms for Puerto Rican or Caribbean.
Ana is not alone. Jelmarie Maldonado experienced a similar awakening, too. At 19, she went to a life-changing conference in Prague where she felt closer to the Latin American attendees than the ones from the U.S.
Our American passport comes with an asterisk. You have it but you’re not really it.Jelmarie Maldonado
Up until that point, the digital media strategist had been raised in Puerto Rico to see herself as American first. At home she spoke English, and she preferred American pop music to salsa and merengue.
But at the conference she didn’t feel as if she fit in with the other Americans, and she had to explain the complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. one too many times.
“The reminder that we’re second-class citizens was so stark that I started gravitating to our music, our cultural icons,” she said. “I started learning about the things we didn’t learn about in school about [pro-independence leader] Pedro Albizu Campos, the history of Puerto Rican revolutionaries.”
More than a decade after the trip to Prague, Maldonado keeps exploring her connection to her ancestral home-even now in Connecticut where she’s based.
For many, the truth is that from Guam to Puerto Rico, islanders have held on to a strong sense of national identity and traditions regardless of their political relationship to the U.S. and efforts to further Americanize the territories.
That connection to their culture might come as ungratefulness to some, but Lujan, the writer from Guam, disagreed, confiding “it’s hard to feel that we are a fellow American when we’re not extended all the rights and privileges of every American.”
“We’re kind of half-fellow of Americans in some ways and in some times, especially for us and our part of the world,” Lujan said.
Maldonado thinks a lot about how often Americans in the 50 states do not know what to make of the millions who live in the territories. They don’t understand the islands’ cultures nor do they get that their U.S. citizenship is simply not equal.
“Our American passport comes with an asterisk,” she said. “You have it but you’re not really it.”