I always thought Puerto Rico was a country. For us Latin Americans, the concept of colonialism is as old as yellow fever, cannibalism, or child labor (OK, scratch child labor). To eventually discover that the place that gave us salsa music (sorry, Cuban brothers, but the Puerto Ricans spearheaded the whole thing) and KO artist Felix “Tito” Trinidad is a lesser Latin-American democracy is a shocking experience.

Not even Buñuel could come up with that: technically speaking, you don’t have a country, but you act and feel as if you do. I can never get it through my head, and whenever I’ve had an opportunity to talk to a Puerto Rican artist, I ask them about it.

Listening to Residente o Visitante, the filthy, funny, annoying, dangerous, subversive, and brilliant sophomore album by three-time Latin Grammy winner Calle 13 (reggaetón’s hottest duo), made me want to go back to my most recent conversations on the subject with some key Puerto Rican artists.

“We live in a Estado Libre Asociado `Free Associated State` but we’re not a state, we’re not free and we’re not associated,” said pop superstar Chayanne. “We went from being a Spanish colony to a dove-tailed colony of the U.S. and, as long as everything stays like this, everyone is happy. But, really, we’re like a middle-of-the-road thing.”

Rapper Voltio, one of the smartest voices in reggaetón, also plays it safe when it comes to the independencia issue: “On the one hand, I like to see my country’s `sic` flag in events like the Olympics, but on the other, I’d like things to stay the way they are. I’m used to it and I don’t know any other way. I live well like this. It’s not about independence or statehood, it’s about working, because nobody will hand you anything. Nothing is free in life.”

Singer-songwriter Luis Fonsi thinks Puerto Rico has the best of both worlds:

“We have the affection and support of the United States, but we’re Latinos and have our own flag and history. We could talk about this for hours, but all I’m going to say is that I want the best for my little island. Whatever party, but I want my little island to keep its present magic.”

“I believe us Puerto Ricans must find spiritual, not political independence,” says Ricky Martin, an avid yoga practitioner. “We must reaffirm our personality individually.”

Daddy Yankee, reggaetón’s most powerful figure, says, “To be able to travel freely everywhere, it’s a blessing.”

Whatever happened to those glorious days in the ’70s when Willie Colón and Panamanian Rubén Blades cracked open salsa with socially conscious masterpieces like “Siembra”? Even Colón seemed tired when I spoke to him in 1993, the day of the latest referendum that “kept things the way they are” in Puerto Rico. When I asked him how he would react the next morning if his fellow independentistas lost again, he said, “Well … I’m going to have to resign myself to the fact that I belong to a country that never existed.”

Since the days of Colón, except for popular causes like Vieques, mainstream Puerto Rican artists have stayed away from any independence-related talks. But a few major hip-hop and reggaetón artists are slowly and carefully saying that Puerto Rico’s status ain’t that great, at least when asked.

“I’m all for independence,” says pioneering Spanish-language rapper Vico C. “But I need a leader who motivates me. I consider myself a natural leader in certain areas and I understand what a leader really needs to have. And when I don’t see that in a person, I don’t get into it, even if he’s for independence. So I continue with my mission, going inside the homes with my music, while somebody else decides to do something.”

Residente o Visitante (also the nicknames of the bandmembers) is a milestone in post-reggaetón, and Calle 13 the most visible (and audible) mainstream voice that even dares speak about the independencia issue with a considerable dose of self-criticism.

“It’s a very difficult subject,” admits Residente, Calle 13’s lead vocalist. “Nobody knows what Puerto Rico is; even the name is a contradiction. ‘Estado Libre Asociado’? What? Puerto Ricans have a lot of pride, but also a very low level of self-esteem. It’s hard for me to say it, but it’s real. It’s not even our fault: We inherited it from the days of colonialism. From the beginning you feel you can’t do things for yourself. Autonomy is impossible for many Puerto Ricans.”

His step-brother Visitante agrees. “It’s like … a Puerto Rican has embraced the role of vago.” (Roughly translated, vago means “lazy” or “bum.”)

“Yes,” continues Residente. “It’s because of comfort. You feel that you must fight for your rights, but there’s people who are afraid.”

Afraid to fight for independence, but not afraid to die in, say, Iraq, despite the fact that you can’t even vote for the man who sent you there in the first place?

“Yes,” says Vico C. “What happens, remember, is that war is the ultimate exchange: they take care of you but, sooner or later, they charge you for it.”

At least they’re beginning to bitch about the uneven exchange rate. 

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