MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico — The seeds of Juan Mari Bras' quixotic patriotism were planted when his parents draped a Puerto Rican flag over his crib.
They flourished 13 years ago, when the elder statesman of Puerto Rico's independence movement renounced his U.S. citizenship in an effort to be officially recognized as a Puerto Rican. He's 79 now, and after a 60-year anti-colonial crusade, he has something new to adorn his surroundings: a certificate of Puerto Rican citizenship.
He is the first Puerto Rican in history to have it.
Mari Bras' certificate, issued in October as a result of his victory in a lawsuit over his right to vote in local elections, comes as the U.S. Congress debates the thorny subject of Puerto Rico's status. Last month, the Secretary of State's Office here offered citizenship to eligible islanders, and Mari Bras will be offered a ceremony bestowing his official certificate in August.
As hundreds of people line up to request their own certificates - and legislators draft bills to codify the process of obtaining them - Mari Bras' newfound and hard-fought citizenship has re-fueled the always heated debate about what it means to be Puerto Rican.
"With this certificate, can I travel from here to some other country?" asked a skeptical independence party legislator, Victor Garcia San Inocencio. "When I come back, will Homeland Security let me in?"
The answers are no and no.
For Mari Bras, the citizenship certificate is more legal test than meaningful evidence of nationality. He said his win is important because it marks the first time the government here recognizes a national identity not tied to the United States. But he shrugs off the significance of his long court battle, recognizing that while it may have been the most important achievement Puerto Rico's tiny independence movement has seen in years, it is a far cry from the sovereignty he so craves.
"Biologists experiment with plants and animals and chemists do so with elements," he said in a recent interview at his office at the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Law School in Mayaguez. "Since I am a lawyer, I experiment with the law. The certificate is an achievement, but it's not the independence of Puerto Rico."
When Mari Bras was born to a deeply political Mayaguez family, the U.S. military had seized Puerto Rico from Spain barely 30 years earlier. People like nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos were frequent guests for dinner at his uncle's house next door.
"Back then we thought independence would happen the day after next," he said. "We never thought we would remain the most important colony of the most important empire."
His father took him to political events before his 13th birthday, and he eventually founded an independence movement in high school. It wound up becoming a life passion that got him jailed seven times and kicked out of law school. It gave him a heart attack at the age of 36.
Mari Bras eventually graduated from American University Law School in Washington, D.C. As a lawyer, he took on controversial clients such as the independence activists who opened fire on the U.S. House of Representatives. He founded the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and ran a spirited campaign for governor in 1976 until his son was murdered, a death that Mari Bras blames squarely on the CIA.
A Marxist with close ties to Havana, he was disbarred from practicing law in federal court when he skipped a client's court appearance to attend an international conference in Cuba instead.
But after decades of sometimes violent activism, even now the independence movement gets only about 4 percent of the popular vote. The vast majority of Puerto Rico's 4 million people are split between wanting to become the 51st state and keeping some form of its current commonwealth status.
In a mission to prove Puerto Ricans had a separate national identity, in 1994 Mari Bras went to the American embassy in Caracas and renounced his U.S. citizenship. When he returned to Puerto Rico, a local statehood activist sued him, arguing that Mari Bras no longer had a right to vote in local elections. Puerto Rico's electoral law says that only U.S. citizens can cast ballots.
"I wanted to see if in Puerto Rico you could continue breathing without being a U.S. citizen," he said.
The case made its way to the Puerto Rican Supreme Court, and, last fall, Mari Bras won.
"It's extraordinary," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York group that over the years has represented Puerto Rico's independence activists. "He has been after this for 30 or 40 years. The next step is people will demand passports. What other things can flow from there?"
The Popular Democratic Party, which seeks more autonomy for Puerto Rico while keeping the island's current relationship with the United States, agrees.
"An empty wallet does not have everything a full wallet has," said legislator Charlie Hernandez, who has submitted a bill to codify the citizenship process. "Maybe it doesn't have any $100 bills in it now, but maybe some day it will."
And maybe not.
Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party (PNP), which supports statehood, is vehemently against the citizenship plan, arguing that it is nothing but a useless and illegal residency certificate. It also alleges that current Secretary of State Fernando Bonilla, of the ruling Popular Democratic Party, agreed to go along with it in order to curry favor and votes within the independence movement.
In a statement, Bonilla said he offered the certificate in order to obey the constitution and the court decision. He stressed that it doesn't replace the U.S. passport.
"I understand Juan Mari Bras' purpose and respect it, but Puerto Rican citizenship does not exist," said PNP Sen. Norma Burgos, a former secretary of state who once denied Mari Bras' petition for citizenship. "He is a brilliant lawyer, and he knows it does not exist."
To prove her point, Burgos, who was born in Chicago and moved to Puerto Rico when she was 5, asked for citizenship too. Under the rules that the Secretary of State drafted after Mari Bras' court victory, she did not qualify.
"Was the Secretary of State going to tell me, Norma Burgos, ex-secretary of state, ex-lieutenant governor, and sitting senator, that I am not Puerto Rican?" she said. "Let him tell me that to my face."
Bonilla wound up re-drafting the requirements to include Burgos - and lots of other people too. Now, if you live in Puerto Rico and one of your parents was born here, you qualify. U.S. citizens who have lived here more than a year are also eligible.
"We all have a feeling of Puerto Rican nationalism. It's anthropological and sociological, not legal," Burgos said. "Juan Mari Bras and I love Puerto Rico and our Puerto Ricanness equally, but that's not something they can give you on a piece of paper."
At last count, the State Department said 450 people requested citizenship papers of their own.