The Yale Law Journal

January 2019

Beyond the Critique of Rights: The Puerto Rico Legal Project and Civil Rights Litigation in America’s Colony

Critical Race TheoryCritical Legal StudiesLegal HistoryU.S. Territories

abstract. Long skeptical of the ability of rights to advance oppressed groups’ political goals, Critical Legal Studies (CLS) scholars might consider a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico and ask, “What good are rights when you live in a colony?” In this Note, I will argue that CLS’s critique of rights, though compelling in the abstract, falters in the political and historical context of Puerto Rico. Although it may appear that rights have failed Puerto Ricans, rights talk has historically provided a framework for effective organizing and community action. Building on the work of Critical Race Theory and LatCrit scholars, this Note counters the CLS intuition that rights talk lacks value by focusing on the origins and development of the Puerto Rico Legal Project, an understudied but critical force for community development and legal advocacy on the island that was founded in response to severe political repression during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This Note draws on original interviews with Puerto Rican and U.S. lawyers and community activists to reveal fissures in the critique of rights and to propose certain revisions to the theory. By concentrating on the entitlements that rights are thought to provide, CLS’s critique of rights ignores the power of rights discourse to organize marginalized communities. The critique of rights also overlooks the value of the collective efforts that go into articulating a particular community’s aspirations through rights talk, efforts which can be empowering and help spur further political action. By analyzing twentieth-century Puerto Rican legal and political history and the Puerto Rico Legal Project, I demonstrate the value (and limits) of rights in a colonized nation.

author. Yale Law School, J.D. expected 2019; Harvard College, B.A. 2015. I am incredibly grateful to Rebeca L. Hey-Colón and Linda Colón, who made this Note possible, and to the brave Puerto Rican and U.S. lawyers and community leaders who shared their stories with me. I am also thankful for the support and encouragement of Professors Monica C. Bell, Sheri Lynn Johnson, Amy Kapczynski, Aziz Rana, Rachel E. Rosenbloom, Gerald Torres, and Michelle A. Fongyee Whelan. For suggesting the background materials that inspired me to write on this topic, I thank Patricio Martínez Llompart. Lastly, I thank Giovanni Sanchez and the editors of the Yale Law Journal for their insightful suggestions and meticulous editing. I dedicate this Note to my family and a mi isla, Puerto Rico.