In his informative travelogue, The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack puts a magnifying glass over the United States' overseas territories and commonwealths: American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. With this interview, he continues the conversation about these corners of America, asking important questions about independence, statehood and why Americans should care—and probably visit—these often overlooked destinations.
Longitude. As you note in your book, the territories used to be more a part of the American consciousness than they are today. Why did these not-quite states, for many of us, fall off the map?
Mack. It’s complicated—and one of the central questions of the book! For decades, overseas expansion was one of the hottest debates in the USA. Proponents saw it as a means to become a global power—an empire, like our European competitors—while opponents saw it as a betrayal of American ideals of anti-colonialism. Expansion advocate William McKinley was elected president in 1896 and again in 1900, after the Spanish-American War (1898), from which we acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. But acquiring an empire was an end unto itself, the geopolitical version of buying a Ferrari or a flashy Rolex. What we actually did with these places was beside the point, and they quickly faded from view as the USA moved on to other debates and (literal) battles. The Supreme Court of the era helped push the territories further into the background when it ruled that they were “foreign in a domestic sense” and that their residents didn’t have the same rights as Americans in the states. The ruling still stands today, as does, broadly speaking, the view that the territories aren’t fully American. The Court also made it harder for a territory to become a state, which is also key. We think of ourselves as a nation of states—that’s what’s on the flag, on the maps, in our very name. So it’s easy to forget that we’re actually more than that: the United States and Territories of America and the Pacific and the Caribbean.
Longitude. What is the most compelling argument you found for bringing the territories back into the cultural conversation?
Mack. First and foremost, territory residents are Americans, living on American soil, who are being denied basic rights because of the geographic coordinates of their homes. They don’t have the full protection of the Constitution and they can’t vote for President, among other things. Just the fact that we have this two-tiered setup is appalling and should foster broader conversation and action. Beyond that, the territories made the USA what is today. Their ports were essential to our rise as an economic and military powerhouse. Their people enlist in our military, and die in service to their country, at some of the highest rates in the nation. They’ve contributed to our popular culture, from America Samoa’s tattooing tradition to Puerto Rico’s salsa music to assorted celebrities you think of as simply “American.” Basketball star Tim Duncan is from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Rock comes from American Samoan ancestry, and his tattoos tell his family history. “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks frequently about his Puerto Rican heritage and present-day events on the island. For that matter, Alexander Hamilton himself grew up on Saint Croix. So aspects of the territories are already fairly ubiquitous in our cultural conversation. We just need to understand this, and make the connection to the territories themselves.
Longitude. Did you find yourself coming down on one side of the “statehood vs. independent nation” argument in any of the places that you traveled to? Mack. Throughout the book, I tried to let the people of each territory serve as the main voices in this debate—they’re the ones who should have control over their own destiny. That said, you can’t spend time in these places without forming your own opinions. (That’s especially true in Puerto Rico, where this debate is ever-present, in newspapers, on street corners, in bars.) It’s clear to me that the status quo isn’t working and the path forward requires a change in the political status. I generally favor statehood. These islands will continue to have close cultural and economic connections to the USA no matter what, and with independence, they’d give up what little voice they already have in that relationship. That said, my view is that each territory should hold a once-and-for-all referendum with two choices: statehood or independence. The terms of each option would have to be very clear, and they might differ in each territory, and you’d need to spend years working on those details before putting it to a vote. But the choice should be offered, and soon.
Longitude. Of the five territories and commonwealths that you visited, which would you recommend to travelers looking for a get-away vacation?
Mack. For a relaxing getaway, go to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and head straight for the town of Esperanza. When you’re picturing a quiet Caribbean beach community, it’s probably something like this: a barefoot-living sort of place with a two-hundred-yard-long esplanade along a sliver of a beach, where placid waves lap the white sands. Across the generally car-less street is a low-slung row of guest houses and restaurants and funky bars: Belly Buttons, Lazy Jack’s, Bananas. I could spend weeks there, sipping rum punch, reading books on the beach, taking some day trips to the historic sites and the National Wildlife Refuge. And in the evenings, I’d make a return visit or ten to the bioluminescent bay, where you can kayak in water that literally lights up with each paddle stroke, like some sort of Hollywood special effect—it’s one of the most jaw-dropping, marvelous things I’ve ever seen. Longitude. Which of the places that you explored held the most fascinating history for you?
Mack. Each territory has layer upon layer of history, and in that sense, the Northern Mariana Islands were probably the most intriguing. You have the indigenous peoples: the Chamorros and the Carolinians (the latter came here in the 1800s after their home islands were devastated by a typhoon), who are still very much around. The islands were also a Spanish colony for centuries, and you see evidence of that in family names, in food (like Spanish rice), and in a few buildings that still stand. After World War I, they were a Japanese colony. Then, the Americans invaded during World War II; the islands of Tinian and Saipan were major battlegrounds, and you’ll still find tanks and bunkers just sitting there, slowly being taken over by the jungle. On Tinian (population 3,500), in just an hour or two of driving, you can see 15-foot-tall latte stones erected by ancient Chamorros (sort of a Micronesian Stonehenge), the remains of a Spanish Church, a lost Japanese village, the hulking shells of Japanese military administration buildings, and the pits where the Americans loaded atomic bombs into B-29s and sent them on their fateful journeys to Japan. Then you can go to a small-town barbecue joint or play roulette at a casino that caters to Japanese and Chinese tourists. And over on Saipan, you have much of the same, plus the dozens of garment factories that operated for many years, sewing “Made in USA” clothes. The last factories closed about ten year ago, but the buildings remain, quietly deteriorating, and some of the immigrants who came here to work in the factories—primarily from China—are still here, adding to the island’s cultural tapestry.
Longitude. Window seat or aisle?
Mack. Window. I like to see where I’m going.
Longitude. Any other far-flung islands on your bucket list?
Mack. I’d love to see more of the West Indies and explore all the different islands and cultures. When I was on Saint Thomas, a local woman explained the myriad cultural roots (African, indigenous, American, and Danish, just for starters), using the metaphor of crossing currents, each bringing something different. That’s true of everywhere, of course, but the West Indies seem like a particularly vibrant mix of cultures and traditions. I’m also keen to visit the island of Réunion, in the Pacific Ocean. Just … Google it. Click on the images. The mountains and jungles and waterfalls are in that category of Things So Gorgeous They Almost Seem Fake, and I’m sure they’re even more magnificent in real life.
Longitude. What books, beyond your own, would you recommend to someone who wants to learn more about the territories?
Mack. If you really want to get into the complicated political and legal set-up of the various territories, the best book is Defining Status by Arnold H. Leibowitz. For a breezier introduction, there are plenty of novels set in the territories; two particularly good ones are Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning (about the U.S. Virgin Islands) and Arin Greenwood’s Tropical Depression (about an island called “Miramar,” which bears a striking resemblance to Saipan). And beyond the territories, we also claim a bunch of tiny uninhabited atolls and islands, most of which the USA claimed in the late 1850s, for fascinating reasons that Jimmy M. Skaggs details in his book The Great Guano Rush.