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Sophomore All-Stars consider Puerto Rico: Constitutional rights and cultural identity deliberated in US theater

Ten sophomores argued the pros and cons of Puerto Rican statehood before a crowd comprised of their grade, English teachers, and veteran school debaters during this year’s All-Star Debate in the Upper School (US) theater on April 18.

English Department Head Sharon Krauss said the department chose the topic for its educational value and relevance in the news.

“We wanted a topic that would educate not only the debaters but also the audience,” she said. “We lean toward topics that are in the news but not exactly right under their noses—something that broadens people’s horizons and makes them more aware.”

The first round of gradewide debates occurred in sophomore English the week before spring break, when teams of three to four students from different classes faced off against each other. Afterward, each class voted one debater to advance to the all-star event.

In a similar format to these preliminary debates, the All-Star Debate pitted affirmative and negative teams of five students each against each other. The first eight speakers spoke for four minutes each, alternating between the affirmative and negative teams. The teams then convened during a five-minute break to formulate their final arguments, and a rebuttalist from each time had five minutes to close their side’s case. 

This year, the affirmative team—Elise Hawkins, Dylan Wang, Hattie Grant, Oliver Shapiro, and Alexi Melki (all ’21)—advocated for Puerto Rico as the 51st U.S. state, while the negative team—James Wade, Olivia Pollock, Chloe Fandetti, AJ Fabbri, and Jack Lichtenberger (all ’21)—argued against the resolution and proposed Puerto Rican independence as a counter plan.

After an hour of discourse, the judges—History Teacher Leigh Hogan, History Teacher Scott Tang, and last year’s Jacobs Prize winner Maia Pandey ’20—voted 2–1 in favor of the affirmative team.

Maia said she was impressed by the scope of the arguments on both sides.

“As the debate progressed, both teams got really into the subtler arguments—topics like the cultural implications of Puerto Rican statehood,” Maia said. “That made for a really close and compelling debate.” 

Side affirmative argued that granting Puerto Rico statehood would give its people, who are American citizens, their Constitutionally protected right to vote in national elections; that it would enhance the United States’ geopolitical synergy and control; and that it would end over 100 years of under-representation, exploitation and neglect. 

Side negative argued that, according to past referendums, Puerto Ricans did not want statehood, and polls that indicated otherwise had historically low voter turnout. Independence is a better option, they said, as statehood would wipe out Puerto Rican culture. Additionally, the economic penalties of becoming a state would crush Puerto Rico’s already unstable economy, they argued.

While preparing for the debate, Alexi, the rebuttalist for the affirmative team, said he was confident his group would succeed.

“The negative team is debating the Republican side in front of a very liberal school, which is really hard to do,” he said. “They’re arguing more of an economic standpoint, which is harder to sway the audience with because it lacks emotional persuasion and power.”

But side negative rebuttalist Jack Lichtenberger said his team planned to use the disadvantages of their assigned viewpoint as an asset. 

“We made our points line up with liberal views, which was not expected,” he said, referencing their argument that statehood would jeopardize Puerto Rico’s cultural identity. 

Spectator Priya Devavaram ’21 identified both style and substance in Elise’s opening arguments for the affirmative.

“Elise was incredible,” Priya said. “I was wowed by her confidence­—also with the logic behind her thinking.”

English Teacher and Debate Team Head Coach Sarah Getchell said she and her colleagues thought the whole debate was excellent.

“This year the two teams’ cases really spoke to each other, everyone seemed very well prepared, and their delivery was impressive,” she said. “The rebuttalists still had a challenging job, but both of them were elegant and surgical in addressing the other sides’ points.”

Debate Team Co-Captain Talia Belz ’19 said she thought each speaker was strong and did a good job, and she particularly praised the rebuttalists.

“Jack stood out because he provided refutation for basically every single point that the other team had brought up,” she said. “After his rebuttalist speech, I was like ‘Wow, I don’t really know now how the [affirmative] case stands.’”

Talia added that Alexi responded with an equally effective closing for his side’s argument.

“[Alexi] also refuted a lot of the other team’s points but also had this great conclusion linking their position to the American dream and appealing to the audience’s moral and values very effectively,” she said.

Sophie Collins Arroyo ’19, also a debate team co-captain and the 2016 winner of the Jacobs Prize, recognized the sophomores on both teams whose engagement made the debate coherent even before the closing arguments.

“It can be really hard for the people who aren’t the rebuttalists to do anything besides just memorize their speech, but I feel like most people got in a line or two of refutation that seemed off-the-cuff,” Sophie said. “They got to a lot of the nuances of both sides of the argument and did a good job getting past making it just about voting rights, or what Puerto Ricans want.”

The English Department will announce the winner of the Jacobs Prize, awarded to the most outstanding speaker in the All-Star Debate, later this month.

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