See Related Articles

        We all have heard, over and over, the same old argument: that Puerto Rico, in order to become a state of the union, must shed its Spanish language.

        According to the scenario described by the fear-mongers who oppose our quest for equality, Spanish will be outlawed in the 51st state; our children will be unable to learn to read or write in the language of our forefathers; our literature, music and traditions, based on the language we inherited from Spain, will be relegated and forgotten. In other words–and following the script of that horror story–the bestowing upon us of full political and civil rights will transfigure each and every Puerto Rican into a sort of mindless and senseless robot.

        What the fear mongers will never admit is that, a century ago, when Spain was the imperial power in Puerto Rico, the opportunity to receive an education was the right of the privileged few; that most of the island's inhabitants were illiterate; that racial and social discrimination was rampant; that the average Puerto Rican, in his short span of life, could only expect poverty, hard work and hopelessness. For the majority of our people, culture was an unaffordable luxury.

        But after the arrival of the American soldiers on our shores, things began to change, for the better, in every aspect of life in the island, including our culture. Education was no longer a privilege. Public schools began to open throughout the island, even in the most remote, rural wards; the values of democracy were learned by our people; the University of Puerto Rico was founded. With such auspices, under the American flag, our cultural values were enhanced. For a century, Puerto Rico has been under American tutelage. And the cultural identity of Puerto Rico has been enriched during that century. We not only speak, read and write in Spanish, but we do so in a better Spanish.

        If, under the colonial status, we have been able to preserve and enhance our cultural identity, there should be no reason to lose that identity with the recognizance of full political and civil rights on us, as American citizens.

        In spite of those undeniable facts, the fear-mongers will continue to spread around the language myth, more so at this time, when our status problem is receiving due attention within the political and public opinion spheres of the nation. After a century of benign neglect, it seems that the political status of Puerto Rico is on its way toward a permanent solution.

        It is a good time to destroy the language myth, of which politicians like Gerald Solomon, Louis Gutiérrez and Aníbal Acevedo Vilá have been so fond. Certainly, politics makes strange bedfellows.

        The language issue has been responsibly addressed by Johnny H. Killian, senior specialist on American Constitutional Law of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. All doubts on this matter are to be erased by a memorandum by Killian, dated October 20, 1997, on the subject of "Power of Congress to Impose Use of English as Condition of Admission of Puerto Rico as a State."

        The study was motivated by H.R. 856, filed by Congressman Don Young, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 4, 1998. The bill provides for a status plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the people with respect to the political status. Killian makes it clear that: "A volatile issue raised in the statehood context is whether Puerto Rico would be admitted as a predominantly Spanish-speaking polity or whether Congress would insist on the island's adoption of English as its official language in the conduct of its government affairs, in its educational system, and in other matters." The memorandum quotes from the House Resources Committee Report on H.R. 856, addressing "the 100-year history of English and Spanish as official languages, makes it clear that English language requirements could be imposed on Puerto Rico as a commonwealth that could not be imposed on Puerto Rico if it were a state."

        Killian recognizes that Congress is empowered by the constitution to admit new states "into this Union," and it may, on penalty of denying admission, require any conditions for entry into the Union. But in terms of post-admission enforcement of any condition, the equal-footing doctrine constitutes a formidable barrier. The memorandum quotes from Case vs. Toftus, 39 F. 730, 732 (1889) as follows: "The doctrine that new states must be admitted... on an equal footing with the old ones does not rest on any express provision of the constitution... but on what is considered... to be the general character and purpose of the union of the states, a union of political equals."

        The analysis points out to "the critical element in the equal footing doctrine," that is, "the equal sovereignty of all the States within the federal constitutional system. To illustrate this principle, Killian relies on the case of Coyle vs. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911). The Supreme Court held that, although Congress could certainly impose a condition as the price of admission, the condition was not enforceable once the state was admitted. The power to admit new states was the power to admit a state, "not to admit political organizations which are less or greater, or different in dignity or power, from those political entities which constitute the Union." In Coyle, it is clearly recognized that this "was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority, each competent to exert that residuum of sovereignty not delegated to the United States by the Constitution itself."

        Killian points out the fact that "the original thirteen States had full discretion with respect to their official language and how they conducted their official business... And it is similarly clear that discretion with respect to the language in which its business is conducted is within the sovereign rights of the States."

        The memorandum's conclusion should leave no doubts about the language issue: "No condition that Congress may have imposed prior to admission is binding upon a State, save those that Congress could enact under one of its delegated powers. It is questionable that Congress by ordinary legislation could mandate the observance of English in the conduct of the official business of the States, either because that authority it does not possess in the first place or because principles of federalism would be interposed. The application of these principles to the situation of Puerto Rico strongly suggests that Congress could not impose an English-language requirement binding after admission as a State."

See Related Articles

Back To Top

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback