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EFE News Service

Debate Renewed In Puerto Rico Over Official Language

May 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 EFE News Service (U.S.) Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Source: World Reporter (TM)

San Juan - Renewed debate over the use of Spanish and English in Puerto Rico has led to polarization between those who defending existing law, which recognizes both as official languages, to others who want something closer to the current social reality.

The president of the New Independence Movement (NMI), Julio Muriente, said recently that the 1993 law making both languages official should be trashed and legislators should draft a new law, starting from scratch.

Scholar and defender of Puerto Rican culture Ricardo Alegria asserted that barely 20 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.8 million inhabitants speak English well, while the remaining 80 percent speak only Spanish.

The debate has been renewed with discussion of a bill submitted by Senate president Antonio Fas Alzamora calling for evaluation of the country's need to continue with Spanish and English as official languages.

Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States since 1952, was a Spanish colony from 1493 to 1898, and in 1993 former Gov. Pedro Rossello of the New Progressive Party (PNP), put through a law that made both English and Spanish official languages.

Thanks to this law, Rossello initiated a program he called "The Bilingual Citizen," which is still in effect in some public schools and makes the teaching of English a priority.

This superceded a 1991 law, sponsored by then-Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), proclaiming Spanish the official language and reaffirming the commitment "to become fluent in English."

The PNP favors Puerto Rico's becoming the 51st state, while the PPD wants to maintain the current commonwealth status , but with more autonomy and with respect for Puerto Rican culture and language.

The minority Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and NMI favor separation from the United States and reject English as an official language.

In public debates on Fas Alzamora's bill this week, some of the speakers pointed out the exclusively political nature of the discussion.

Iris Yolanda Reyes, a Hispanisist at the University of Puerto Rico, said the fight for domination between Spanish and English "is not just a linguistic problem, but will always be a political problem."

NIM leader Muriente maintains that until Puerto Rico's political future is resolved, the components of nationality will not be resolved, "and language is one of them."

Muriente, a university professor, insisted that the dominant language in Puerto Rico is Spanish, and "we are therefore not a bilingual nation."

"This is not good or bad, it is simply our historical reality," he noted, although he agreed Puerto Ricans should study English, "to be educated, not to be Americans."

PIP Municipal Affairs Secretary Juan Dalmau Ramirez said his party favored "making the law reflect Puerto Rican sociocultural reality," and that means "our only language is Spanish, and English should be learned like any other" foreign language.

Gov. Sila Calderon, who belongs to the PPD, added fuel to the fire when she said once again that establishing Spanish as the only official language of Puerto Rico "is not one of my priorities."

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