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Orlando Sentinel

War Of Words Heats Up As Struggle Between English And Spanish Flares

By Iván Román

April 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- At first glance, the green letters that say "Guaynabo City Police" in English on the patrol cars don't seem like a political message. And the "Guaynabo City" phrase written in English under the street signs draws quite a few chuckles.

Critics call it delusions of a mayor who wants Puerto Rico to be the 51st state -- using English as a small gesture laced with symbolism and not much else.

But outside of Guaynabo these days, what language people use -- and should use -- is no laughing matter. Like a relative who keeps wearing out his welcome, the language issue rears its head again in the island's political arena, reminding Puerto Ricans of the controversy over who they are. It's a controversy that has been raging since the United States invaded and kept the island in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

This time, it's Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora who is swinging around the hot potato, reiterating two weeks ago that he will eventually push to declare Spanish the island's official language or place it higher on the language hierarchy than English.

He has hit walls before.

Leaders within his own Popular Democratic Party have seemed reluctant to stir that hornet's nest. So now he wants to sweeten the pot a little.

He proposes creating a Linguistics Institute within the Department of Education to improve the teaching of Spanish and English, and French and Portuguese, also present in the Caribbean region.

This tactic will also give politicians time to educate people more about the issue and calm the waters before taking the final step -- to eliminate the word "indistinctly" from the law that allows English and Spanish to be used as official languages.

"The controversy is unnecessary because this is aimed at reflecting the Puerto Rican reality of who we are, that we are a Spanish-speaking people," Fas Alzamora said.

The first thing former pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello did in office in January 1993 was sign the executive order still in force that put both languages at the same level. With a stroke of a pen, he changed the law signed by his predecessor Rafael Hernandez Colon in 1991 declaring Spanish the official language.

The language in which people talk, are educated, govern themselves and do business in has always been a strong weapon in the battle over political status and the island's relationship with the United States.

Until leaders armed with local autonomy firmly put Spanish back in the driver's seat in the late 1940s, children were taught in English in the first decades of U.S. control of the island, fueling a resentment that has flared ever since.

Now in a somewhat contradictory message, pro-statehooders embrace English as an official language while convincing their party faithful who don't know the language that the island can be a jibaro state -- statehood with Puerto Rico's traditional cultural roots -- one that pretty much works like it does now, primarily in Spanish.

But they also shun giving Spanish more prominence, fearing it pulls Puerto Rico further away from statehood. Conservative groups in the United States have pounced on Puerto Ricans' language and culture to back up their anti-statehood stance. Even in the PDP, where people often call themselves Puerto Ricans first but profess to be good U.S. citizens, declaring official languages stirs up conflicting loyalties within the ranks.

Gov. Sila Calderon, identified with the PDP's more conservative wing, sounds like a broken record saying she won't go near the issue. "These are not important matters for the Puerto Rican people," Calderon said. "As governor, I was elected to deal with problems that affect them day to day, and I have to remain focused on that."

So this may periodically force a clash between the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion in the days, months and years to come.

Meanwhile, some academics, who don't care for the goal, like the methods. A language institute would draw attention to basic skills where better training -- no matter the motive -- is long overdue. "It's possible people now don't care about this, with the Vieques issues, corruption and the economic crisis going on," said Roame Torres Gonzalez, a University of Puerto Rico professor specializing in bilingualism. "But this institute can help a lot, as long as it does not get too politicized."

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