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The Clash Between U.S. Citizenship And P.R. Nationalism


January 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In past articles, I have pointed out the many ways Puerto Rico downplays, ignores, neglects, and sometimes openly scorns, the basic precepts of American citizenship. These precepts would include personal identification as American, endorsement of English as the national language, respect for the U.S. military, observance of the important symbols of flag and anthem--and most important--a feeling of primary national loyalty to America. There are of course no federal laws requiring any of the above, for the simple reason that for the vast majority of Americans, all of the above are accepted practices and as such are nonissues.

We assume we are Americans--what else would we be?

In the States, the primacy of English is a practical reality required by everyday social contact and basic workday needs. The founding fathers constructed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in English, not French, German, Italian, or Spanish, on the reasonable assumption that English was the only language all the citizens of the U.S. would understand. Even the revolt against England couldn’t shake America’s historic embrace of the English language. Knowledge of English remains inextricably interwoven with the development of the American character.

Later in the nation’s development, Congress recognized the growing number of immigrants coming to America from all over the world should be made aware of the necessary shift in attitudes and loyalties that becoming a U.S. citizen implied. So, they instituted the oath of allegiance that everyone becoming a U.S. citizen must take at the swearing-in ceremony. This oath is rather specific on the matter of loyalty priorities, and it is worth reminding ourselves just exactly what it says. This is the oath, verbatim from the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service: "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, to whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."

Most Americans, born into automatic citizenship, don’t think twice about this, because they face no need to shift or shed previous national loyalties. But most Americans, and certainly any elected public official, would, if asked, be willing to swear to the loyalty priorities specified in the oath. It would be very interesting if some enterprising newspaper would specifically ask leaders of the current P.R. government, Would you be willing to take the same oath of allegiance that every new U.S. citizen is required to take? That simple question frames the dilemma that increasingly divides P.R. from America, and an honest answer would help to clear the air as to where the current leaders are leading the island.

I should point out there would be no shame in an honest no to the question. The enduring shame lies in the hypocritical silence that implies neither willingness to openly endorse primary allegiance to the U.S., nor to openly subscribe to the equally honest alternative--which is independence.

It’s important to point out that none of the above has anything to do with the natural cultural affinity and loyalty that millions of Italian Americans, Irish Americans, African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans living in the U.S. feel toward the regions of their ancestry. Nor does it have anything to do with the highly desirable acquisition and preservation of a second language. Being bilingual--with English as the common denominator--is a very tangible, cultural, and commercial asset in today’s global economy. And the active and growing presence of Spanish media in the U.S. is firm evidence of the unique vitality Spanish enjoys in the U.S.

Language is most definitely not an either / or proposition, as many on the island would have it, where you can only learn one language at the cost of another. That is a political fiction promoted for political purposes in P.R. Whatever language any American chooses to speak at home, or socially, is entirely his or her private choice, and there is no country in the world that better protects that right than America. That valued tolerance in no way alters the reality that a nation--any nation--needs a common language so all sectors of the country can communicate with each other and thus make democracy work. And in the U.S.A. that common language is English. Puerto Rico’s persistent rejection of that reality is the most telling evidence of where the hearts of the island’s leaders lie.

When, over years, government and academic leaders nurture and nourish a spirit of separate nationalism--with the acquiescence if not the active support of the majority--it should surprise nobody that what you end up with is public feelings of separate nationality. We all grow up thinking and feeling what we are exposed to and surrounded with, and in P.R., people grow up in an atmosphere of uncontested P.R. nationalism. The inconsistency comes with the issue of U.S. citizenship. As the oath of allegiance clearly states, gaining the privilege of U.S. citizenship requires the renouncing of other national allegiances. My bet is that you couldn’t get many--if any--of the current government leaders to take the same oath of allegiance the U.S. requires of every new citizen.

Therein lies a huge discrepancy. Citizenship is the official membership badge of the nation. It isn’t intended to be taken lightly, and it’s certainly not intended to be worn by those professing conflicting or competing national priorities.

What might throw this Puerto Rican discrepancy into sharper focus is the imminent probability of a U.S. war with Iraq. Consider how this may change the extensive political posturing that accompanied the Vieques furor. That artificially induced event was characterized by shameless, nationalistic strutting in P.R., complete with politicians kissing the Vieques ground many had previously never even visited--matched by the equally shameless pandering of visiting U.S. politicians angling for the P.R. vote in the U.S. But in time of war, anything that might subtract the training that might save the lives of U.S. Armed Forces--including many loyal P.R. American military--will be viewed in the U.S. in an entirely different light. So, what seemed like a safe, liberal cause for U.S. politicians from Pataki to Al Sharpton to endorse, in time of war becomes an act of unpatriotic, national disloyalty.

All of this lays bare the clash between the loyalties of U.S. citizenship and the loyalties of P.R. nationalism. Here, the technical obligations of the former are heavily outweighed by the long-cultivated pull of the latter. The observable reality is that most Puerto Ricans feel Puerto Rican, not American, and their primary loyalty is to P.R. not the U.S.A. The only status that accommodates that firmly established reality is independence. Generously supported by the U.S., this end to an outdated colonialism is a course that history, honesty, and the surrounding world would admire, and will enable the island to enjoy the full-fledged autonomy to which it has repeatedly aspired.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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