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Editorial & Column
Why Common Citizenship Cant Work Without A Common Language
BY GARRY HOYT
February 6, 2003
In the pattern of ambivalence and deception that has characterized commonwealth status since its inception, no weapon has been more effective than the calculated dismantling of English-language instruction in P.R. The selective snuffing out--and keeping out--of English comprehension has become a dagger to the heart of any hopes for a permanent relationship based on common citizenship, because democracy simply cant work where the citizens cant comprehend each other, or the thoughts and plans of the nations elected leaders.
The whole point of a common citizenship is to unite all the citizens with the feeling and reality of a shared sense of purpose and belonging--attributes which are specifically denied when one group is isolated by its inability to understand or communicate with the majority. A separate language separates people as surely as a common language unites them. So, for those whose end purpose was the separation of P.R. from America, denial of English was a vital tactic, just as comprehension of English should have been vital to those seeking real inclusion in America.
Here, some historical review is instructive. Soon after the U.S. colonial conquest of P.R. in 1898, English became the instrument of public governance and public education that was provided by the U.S. occupation. In those days, American teachers and administrators, who spoke only English, were imported to carry out public education. This wasnt so much a question of disrupting a satisfactory, existing system as it was an attempt to replace a totally inadequate public education system with the only educational means the U.S. had at hand--which was instruction and instructors in English.
Judged by todays more enlightened standards, this might be dismissed as heavy handed. Judged by the standards of that day, however, it merely followed the accepted English, French, German, and Spanish model of colonial policy, all of which began with the imposition of the conquerors language.
There were of course a number of insulting and unnecessary moves, like respelling Puerto Rico as "Porto Rico" on maps as a means of facilitating English pronunciation. Like any occupation, the forces of the occupier often tended to ride roughshod over the habits of the occupied. This rankled with a number of P.R. patriots, whose only recourse was a long-term strategy in which language was to play a key role. With the creation of the self-governing Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952, they found the ideal vehicle for dissimulation.
The successful execution of their language strategy depended on three factors:
The elimination of English had to be selective--that is, blocked to the general populace but allowed to a privileged 20%. It was recognized that command of English was necessary to deal with the U.S. colonial power, to attract much-needed economic interest, and to create the illusion of general bilingual ability. So, the privileged class was allowed to learn English in private schools, but the general public was to be denied effective English instruction, even though it was listed as a course.
The success of this selective discrimination was such that it was possible to visit San Juan and come away with the impression that this was a bilingual society because all the waiters, government officials, and businesspeople spoke English. On the island, however, the majority didnt. This meant all the islands major media would be entirely in Spanish and English media wouldnt even be a factor.
The elimination of English had to be covert, unstated, and officially denied, since its practical implementation required the assent of the U.S. Congress and the financial support of the U.S. taxpayer. This aspect of the strategy depended directly on the ignorance, apathy, and self-interest of the U.S Congress--all qualities that were abundantly available in Washington. It is hard to know just where the collective heads of the U.S. Congress have been throughout the span of this relationship, but it doesnt appear to have been on their shoulders. In the clouds would be a charitable description.
The elimination of English comprehension also required the active support of the educational establishment in the U.S., which tended to be dominated by liberal elements in the northeast. This group of self-proclaimed intellectuals had already distinguished themselves by their promotion of (a) progressive education (a failure), (b) the "new math" (a failure), and (c) blind support of worldwide socialism (a failure). The cult of multicultural sensitivity was just coming into fashion, and the U.S. educational establishment fell all over itself to join this new cause and redress the plight of Spanish-speaking children, who were allegedly "being forced to lose their identity by instruction in English.
Of course, the case for the elimination of English was adroitly presented in English by bilingual Puerto Ricans, themselves the product of instruction in English, yet nobody seemed to appreciate the contradiction that their identity was quite intact. In fact, the long-time leader of the P.R. Independence Party, Ruben Berrios, was educated in the U.S. at Yale and in England at Oxford. What amounted to a lifetime of educational experience in English has inflicted no apparent damage on his active P.R. identity.
In any case, the fruits, the culmination, el colmo of this 50-year linguistic manipulation came up recently in the public statements of the P.R. Senate Majority Leader, Antonio Fas Alzamora, who now advocates not just the official elimination of English as a second language but its replacement by French and Portuguese. There seems to be quite an outcry over his proposal, particularly from the remnants of the Statehood Party.
Seen in the perspective of my 50 years of observation, however, Im not sure what all the fuss is about. All he is doing is proclaiming candidly the policy that the commonwealth forces have been pursuing covertly for 50 years. The 80% absence of English comprehension on the island is now an accomplished fact and, from a commonwealth view, that is an important achievement.
Fas foolish idea of bringing in French and Portuguese is only his way of celebrating and underlining the successful extinction of English among the general populace. To have accomplished all this under the guise of U.S. citizenship, and to directly finance it with massive dollar aid from the U.S. taxpayer, is a remarkable political feat.
As I see it, it will be easier for the U.S. to accept this accomplished fact, reflecting Puerto Ricos deeply felt aspiration for nationhood, than to prolong the charade with any illusions about P.R. becoming an integral part of America. So, I say to the long-negligent and slumbering U.S. Congress, "Look, what you have here is an expensive colony that no longer has any military significance and consistently rejects an American identity at the most basic language level. Why are you wasting American citizenship and U.S. taxpayer dollars on this inappropriate and unappreciative audience? Why not give P.R.--with generous U.S. support--the independence that our own history, the islands desire, and world opinion suggests?"
Of course, this means the gradual phasing out of automatic U.S. citizenship for P.R., but more importantly, it would show the world that America is big enough to recognize that not everybody wants to be American and a small island in the Caribbean can take the benefit of a 100-year U.S. colonization and turn it into a friendly, independent, Spanish-speaking neighbor. Ironically, one of the first things they would probably do would be to start teaching English effectively, in order to function in the global economy, where English is the nonpolitical, international language.
The important lesson, which the experience in Puerto Rico clearly illustrates, is that common citizenship cant fairly work without the communication link of a common language. You cant be a fully functioning Frenchman without speaking French, or a Brazilian without speaking Portuguese, and you cant hope to be an equal American citizen without speaking English.
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.