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The Orlando Sentinel
Statehood And The English Language
By Matthew Hay Brown | San Juan Bureau
May 25, 2003
GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico -- The eight-sided stop signs at the intersections in this municipality outside of San Juan advise drivers to PARE before proceeding. But the officers who write the tickets when the motorists don't stop travel in cruisers that identify them clearly as "Guaynabo City Police."
A Spanish-speaking territory of the English-speaking United States, Puerto Rico long has lived in a sort of linguistic limbo. And, as the reaction to a modest-sounding attempt to sort things out seems to indicate, islanders may prefer it that way.
The proposal by Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora to make Spanish more official than English would have little practical effect on the use of either language in this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth.
But as Fas Alzamora seems to be calculating, conferring even a symbolic primacy on a language foreign to the majority of the United States could be enough to keep Congress from accepting Puerto Rico as the 51st state.
"I do think it would be a slightly steeper hill to climb, if the other 50 states speak English," U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney of Oviedo said.
It's that threat that has aroused Fas Alzamora's critics. They accuse him of playing politics at the expense of the island's best interests.
"Go ahead -- make my day," taunted the pro-statehood Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock, spoiling for the debate with a line of English most everyone here can understand. "This is an attempt against intellectual development . . . He is brutalizing us."
Even some of Fas Alzamora's allies, seeing a replay of a similarly divisive maneuver from a decade ago, have proved reluctant to join this fight.
"This is not a priority of this administration," said Gov. Sila M. Calderón, president of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, of which Fas Alzamora is a member. "Our priorities are employment, education, security, health, communities . . . [Changing the language law] is not a priority."
The dispute goes straight to central questions of identity and status in this former colony of Spain, invaded by the United States in 1898 and held ever since in what many see as a sort of political limbo.
On one side are those such as Fas Alzamora, who favor maintaining the island's current relationship with the mainland. They say the Spanish language is an essential element of the history, culture and life that make Puerto Rico distinct from the rest of the United States.
On the other side are those like McClintock, who want statehood for the island. They say Puerto Rico's economic, political and social development depend on the people's ability to communicate in the language of the United States.
In truth, neither side is proposing any practical change in policy. Neither wants to discourage the use of either language; both support better instruction in both.
"At this particular point in time, the battle is purely symbolic," said Northeastern University Prof. Amílcar Antonio Barreto, author of The Politics of Language in Puerto Rico.
"It's a political football, and Fas is playing with it," added University of Puerto Rico professor Roamé Torres González, author of Language, Bilingualism and Nationality. "If you look at the reaction from the other side, he's having some effect."
Legally, Spanish and English enjoy equal standing as official languages here. But the reality is that at home, at work and at play, most Puerto Ricans speak only Spanish.
It is that reality that Fas Alzamora says he is trying to address with legislation he has pledged to file before his term ends next year.
"The official language of a country is that with which the government communicates with the people and vice-versa," he said. "Here in the island, about 80 percent of the citizens do not understand or speak English."
He recommends no practical changes in the use of either language. The island government would continue to conduct most business in Spanish, while federal courts and agencies here would carry on in English.
He says the amendment would stop the "abuse" first codified more than a century ago by officials appointed by Washington to rule the newly acquired possession. A succession of American governors, none of whom ever learned to speak Spanish, made English an official language of government and the language of instruction in public schools.
English-language instruction failed to produce a bilingual population and was abandoned in the 1940s. But the 1902 law that made English an official language remained on the books into the 1990s.
At the time, immigration to the mainland was inspiring English-first campaigns in several states, and members of Congress were saying that the dominance of Spanish in Puerto Rico was hurting the island's chances of being accepted into the union.
Seizing the moment, the pro-commonwealth Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón signed legislation in 1991 to make Spanish the sole official language.
The move inspired mass protests and became an issue in the 1992 gubernatorial and legislative elections here. The statehooders won, and in his first official act, Gov. Pedro J. Rosselló filed a bill to reinstate English.
Fas Alzamora's proposal, if successful, could meet a similar reversal. Rosselló, who stepped down in 2001 after two terms as governor, has announced his candidacy to retake the office in 2004.
Whatever comes of the legislation, it seems unlikely to have much effect on everyday life in the island: Spanish is spoken virtually everywhere, by almost everyone. A substantial minority, by some estimates as much as a quarter of the population, also speaks English.
The language of Shakespeare, as it is sometimes called here, is a required subject in public schools from grades 1 through 12. American music, television shows and movies are popular. Many here have lived, studied or worked in the mainland United States.
The influence of English is subtly pervasive. The Spanish-language daily El Nuevo Día runs a listings section on Fridays called "Wíken;" diners looking for a quick bite in San Juan can choose between El Sandwichón and El Hamburguer. Shoppers at Plaza las Americas leave their cars in the parking lot; friends communicating through the Internet are chateando.
Elsewhere in the world -- notably in France and Spain -- the encroachment of English has led some to seek protection for local languages. Such efforts have attracted little interest in Puerto Rico. Status politics may draw partisans into the language debate, but few here see a real threat to the vernacular.
"Even though the law has both languages, Spanish is dominant," said Jorge Vélez, an English instructor at the University of Puerto Rico. "There's no indication of English changing that."