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The Three Taboos Against Equality II


August 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In Part I of "The Three Taboos Against Equality" (CB July 29), I explained how former Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin and his collaborators organized a campaign of fear against statehood based on false taboos. I discussed the taboo that manufacturing plants wouldn’t invest in Puerto Rico unless they had 100% income tax exemption. They are already paying some taxes and, by 2006, they will no longer be tax-exempt, yet they are still investing.

Today, I will discuss the other two taboos, including how one of them has been completely discredited and set aside and how the other has been substantially weakened.

The second taboo against equality, proclaimed by Muñoz Marin, was that the federal minimum wage couldn’t be paid to our workers because those "high wages" would bring about massive unemployment and widespread bankruptcy. If we became a state, he said, we would have to pay federal minimum wages; only commonwealth would protect us against this debacle.

Even labor leaders were convinced by Muñoz Marin and his collaborators. Those workers and employees, those men and women who worked for almost starvation wages, were exploited and kept in fear of demanding their due. Not only were our workers mercilessly exploited, but the low wages kept our people’s purchasing power at substandard levels and thereby slowed down our economic development.

When I started pointing out this unnecessary injustice publicly, during the plebiscite of 1967 and later during my campaign for mayor of San Juan in 1968, many New Progressive Party leaders were afraid even to talk about the federal minimum wage.

Labor unions were against it; the Chamber of Commerce was against it; the United Retailers Association was against it; the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association was adamantly opposed; and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) carried out a multimillion-dollar campaign of lies, raising fears of the "ill effects" of the federal minimum wage. Muñoz Marin and the PDP leaders scared the workers by saying it was better to have a low-paying job than no job at all.

I continued my efforts, however, and the first local union leader whom I convinced was Clifford Deppin, then the local president of the ILGWU, who helped me convince Evelyn Dubrow, the well-known and influential ILGWU lobbyist in Washington, who helped me get an appointment with then-Chairman of the Senate Labor Committee Sen. Harrison Williams from New Jersey, with whom I worked on amending the minimum-wage law and phasing it in locally.

Under the leadership of Sen. Williams, the federal minimum wage was amended to include Puerto Rico and the increases in wages to our employees and workers were phased in until the federal level was reached. The wage increases allowed our lowest-paid workers to qualify for the purchase of low-cost housing for the first time in their lives. It allowed them to purchase at least a used car; it allowed their children to continue their education and all of them to reach a higher standard of living.

Today, politicians in Puerto Rico don’t dare oppose increases in the federal minimum wage because the people have realized the taboo raised by the PDP was politically motivated and based on lies.

With the taboos against the federal minimum wage and against the elimination of income tax credits shown to have been fabricated by proponents of the commonwealth status in an effort to prevent people from seeing the truth of the commonwealth’s ineffectiveness, a big step was taken toward achieving equality.

The third taboo proclaimed by Muñoz Marin and his collaborators was that if we ever achieved equality by becoming a state, we would lose our language and our culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In this world of instantaneous global communication, the more languages a person is fluent in, the more opportunities that person will have in any profession or endeavor. In the continents of America–that is, North America & Central America, and South America–the two main languages are English and Spanish.

Whoever doesn’t realize that to be fluent in both English and Spanish is an advantage, not a limitation, is living in another world or is so obtuse that he or she fails to see the obvious.

In Puerto Rico, our native language is Spanish, but the prevailing and dominant language of our fellow citizens in the 50 states of the union is English. Therefore, to communicate with them better and to be able to take advantage of more and better jobs, business opportunities, and technical, scientific, and professional opportunities, we must speak English fluently. Just because we are able to speak English and become a state doesn’t mean, as Populares and Independentistas allege, that we will lose our language and our culture. Obviously, they don’t understand how losing a language or a culture can occur.

There is no doubt that if Puerto Rico had an underdeveloped or primitive culture and language and came into contact with a people with a developed culture and a developed language, the latter would prevail. However, when two developed languages such as Spanish and English and two developed cultures come into contact, each will enrich the other and neither will be dominant, unless an overwhelming number of people from one of the two cultures overwhelms the other. For example, if Puerto Rico had a population of 100,000 people instead of the four million it has and 500,000 Americans from Ohio came to Puerto Rico, the prevailing culture would soon be that of the Ohioans and English would be the prevailing language because they would overwhelm us by 5-1.

However, the fact is that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, we won’t have millions of our fellow citizens from the 50 states coming to Puerto Rico because we are already too densely populated. On the contrary, those who come will be assimilated into our culture and most will end up speaking Spanish and living our way of life. After all, we are almost four million with Spanish as our first language and with our own culture.

To say the American citizens of Puerto Rico will lose their culture and their language if we achieve the right to vote for the president and to have representation in Congress is, to say the least, absurd. When we become a state, we in Puerto Rico will keep attending the same churches, we will keep having the same family values, we will keep loving and respecting our parents as we do now, we will keep behaving with our neighbors as we do now, we will keep singing and dancing to the same songs and music we sing and dance to now, we will keep enjoying the same poets and the same literature, and we will keep celebrating our fiestas patronales and other holidays the way we’ve always done.

I see no basis whatsoever, other than an inferiority complex, to support the fear that we will lose our language and our culture the moment we gain the right to participate in the democratic process of our nation.

The new generation in Puerto Rico isn’t afraid of being bilingual. They know how important it is to be at least bilingual in today’s world and in the future. They have no inferiority complex about their culture.

In the 50 states of the union, the Spanish language and the Hispanic culture are becoming more and more prevalent and important. More and more communities are speaking Spanish today. There are more and more Spanish-speaking radio and television stations. There are more and more newspapers and magazines in the Spanish language. There is significantly more influence by the Hispanic culture on music, food, literature, theater, and film.

As a state with strong Hispanic, African, and American cultures, where Spanish is spoken by almost everyone, Puerto Rico would have much to contribute to the nation, as well as much to gain, from becoming a full partner. English is becoming more and more important to us and to the rest of the world, just as Spanish is becoming more and more important in the 50 states of the union. In fact, Spanish is now the second language in the States and many people are studying Spanish to function more efficiently.

As the American citizens in Puerto Rico have realized that the fears raised against the loss of income tax exemption, the imposition of the federal minimum wage, and the supposed loss of language and culture were contrived taboos, they have set those taboos aside and the road to equality has become shorter and smoother.

Carlos Romero Barcelo is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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