To Become State, Puerto Rico Should Adopt English

April 3, 1998
(Copyright Newsday Inc., 1998)

Early last month, the House did the right thing - barely. After 10 hours of debate, it decided by a one-vote margin to let Puerto Rico hold a plebiscite on its future. Voters would be permitted to choose: 1) statehood, 2) a continuation of commonwealth status or 3) independence. After almost a century of association with the United States, the island deserves a chance to decide its future.

Unfortunately, the Senate seems intent on slow-walking the plebiscite bill into 1999. It has no plans to vote in the foreseeable future. But as the public debate over Puerto Rico's future heats up on the mainland and on the island, one key point should not be lost: If Puerto Rico does vote for statehood, it must be prepared to embrace American culture.

This means schools must produce students who are fluent in English. (Right now, 75 percent of all Puerto Ricans are not.) This isn't a matter of cultural imperialism from mainland right-wingers. It's common sense. Unless Congress and Puerto Rico agree on it at the outset, statehood could work badly for all.

Upon admission to the union, Puerto Rico would automatically be the nation's poorest state - with a per capita income almost 50 percent less than Mississippi's. It would be geographically isolated as well. And without a strong base of English speakers, its chances for economic progress in the U.S. business world would be slight. In short, Puerto Rico could become a nation within a nation. That is not a formula for a pleasant relationship.

Congress need not apologize for insisting on better English proficiency as a condition for statehood. True, the demand might mean a cultural sacrifice for many on the island. But if Puerto Ricans are uncomfortable with that, they could always opt for independence or continued commonwealth status instead.

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