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PUERTO RICO REPORT
The Many Costs Of Colonialism
by Lance Oliver
January 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
The costs of colonialism come in amounts large and small, in
ways both predictable and unexpected. In scores of countries
around the world, schoolchildren begin their day singing their
national anthem or saluting a flag, rarely with a second thought.
In Puerto Rico, it's not that simple.
A bill proposed by New Progressive Party Senator Carmen Luz
Berríos would have children sing La Borinqueña and
the Star Spangled Banner and salute both the Puerto Rican and
U.S. flags to start their school day.
This has set off a debate about whether these acts will lead
to political divisions in grade school, whether children who do
or do not participate will be called names by their peers, and
if a flood of lawsuits will result from those who object to one
or another aspect of the ceremony.
Let's set aside the obvious question: with corruption befouling
the government, the water system in perpetual crisis and infrastructure
growing more overburdened faster than a frantic effort to build
more can hope to match, is tinkering with the first moments of
the day of the fourth grade class at Barrio Jurutungo Elementary
really the best use of the Legislature's time?
No point going down that road again.
But the arguments about saluting the flags are another example
of the many minor and not-so-minor ways that 500 years of colonialism
have shaped Puerto Rico.
The words "respect" and "dignity" are used
constantly in Puerto Rico. They are demanded constantly, from
the United States, from political opponents, from other branches
of government, and so on. They are so important precisely because,
as a colony, Puerto Rico is not sure it ever really gets treated
with respect or dignity.
A heightened sensitivity to any small slight, real or perceived,
is the result. As a standard part of her act, Madonna would rub
between her legs the national flag of the country where she was
performing. Only in Puerto Rico did it become a diplomatic incident,
the subject of commentaries by people who couldn't hum a bar of
a Madonna tune if their wing tips depended on it and normally
wouldn't give her two seconds of thought.
When a jeans company, in a lawsuit, stated that Puerto Ricans
were a mixed-race people who spoke Spanish and worked for lower
wages than people in the 50 states (the point being that Puerto
Rico was not part of the mainstream United States), protesters
burned jeans in the street. The wording was crude, but as one
commentator responded, what are we protesting? We are a mixed-race
people who speak Spanish and earn less than stateside residents.
It's the sensitivity born of colonialism.
The bill involving the morning flag salutes also strikes a
tender nerve because there is a special sensitivity about anything
that smacks of indoctrinating school children. Elderly people
still recall the charade of their Spanish-speaking teachers pretending
to teach classes to Spanish-speaking students in English, as required
by the U.S. administrators prior to the formation of the commonwealth.
It was one of the most unsuccessful and damaging policies the
U.S. ever imposed and it caused hard feelings for decades. Even
people too young to have experienced it have picked up the distrust
In the fading but still alluring glow of "consensus"
over the Vieques issue, there is a strong tendency to oppose anything
that revives the old divisions and some argue that inserting questions
of patriotism and allegiance into the classroom will do that.
Many Puerto Ricans very much want to see themselves as a people
But again, the chasms carved into the society by the issues
raised by colonialism make that almost impossible.
The other real fear is that of persecution. The government
is still trying to settle the issue of the "carpetas,"
the files kept on independentistas, who were considered "subversives"
by the police. By looking around a classroom to see who is saluting
which flag, even young children can be pigeon-holed into political
groups, and therefore made open to discrimination, attack or ridicule.
The whole issue resembles debates over separation of church
and state. We don't make children in public schools recite Catholic
prayers because some may be Protestants, Jews or some other religion.
But beyond that, in Puerto Rico many feel the need for a separation
of politics and state.
It's all part of the sensitivity that may sometimes seem surreal
but is not entirely without reason.
It's just one more example of the costs of colonialism.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email