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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 it bred.

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 united.

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 at:

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