What Language for Puerto Rico?

By Juan Garcia-Passalacqua
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

Is Congress, for the first time in 100 years, going to bite the bullet on the issue of Puerto Rico? The Caribbean island was obtained as war booty from Spain in the war of 1898 and has been a self-governing commonwealth associated with the United States since 1952.

The debate on the House floor the evening of May 22 gave us an inkling of what may happen by a vote of 414 to 10, the mainstay of the Puerto Rican economy for the past 20 years was killed. The Territories and Possessions Corporate Tax Exemp-tion Act (better known by its IRS section number, 936) was repealed, with a transition period of 10 years.

Meanwhile, a "United States-Puerto Rico Status Act" is making headway toward mark-up in the House. It was introduced on March 6 by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee on Resources, and has been co-sponsored by 50 members of Congress, among them, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The act is intended as the congressional response to a plebiscite held in Puerto Rico in November 1992 in which statehood status won by a plurality, while anti-statehood forces (common-wealth and independence) got 53 percent of the vote.

The proposed act offers Puerto Ricans two roads - one toward statehood, the other toward independence - and calls for a vote on the island before the 100th year, 1998. We all should welcome this development.

Congress' consideration of the act does not really raise an issue for the 7 million Puerto Ricans living in both the island and the United States, but raises the crucial issue of whether the United States will define itself as a pluralistic or an ethnocentric nation with respect to one of its ethnic communities. Will Congress, in defining the road toward statehood, demand that English be the official language of Puerto Rico?

"...Puerto Ricans are a people,

a nationality, totally distinct

from Americans." As drafted, the Gingrich-Young bill is simply a rules bill. As such, it can go directly to the House floor only with the approval of Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B. Solomon (R-NY). However, Solomon is one of the biggest supporters of the "English Only" movement in Congress and the United States, and he is expected to demand that English be declared the required official language of the state of Puerto Rico.

In the section defining the alternative of "a path under United States sovereignty leading to statehood," the bill requires that "Puerto Rico adheres to the same language requirements as in the several states." No one has been able to define what that cryptic phrase really means.

Every member of Congress must understand that Puerto Ricans are a people, a nationality, totally distinct from Americans. Our native language is Spanish. Official figures filed in Congress during 1989-1991 hearings on the status issue prove that 83 percent of island residents do not speak or understand English. The bill in effect offers a Hispanic state.

I wholeheartedly support the approval of the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, but I insist with equal fervor that the language issue be made crystal clear before the bill is sent to the Senate and the president.

Historically, world powers have come to fear the "barbarians at the gates." To some Americans, the "brown hordes" of Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, are as menacing as Vandals and Goths were to the Romans. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Cubans, Haitians and Puerto Ricans are not only at the gates, they've busted through in ever-growing numbers. The challenge for the United States - with Puerto Rico as the case in point - is whether it will be ethno-centric and demand assimilation or whether it will respect diversity as a pluralistic nation. □

[Editor's Note We obviously disagree with the writer that maintaining a common language is "ethnocentric," but we thought our readers would like to see our opposition's thinking on the Puerto Rico issue. The following response by Congressmen Roth and Solomon is reprinted with permission from the July 4 edition of The Washington Post.]