Language Issue Is Central to Any Statehood Bid

VIDEO: Any bid for Puerto Rican statehood is complicated by language issues. The territory currently has two official languages, English and Spanish.

By Alexis Ariana Hermosillo
Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- On a campaign stop here in March then-Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum raised one of the touchiest issues lurking within any bid for Puerto Rico to become the nation's 51st state: language.

"I have no doubt that one of the requirements that would be put forth by the (U.S.) Congress," said Santorum, during an interview with El Nuevo Dia, a Spanish language newspaper, "is the requirement that English would be universal here on the island."

The statement was met with a sharp reaction from some quarters in Puerto Rico.

"The first thing I'll say is that he was wrong on the facts on the law," said Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress. "There is no federal law at present requiring or imposing English as the official language on the United States."

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that will vote on Nov. 6 on whether it wishes to be considered by the U.S. Congress for statehood, has two official languages and government agencies function in both English and Spanish. But ona day-to-day basis, Spanish is by far the dominant language in the streets and schools.

U.S. English, Inc., a Washington, D.C. group dedicated to making English the official language of the U.S., has contended that fewer than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans are proficient in English.

And in a poll released Oct. 1, U.S. English said the results showed that only 37 percent of Puerto Ricans favored statehood and that the number declined to 28 percent if Congress would require that English become the sole official language of Puerto Rico as a condition of statehood.

Recognizing the potential political problems surrounding language, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, a statehood proponent, announced in May an ambitious program that seeks to make all high school graduates English-Spanish bilingual by 2022. Part of the program would require classes to be taught in English at public schools.

Although Puerto Rico is officially a bilingual territory, University of Puerto Rico anthropology professor Jorge Duany agrees that a relatively small percentage of Puerto Ricans are truly bilingual.

"Everyday life is ... conducted in mostly Spanish…it would be difficult for statehood to immediately change this," said Duany.

But Pierluisi says to impose an English language requirement on Puerto Rico would be unfair, because it is not required of any other state.

"You shouldn't be imposing on Puerto Rico what you haven't imposed elsewhere," he said.

Pierluisi agrees that bilingualism would be beneficial and says the emphasis would have to begin in the schools.

"We just have to improve our school system," he said, "particularly our public school system."