Spanish and English are interspersed in Puerto Rico — testimony to the island's four centuries as a Spanish colony and 100 years as an American territory. For example, the grocery store offers both “leche fresca” (fresh milk) and “light milk.” The local beer lists ingredients in Spanish but displays the U.S. surgeon general's health warning in English. Local courts use Spanish, the federal court English.
The accelerating Americanization of the past few decades, however, has not changed Puerto Ricans’ fundamental cultural identity: Puerto Rico remains today a predominantly Spanish-speaking territory with a predominantly Spanish- and Caribbean-influenced culture.
Language and cultural identity form an important issue in the debate over Puerto Rico's political status, both on the island and in the United States. Puerto Ricans opposed to statehood contend that becoming a state would force English on a society that has no desire to give up Spanish as its daily language. Supporters dismiss those fears as exaggerated.
In Washington, however, supporters of statehood seek to allay fears of a multilingual United States by saying that Puerto Ricans are already increasing their use and study of English. “People in the island, the majority, their first language is Spanish, but they are more than proficient in English,” says Xavier Romeu, former executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington.
For now, however, English is definitely a secondary language in Puerto Rico. About 25 percent of the population speak English easily, according to a 1990 Census Bureau survey. Another 24 percent speak English with difficulty, while a majority — 51 percent — speak no English. “From our perspective, 75 percent of the population speaks little or no English,” says Eric Stone, a spokesman for the organization U.S. English, which advocates English as the official language of federal and state governments.
A week-long visit by a non-Spanish-speaking reporter confirms the statistics. Puerto Rico has more than 100 radio stations, but only one English-speaking outlet. Highway signs are mostly Spanish-only. (Stop signs, for example, say “Pare.”) And, despite reassurances from Romeu, there were many times when no English-speakers could be found to provide information or assistance — including, on one occasion, a telephone call to the headquarters of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
“I speak English once every month,” says Fernando Martín, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. “It is not part of anybody's daily life in any way.’
Language has been a sensitive issue between the United States and Puerto Rico since the establishment of colonial rule at the turn of the century. The U.S. made English an official language in 1902 along with Spanish. Public school classes were taught in English even though many — probably most — Puerto Rican students did not understand the language. Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín, the island's first elected governor, established Spanish as the language of instruction in public schools in 1949 — his first year in office.
Language was the pivotal issue when the U.S. House of Representatives considered a bill in March to hold a referendum in Puerto Rico on its political status. Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, a New York Republican and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, offered an amendment to require Puerto Rico to adopt English-only policies if it were admitted as a state. Lobbyists for U.S. English pointed out that Congress had imposed English-language requirements on other would-be states, including Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Supporters of the referendum bill opposed Solomon's amendment. They countered with a compromise included in the bill as passed by the House that called on Puerto Rico to take steps to increase fluency in English if admitted as a state. The Senate did not take up the bill.
Public schools in Puerto Rico are also debating and struggling with the issue. Gov. Pedro J. Rosselló's administration is pushing a “Project for Developing a Bilingual Citizen” aimed at increasing the teaching of English in public schools. “We must equip each of our young people with the ability to communicate in both Spanish and English,” Rosselló, a strong statehood supporter, said in a speech at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in February.
Some teachers welcomed Rosselló's move, but others have resisted it. Teachers protesting the policy demonstrated in May 1997 in front of the Department of Education building in San Juan. “Math is difficult enough in Spanish, imagine in English,” one of the protesters’ signs read.
The language issue has formed part of the debate in the campaigning for the Dec. 13 plebiscite that Rosselló decided to call after the legislation for a congressionally sanctioned referendum stalled. If statehood gains a majority or plurality of the votes, opponents are certain to revive the issue as Congress takes up any legislation aimed at admitting Puerto Rico as a state.
“Can a state in which over three-quarters of the population does not speak English integrate properly with a country in which 97 percent of the population speaks English?” asks Mauro Mujica, chairman of U.S. English.
But Luis Ferré, the 94-year-old former governor and patriarch of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party, says language should not be an issue, either in Puerto Rico or in Washington.
“American democracy is supposed to be made up of equal rights,” Ferré says. “There's no language in the Constitution. Americans are supposed to understand each other. That's all.”