BY JOHN S. WILSON
Rick Santorum loves English. So much so that he traveled to Puerto Rico ahead of the Republican primary there and said that in return for statehood English would have to be the sole official language of the island. Santorum may have taken AP English but he certainly failed history.
A U.S. territory since 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain in accordance with the Treaty of Paris, and has long recognized two official languages, English and Spanish. Something it shares with Hawaii, another territory that later earned statehood and has recognized English and Hawaiian as official languages, as required by its state constitution, since 1978. So why is it the GOP lets Hawaii pay homage to their native language sans political rhetoric and not Puerto Ricans?
Adopting English-only laws wouldn’t change Puerto Rico’s complicated history with Spain, and Puerto Ricans largely wouldn’t support a revisionist history, anyway. Their bilingual system suits them just fine.
Long before the island became known as Puerto Rico (“rich port”) and was a vital military outpost in the Caribbean under Juan Ponce de Leon’s leadership, it was known as Borikén, “the great land of the valiant and noble Lord,” by the Taíno Indians who emigrated from Venezuela around 900 B.C. They migrated in waves throughout areas in the Carribbean, including the Bahamas and Greater Antilles. A peaceful and creative people, it wasn’t until 1950 that scientists were able to pinpoint their origin by tracing the remains of their rare white–on–red pottery.
The Taínos’ artistic remnants lasted much longer than did their control of the island. Spain colonized Puerto Rico and exerted immense control — first by taking advantage of the Taínos’ affability, then enslaving them. After the unsuccessful rebellion of 1511 the Taínos were largely left slaughtered or stricken with smallpox (brought to the island by Spaniards) and left to die. King Charles I finally granted emancipation in 1920. Spain’s influences — both negative and positive — remain in Puerto Rico and are evident in its history and culture: from its music to its culinary styles to its language.
Puerto Rico has no intention of ever turning its back on its Spanish heritage, and it shouldn’t have to. Even Republicans in Puerto Rico believe that “issues of language and culture should be controlled by states and not the federal government.” After all, no federal law mandates English be the official language of states or territories. Typically the drumbeat surrounding English-only initiatives by the GOP is seen in areas that have high rates of immigration, and, thus, are subject to a culture change over time. But the arrogance required to force a native bilingual population to choose one language, is obscene. Never mind the fact that forcing English-only scenarios in local government and public schools presents far more issues of confusion, miscommunication, and, depending on the situation, can be injurious.
It’s also disingenuous to dangle statehood in front of Puerto Rican voters, who are only able to participate in partisan primaries but are unable to vote for president in the general election. Congress has yet to ever seriously consider a bill that would grant statehood. Yet it seems like every four years a politician or two will appear before a Puerto Rican audience as though achieving statehood will be some kind of priority.
Santorum needs to realize — the sooner, the better — that Puerto Rico doesn’t need his false-pride or his vote pandering.
JOHN S. WILSON has over four years experience as a freelance journalist with over 100 editorials in regional and national publications, including The Huffington Post, Black Enterprise, Mediaite, The Grio, CNN, GigaOM, and The Loop 21. His commentary has been dissected on or has appeared in The New York Post, ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann,’ ‘The Young Turks,’ and other national outlets. He can be reached by Twitter @johnswilson1