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Where Spanish Is a Threatened Language

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The ice, snow and sleet that paralyzed American aviation last week forced upon me two extra days in tropical Puerto Rico. Somehow I managed. And so did the legions of other Americans and Canadians sharing stories of canceled flights as they contentedly drank cafe con leche in the warm sun of Plaza de Colon. 

The bonus days were passed in a truly bilingual world, where signage, conversations and television fell into a jumble of English and Spanish. One had to smile at the tense complaints up north about the English language losing its primacy. "The U.S. is an English-speaking country," you hear, "and darn it, people who come here should adjust." Fair enough. But spend some time in Puerto Rico, even outside the tourist districts, and you see a Spanish-speaking society that's been pressed to change its language for over 100 years. 

Puerto Rico is not a state, but its people are U.S. citizens. The currency, post offices and federal courts are American. But the Puerto Rican people have been Spanish speakers since the conquistadors colonized the island 500 years ago. Throughout their close and complicated relationship with the U.S., Puerto Ricans have struggled to retain their cultural distinctions, with Spanish being the biggest.  

Every day city-sized cruise ships discharge thousands of Americans into the charming narrow streets of Old San Juan, few of whom think twice about speaking anything but English with waiters, store clerks or police officers. Of course, these workers are bilingual, some conversing in flawless English. But you could imagine how many of these mainland Americans would have taken umbrage had some stranger on the street back home addressed them in Spanish with the expectation that they spoke it.

"English has long been viewed on the island as both a tool of liberation and an instrument of oppression," wrote Alicia Pousada of the University of Puerto Rico. It's the key to economic advancement and a threat to a Latin culture. As an example of the conflict, one of my cab drivers resisted speaking to me in his native language, even though my Spanish was better than his English. 

When the United States took Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, the U.S. military government sought to convert the island to English. The 1902 Official Languages Act declared that the government and courts must treat English as an equal to Spanish. 

The American rulers established universal free education but also a series of policies aimed at turning the children into English speakers. They tried to hire only teachers who could speak English. Those who taught math or history were tested in English.  

For decades, Puerto Ricans engaged in heated debates over forcing English into the classrooms. In 1948, Puerto Rico's first governor, Luis Munoz Marin, set today's policy of teaching all students in Spanish, with English as a special subject. 

Puerto Ricans occasionally vote on whether their island should become a U.S. state or an independent country -- or keep its commonwealth status. The independence parties always come in a distant third.  

But while the people clearly want to retain their privileged ties with the United States, they also want to speak Spanish at home. Polls show overwhelming majorities vowing they would not give up Spanish, even if English were to become the official language. (The latest threat is cable TV, which pipes in hundreds of English language channels.) 

Wouldn't it make sense to have Spanish the language of Puerto Rico and English of the 50 states? I think so. But given the intense pressures to go bilingual in neighboring Latin America, Americans might reconsider going nuts every time the recorded message says, "Para Espanol, oprima numero dos."  

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