As President of the United States, a Californian who admired and was admired by fellow Americans of Hispanic/Latino descent, it was only natural that Ronald Reagan supported statehood for Puerto Rico. Personally and as President he never wavered in his unequivocal conviction that statehood was historically and legally the best political, economic and cultural solution for a people in a territorial status for too long.
As a candidate for President in 1980, his Wall Street Journal editorial accurately observed: “As a ‘commonwealth’ Puerto Rico is now neither a State nor independent, and thereby has a historically unnatural status.” Reagan supported statehood without delay if approved with consent of the voters. In a formal Presidential statement from the White House he affirmed, “In statehood, the language and culture of the island – rich in history and tradition – would be respected, for in the United States the cultures of the world live together with pride.”
After nearly 12 decades of territorial status under federal sovereignty without representation in Congress when issues of culture and language are decided, free and informed democratic self-determination on the real options for a permanent and more prosperous political status holds promise for cultural success among 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. The high rate of participation in the 2012 local referendum rejecting territorial status and embracing statehood by clear majorities demonstrates voters recognize statehood rather than “commonwealth” will empower the people culturally, as well as politically and economically.
Clearly, the fear-based ideological manifesto falsely claiming Puerto Rico is culturally endangered by statehood is no longer plausible; the people know better. Local culture is strong and vital enough in the daily lives of the people to thrive even more securely under statehood.
In contrast, while statehood is popular and here to stay in Hawaii, local culture thrives only through extraordinary efforts to make local island traditions and heritage a part of daily life for native Hawaiians. Because native culture was most endangered in colonial and territorial times, since statehood the federal and local governments have sustained programs and measures for promotion of native rights and economic empowerment in the community and local industries, supporting survival and success of native heritage, culture and language.
Still, respect and preservation of native society has not ended calls by some for legal and political recognition of a native people status modeled after the “sovereign” tribal nations of the continental states. Congress failed to act on advisory self-determination by persons of Hawaiian blood to confer the tribal nation model for native Hawaiians. President Obama, as a person of Hawaiian background, issued an Executive Order authorizing a race based referendum, but that order has never been implemented and may be challenged or rescinded on constitutional grounds.
Unlike Hawaii, in Puerto Rico voting does not need to be restricted based on race because a fragile native culture is threatened. The unique heritage, culture and language of Puerto Rico has common roots and contemporary compatibility with modern American society, and Puerto Rico has full cultural cohesion within two mainstream traditions of national culture and language. For 3.3 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico for whom Spanish is their beloved first language, English language proficiency is common and universally within reach.
This reminds us that Louisiana was admitted in 1812 when few of its U.S. citizens spoke English. It was the same for New Mexico when it was admitted in 1912. However, that was when Spanish was not yet a mainstream language nationally, and so both Spanish-only and English-only speakers had to be accommodated. In the case of New Mexico, equal English and Spanish language rights were protected under the new state’s constitution.
Because Spanish is now a national and not simply a local mainstream language, federal and local language policy is not as critically pivotal an issue as it was in the past. Still, when Puerto Rico is admitted as a state it can be expected that measures to ensure equal empowerment of both English and Spanish will be proposed and debated for inclusion in the admissions act.
However, because of the evolving linguistic demographics of our nation, the language issue will be far less controversial for Puerto Rico than it was in Louisiana, New Mexico, and other states forged from the original Louisiana Purchase.