Some concerns about Puerto Rico’s political status are valid and worth discussing. For example, we believe that Congress should make it completely clear whether Puerto Rico could actually have U.S. citizenship if voters chose free association. We think it’s worth considering whether people born in Puerto Rico and living in the states would be able to continue to have the same rights they have today if Puerto Rico chose independence. We don’t think that the language question should still be on people’s minds as much as it is.
However, we can see that the question of what language or languages Puerto Rico will use is one that worries not only Puerto Ricans, but also members of Congress from states.
We agree that this is an important issue. The reason we don’t think it should be such a frequent point of discussion is because the concerns have already been answered.
For example, Jose Fuentes Agostini, the former Attorney General of Puerto Rico and Chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, gave this testimony at a Congressional hearing last year: “Puerto Rico is predominantly Spanish speaking, but with a large bilingual population that also speaks English. The official languages in Puerto Rico today are both Spanish and English. Under statehood there would be no limitation on the capacity of Puerto Rico to retain both Spanish and English as its official languages. As a state that right would be reserved to Puerto Rico under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.”
This is the most important answer to the concerns of people who fear that statehood would wipe out Spanish in Puerto Rico. The 10th amendment to the Constitution says specifically that anything the Constitution doesn’t cover is decided by the states. The Constitution says nothing about language. There have been attempts to specify a national language for the United States, but all these attempts have been unsuccessful. Each state has the right to decide on its official languages (if any) and other points about language.
Fuentes Agostini continued, “Examples of states with more than one official language include Alaska, Hawaii and New Mexico. And for those concerned that Puerto Rico would be alone as a state with a large Spanish speaking population, Census data shows there would still be more Spanish speakers in California (10 million), Texas (7 million) and Florida (6 million) than there are in Puerto Rico (3 million). Past public polling has also shown that an overwhelming majority of parents (95%) support requiring that all public schools in Puerto Rico teach English so that students can become fully bilingual. Parents realize that being fully bilingual preserves Puerto Rican culture while opening doors to better educational and professional opportunities.”
This answers the primary concern of those who worry that Puerto Rico as a state would pit English speakers against Spanish speakers and lead to a lack of unity in the United States.
Why does the question still come up?
Puerto Rico will not be forced to give up Spanish. We can see from the number of Spanish speakers currently living in states that this is not a real concern. When he was a presidential candidate in 2012, Rick Santorum falsely claimed that English would have to be the “primary language” if Puerto Rico became a state. Major news outlets immediately pointed out that this is not in fact a requirement.
And having another state with many Spanish speakers will not create political turmoil in the United States. We can see that by looking at the 45 million Spanish speakers currently living peacefully in the United States.
So why does the question continue to come up every time Puerto Rico’s political status is debated in Congress or in the popular press?
Anti-statehood arguments are at the bottom of the focus on language “The danger is clear,” wrote A. Z. Rubinstein in The Case against Puerto Rican Statehood, “the admission of Puerto Rico as a state would make Spanish coequal with English as the language of the United States.” The italics must be intended to make this sound scary.
But other anti-statehood arguments hold that Spanish would be eradicated in Puerto Rico by statehood. The fact that anti-statehood factions play both sides against the middle show clearly that the focus on language is about political status, not about language.
As long as the straw man of language continues to be used to argue against statehood, we will continue to answer these concerns. We hope you will do the same. If you live in a state, ask your senator to support statehood for Puerto Rico. Share your experiences with Spanish and English and reassure your representatives that this does not need to be a hindrance to equality and justice for Puerto Rico.