A Page from History: The Language Question

Spanish and English coexisted peacefully in Puerto Rico from the beginning of its relationship with the United States. In fact, the language question was part of the initial treaty between Spain and the U.S. According to the Treasury Department’s 1900 publication, Treasury decisions under customs and other laws, that treaty required that books in Spanish on scientific, literary, and artistic subjects — so long as they were not subversive — should be allowed into Puerto Rico duty free, as would all books in English.

In 1902, in a letter encouraging Puerto Rican public school teachers to take an English exam, the Commissioner of Education said that the closer relationship of Puerto Rico and the United States required a shared language and “it is evident that this common language must be English. This does not mean that the people of Port Rico must give up Spanish. On the contrary, as has well been said, ‘A man is as many times a man as he has languages at his command.'”

The smaller group would, the Commissioner continued, have to adapt to the larger group. “The people of the United States will respect the language of the people of Puerto Rico. Many of them will learn to speak, read, and write it, but the one common language… will be the English tongue.”(Report of the Commissioner of Education for Porto Rico, Puerto Rico Dept. of Education)

By the 1920s, the Commissioner’s Report was taking a sterner tone.

Recently the language question has become the football of certain political agitators who would have the people believe that the scheme of education now in force is an insidious attempt to eliminate Spanish, the thin entering wedge calculated to destroy the personality of the people of Porto Rico.

(Report of the Commissioner of Education for Porto Rico, Puerto Rico Dept. of Education)

This position can still be found in political writings today.

In 1946, President Truman vetoed a bill from the Puerto Rico Legislature that would have required public schools to teach in Spanish. Truman did not take a position on the pedagogical value, but said this:

Important as the language question may be, I regard the reaching of a permanent and satisfactory solution to political status as of greater importance, and I cannot permit a measure to stand which, in my opinion, would jeopardize that solution.

(Public Papers of the Presidents—Harry S. Truman, 1946, pp. 466–467 (1962).

A “permanent and satisfactory solution to political status” has not yet been reached, and the “language question” continues to be used as a political football. Santorum’s gaffe in 2012 when he declared that statehood would be contingent on Puerto Rico’s making English its offical language (English is one of the official languages of Puerto Rico, but the United States does not have an official language) was harmful to him and to his party, but English Only and English First groups quickly took up the demand.

As the United States has become a more multilingual nation, Spanish has assumed a firm position as the second most popular language in the country after English.  This map published in Slate illustrates how pervasive Spanish has become throughout the U.S.

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