Rick Santorum and Puerto Rican language laws

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In "Santorum on English as the primary language of Puerto Rico", 3/14/2012, I reprinted some of the coverage of Senator Rick Santorum's opinions about the role of English proficiency in Puerto Rico's eligibility for statehood. The lede of the Reuters story:

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum told Puerto Ricans on Wednesday they would have to make English their primary language if they want to pursue U.S. statehood, a statement at odds with the U.S. Constitution.

After looking further into both his statements and the legal issues, I've concluded that the Reuters story misrepresents what Santorum said. Reuters was apparently inspired by the story in El Vocero, which appears to put a Spanish-language quotation in Santorum's mouth that is not a direct translation of anything that he said in the English-language interview, and in fact partly contradicts things that he did say in the cited interview.

Specifically, he says that "whether business is conducted in English, or family life is in Spanish or English is obviously a decision that the people can individually make"; and he refers approvingly to the 1993 Puerto Rican law that allows both Spanish and English for official business in the island. He does say that "a condition for admission" as a state is "that people would and could speak both languages", and that " there needs to be proficiency in English, not just a knowledge of English but proficiency".

He asserts that English proficiency is "a requirement that we put on other states as a condition for entering the union", which I believe is false. But he never says anything to the effect that Puerto Ricans "would have to make English their primary language if they want to pursue U.S. statehood", as the Reuters story asserts — on the contrary, he says explicitly that people should be free to use whatever language they want at home and in business, as long as they are also proficient in English.

Santorum's general views on English proficiency in Puerto Rico strike me as reasonable (though of course controversial) ones — watch or read the interview and see what you think. (I believe he does get some of the legal and political history wrong, but that's another matter.) The news coverage mangled his quotations and their  interpretations in several ways, as so often happens, but I'll put off a detailed critique for another day. This morning, I'm just going to reprint some relevant passages from Nancy Morris, Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity, 1995.

In April 1991 the Puerto Rican legislature passed a law that had vast symbolic implications. In order "to abolish an anachronism and reaffirm our historic condition as a Spanish-speaking people," the new law designated Spanish as the official language of Puerto Rico, while retaining English as a mandatory subject in schools (Estado Libre Asociado 1991). This law, which overturned the 1902 statute permitting either English or Spanish to be used in government dealings in the island, did not simply burst into existence as a response to the [Independence vs. Statehood] plebiscite process. It had been making its way through the Puerto Rican legislative process for nearly a year. Statehood supporters claimed that the visibility of the language bill contributed to some U.S. senators' opposition to a Puerto Rican plebiscite. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has confirmed this view, stating that "Congressional resistance arises largely from the question of whether the island should have the option to choose statehood whilst retaining Spanish as an official language." The possible interplay of symbolic communication is intricate, as the Puerto Rican langauge law and the U.S. plebiscite bill were being considered during the same period by their respective legislative bodies. Whether by accident or design, less than two months after the plebiscite bill died in the U.S. Senate committee, the language bill was signed into law in Puerto Rico.

The law had little impact on the daily lives of most Puerto Ricans. Both socially and officially, Puerto Ricans communicate with one another in Spanish. In the 1990 census 52 percent of Puerto Ricans reported that they spoke just Spanish and could speak no English at all, and another 24 percent reported that they could speak English only with difficulty. Surveys have confirmed that the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans — 95 percent in a 1993 poll — prefer the Spanish language. The controversy generated by the Spanish-language law was not about problems in implementation or compliance, although some difficulties did arise, but about allegiances to Puerto Rican political parties and the status options they represent. The bill ahd been proposed and passed by the commenwealth majority in the Puerto Rican legislature, with support o the independence party. Statehood advocates had opposed the language law, favoring the preservation of English as an officially sanctioned language in Puerto Rico. […]

Statehood supporters were not arguing for the adoption of English. Years before, statehood party leader Carlos Romero Barceló had declared, "[O]ur language and our culture are not negotiable" (1978:9). […]

Voter dissatisfaction with the commonwealth party was again evident in the 1992 Puerto Rican gubernatorial election. The statehood party, listing among its priorities social goals such as crime control, as well as overturning the Spanish-language law and holding a status plebiscite, swept the elections. For only the second time since 1948, the statehood party won both the governorship and control of the two houses of the Puerto Rican legislature.

The first bill submitted to the newly elected legislature called for rescinding the 1991 language law and reinstating the 1902 law that had allowed the indiscriminate use of English and Spanish for official business in the island. During legislative and public discussions of the law, each side accused the other of using the law only for political ends. A commonwelath party opponent of the bill said the purpose of the bill was simply to "help pave the rocky road to statehood" by showing the U.S. government that "English is an official language in Puerto Rico". A statehood party leader, in turn, accused the commonwealth party of opposing the law solely out of "political motivations directed at trying to impose barriers to permanent union and the harmonious coexistence of Puerto Rico with the United States". But commonwealth party spokespersons explained their opposition to the bill by linking language, culture, and the school language issue that had dominated Puerto Rican politics for the first half of the [20th] century: "[T]he new law constitutes a threat to Puerto Rican culture, as it woud allow the eventual substitution of English for Spanish as the instrument of instruction in schools". Pedro Rosselló, the newly elected governor, defended the law reinstating English as an official language with the same argument he had used to oppose the Spanish-language law of the previous administration: that the law would not affect daily life. "The language in which people communicate is and will continue to be principally Spanish, regardless of any language laws that may be passed," said Rosselló His reason for supporting the law, he continued, was indeed political: "In submitting this law we are reaffirming our … desire to live permanent union with the United States". The language law was passed in January 1993.

I have not been able to find " the 1902 statute permitting either English or Spanish to be used in government dealings in the island"; this might be a reference to the 1900 Foraker Act, which various internet sites identify as a source of official-language law in Puerto Rico, but I haven't been able to find the text of that law either. Some sites also identify the  Jones-Shafroth Act (Pub.L. 64-368, 39 Stat. 951, enacted March 2, 1917) as defining official-language status, but there seems to be nothing on that subject in the printed copy. The English and Spanish texts of the Constitution of Puerto Rico (1952) don't appear to prescribe any official language(s), though there are some things like "No person shall be a member of the Legislative Assembly unless he is able to read and write the Spanish or English language …"

Update — whether because of the actual content of his interview, or because of the spin put on it by El Vocero and Reuters, Santorum's remarks on Puerto Rican language policy seem to have been disastrous for his chances in today's Republican primary there — the result was a lopsided victory for Mitt Romney.

Santorum's campaign is presenting this as a contrast between his "principled core" and Romney's willingness to "do and say anything to get votes":

Rick Santorum has a consistent core – and he showed that when he went to Puerto Rico and took a locally unpopular but principled stance about English being the official language of America. Mitt Romney on the other hand, switched another one of his positions to gain favor in Puerto Rico, by saying that Puerto Ricans shouldn't have to learn English if they want to become a state," said spokesman Hogan Gidley.

We all know Mitt Romney will do and say anything to get votes, and this is just another example of that. I think the 90% of Americans who believe English should be the official language of this country must be wondering why Mitt Romney disagrees with that.  Mitt Romney says he supports English as the official language of America while on the mainland, but then says Puerto Ricans don't have to learn English while he's on Puerto Rico. Our nation needs a leader like Rick Santorum who will make the tough choices and level with the American people even when it is not easy.


  1. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    The law in question is the 1902 Language Law, or in full Ley de 21 de febrero de 1902 con respecto al idioma que ha de emplearse en los Departamentos, Tribunales y Oficinas del Gobierno Insular, which can be found here.

    [(myl) Thanks! Transcribing the start of the scanned text:

    Con respecto al idioma que ha de emplearse en los departamentos, tribunales y oficinas del gobierno insular. Decŕtese por la Asamblea Legislativa de Puerto Rico:

    Sección I. –(124)—Que en todos los Departmentos del Gobierno Insular, en todos los Tribunales de esta Esla y en todas las oficinas públicas, se emplearán indistintamente los idiomas inglés y español; y cuando sea necesario, se harán traduciones é interpretaciones orales de un idioma al otro, de modo que las partes interesadas puedan comprender cualquier procedimiento ó comunicación en dichos idiomas.


  2. Doc Rock said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    I just listened to Santorum's interview on youtube [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgdCYFL2HqM] and he clearly says he has no doubt that one of the requirements/conditions for statehood that Congress would put in place would be that English be universal.

    [(myl) That's consistent with the interview that I transcribed — but "English proficiency should be nearly universal" (while clearly not true of Puerto Rico now, and clearly not a popular position there) is not the same as "English should be the primary language".]

  3. Mr Punch said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    Political note: An ongoing story in the 2012 Republican campaign has been Mitt Romney's struggle to reconcile traditional GOP positions (of his father's day, let's say) with the sometimes quite different stances of today's party. Here we see Rick Santorum, a champion of those current attitudes, facing the same difficulty with regard the longstanding Republican support for Puerto Rican statehood.

    [(myl) Santorum himself:

    “I was referred to by many in my state as Senador Puertorriqueño. They used to make fun of me, ‘Why are you representing Puerto Rico?’ Well, someone has to because they don’t have a voice,” Santorum said at town hall here.

    “I felt a responsibility to the island,” Santorum said.


  4. Sharon Clampitt said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    I would also like to clarify that ESL is taught in the school system from K-12 and for at least another year and a half in colleges and universities. The language of instruction in the school system has been Spanish since the 1949; however, there were some attempts to make English the language of instruction, and some bilingual education attempts as well. I would dare to say that most Puerto Ricans speak more English than most Americans speak any other language.

  5. Troy S. said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    If you're still interested in the text of the Foraker Act, it's here.

  6. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 6:05 am

    How exactly do you make English proficiency a condition for statehood? Have a national exam and require 95% of the population to pass? Do a legally binding mystery shopper exercise? I don't see how Santorum can in practice be talking about anything other than something formalising the primacy of Enlgish like making English the language of instruction, and/or the sole language of the legislature. Assuming he means anything at all.

  7. Brett said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 8:48 am

    @Ginger Yellow: I think he means that Congress is not going to approve statehood unless it is perceived by the legislators that English is well known by the overwhelming bulk of the population. There's no need to formulate an official requirement if a de facto one already exists.

  8. E W Gilman said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Can anybody tell me what the origin of the spelling "lede" is?

    [(myl) Some apparently reliable information is here. See also this or this.]

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    Romney has now overwhelmingly won the Puerto Rico primary, so this issue will no doubt quickly recede from national consciousness again. I think the useful takeaway here is that the details of official language policy in Puerto Rico (like attitudes toward statehood versus other status options) is highly politically divisive, or at least the sort of issue where the local voting population divides almost straight down the middle. If I were a mainland politician for whom the official local language policy (for its own sake or as a proxy for broader political/cultural/social attitudes toward closer integration with the rest of the country) was a significant factor in my attitudes toward a possible change of status toward statehood, I think I would want more evidence that a given policy was relatively deeply entrenched and had bipartisan local support, as opposed to having been enacted by whichever party won 52% of the vote in the last local election but at risk of being repealed if that party's vote slipped to 48% the next time around and their opponents took over control of the local legislature.

  10. Doctor Raj said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

    It's a long time since English should have been adopted as the legal language of the USA. Do you know which country which has English as its only legal language has the largest population? It's Pakistan. There are other countiries which have English as one of their legal languages, e.g. India, but in Pakistan English is the only legal language.

  11. Colin John said,

    March 20, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    And, of course, English is not the official language of England, as the concept doesn't exist in law. Arguably English is an official language in Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, but this is as an aid in preserving the various Gaelic languages, by giving them equal status to English in public affairs.

  12. piglet said,

    March 20, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

    "we are not doing anybody in this island a favor by not following the law which is that this is a uh society that speak- that will speak English in addition to speaking Spanish"

    "a necessary and important uh important step to affirm your commitment to fully integrate in to American uh American society as a state and a tremendous opportunity for people here on the island, who in my opinion have been denied uh a lot of economic opportunities because the government has uh has not emphasized the importance of English that is [in] my understanding required under the law in the first place."

    There clearly is no language law so Santorum was dead wrong here.

    Here's another quote:

    “I mean, Governor Romney and I have both said that we would like English as the official language of this country yet when Governor Romney went to Puerto Rico he said, ‘Oh, no you don’t have to speak English as a requirement to be a state,’ yet he wants English to be the official language of this country.”

  13. Edelmiro Salas said,

    March 22, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    All this is curious to me, as a linguist residing in Spanish monolingual Puerto Rico, where English is a Foreign Language. I wonder what all this "priority" and "officialism" of language means when spoken by folks who want people to vote for them in presidential primaries do not ask for their vote in presidential elections, since Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote for them in such elections. A kind of colonialism not unheard of in Pennsylvania since the times of Benjamin Franklin, where Federal court proceedings are conducted in Only English and the Spanish Spanish "natives" cannot vote for Santorum or for Romney, whomever is elected, but are also accused are tried in a foreign language by the United States, albeit with the aid of "certified" interpreters.

    For instance, what will Romney or Santorum do with Puerto Rico law of Civil Procedure 8.7, as adopted by a pro-stathood Puerto Rico Supreme Court? That rule provides:

    "The Pleadings, requests and motions must be written in Spanish or English. Those documents that must be signed by a party that does not know the Spanish Language or the English Langauge, may be submitted in the vernacular of that person, provided that the necessary copies are provided in Spanish or English. It will not be necessary to translate documents presented in the English language. […]"

    The way the Courts have been reading this, is that if the attorney knows Spanish (and that is the case of 99.9999% of all counsel, the document will be presented in Spanish and the other counsel if an English monolingual, would file his document in English. However, to date, nobody has tested this, to my knowledge, and proceedings in State Court continue to be in Spanish with no translators or interpreters.

    The mirror image of the laissez fair English tolerant but Spanish dominant state Court Rule of procedure is the "imperialist" English Only policy adopted in Federal Court, why by statute requires all proceedings to be conducted in English. The English-Only statute reads:

    "All pleadings and proceedings in the United States District Court
    for the District of Puerto Rico shall be conducted in the English
    language." 48 U.S.C. sec. 464.

    Thus, while the Constitution has not official language, the federal Courts, including the Puerto Rico District Court, mandate the use of English in all proceedings, allowing monolingual Puerto Ricans to be tried in English, a foreign language in Puerto Rico. See Census Report, 2005 available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-29.pdf.

    Similar English-Only regulations are found in United States agencies operating in Puerto Rico. The Department of Justice currently understands that all it has to do is provide "assistance" to Limited English Proficiency persons in administrative proceedings. By implication, therefore, proceedings are conducted in Federal Agencies in Puerto Rico in English, with "assistances" provided to the "natives" who constitute the 85% monolingual population.

    Thus, all this "debate" on language policy under statehood is really posturing amongst language nationalists in the United States. It is not a debate in Puerto Rico unless someone here pretends to repeal the "officially bilingual" policy that only applies to State Government and whereby Spanish in most government services, provided by the State, has been tolerated by English language imperialists, but most importantly, has been achieved, as matter of right, by the people of Puerto Rico.

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