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Puerto Rico and Official English

"In Puerto Rico they have Spanish as their official language, and rightly so."
– Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wisc.), August 1, 1996

Puerto Rico is part of the United States – a fact that some members of Congress tend to forget. The island would be directly affected by any English Only law at the federal level. H.R. 123, for example, would have a significant impact on federal government services there, even if Puerto Rico retains its "commonwealth" – i.e., colonial – status. It would be even more signficant if Puerto Rico became the 51st state of the union.

Spanish remains the native tongue of the vast majority of Puerto Ricans. While English is taught in the island's schools, less than 20 percent of its residents have learned to speak, read, and write English fluently, according to some estimates. So English Only legislation has become a cause for alarm in Puerto Rico, as well as a factor in the political rivalry between Statehood, Commonwealth, and Independence forces there.

In 1902, four years after Puerto Rico became a U.S. "dependency" in the Spanish American War, the United States declared the island officially bilingual. Public business would be conducted in both Spanish and English. In practice, however, the latter predominated. Until Puerto Rico was granted a measure of political autonomy in 1948, colonial officials rarely bothered to learn the language of the colonized. Meanwhile, they sought to impose English on Puerto Ricans through a variety of coercive practices in the schools. Yet half a century of English Only instruction did not succeed in displacing Spanish – only in depriving generations of schoolchildren of a meaningful education.

In 1991, as Congress seriously considered both statehood for Puerto Rico and English Only legislation for the federal government, the island's legislature voted to repeal Puerto Rico's official bilingualism and replace it with Spanish as the sole official language. The new law was not intended to discriminate against English speakers, whose language rights were largely safeguarded. Rather, it sought to guarantee Puerto Ricans' language rights should they decide to join the Union. It also served to create a political barrier to statehood – an effective ploy by pro-commonwealth and pro-independence parties. Largely out of worries about the language question, a U.S. Senate committee blocked a plebiscite on the island's status.

In 1993, when statehood advocates regained the upper hand, Puerto Rico's legislature reinstated the policy of official bilingualism.

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