Puerto Rico and the Linguistic Game of a Modern Colony

by Julio Correa

We think we are better than others. Anyone who does things differently from us is comical or stupid. We consider being foreign as a sort of defective moral attribute. This, naturally, makes us unpopular.” -Puerto Rico Governor Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

Up until the late 19th century, an empire’s strength and pride was determined by its size and control over outside territories. Philosophies such as “Manifest Destiny” and “The White Man’s Burden” fueled open and explicit colonialism by Western countries. In the 1900s, a reaffirmation of sovereignty and consent of the governed, along with the establishment of the League of Nations and the subsequent formation of the United Nations, managed to change this trend in history. Empires that hoped to preserve their overseas possessions during this age of decolonization were forced to change how they referred to their colonial activities. One of the clearest examples of this is the history between Puerto Rico and the United States. The oldest democracy in the world has maintained the oldest existing colony in the world since 1898 with the use of misleading language that blurs colonialism and discrimination while cementing a culture of dependency. The language and rhetoric of a colonizer have strong psychological and sociopolitical effects on the colonized, which can be observed in Puerto Rican society after more than a century of exposure.

“We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been   oppressed, but on the contrary; to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government.”  US Army General Nelson A. Miles

On July 25, 1898, the US military barged through Puerto Rico’s southern coast under this emblematic proclamation. The Hispanic-American War, justified by the same General “for the causes of Liberty, Justice and Humanity,” was characterized by initial enthusiasm and cooperation amongst Puerto Ricans with the American troops (Miles). The use of rhetoric upon the American invasion, with phrases such as “bestow upon you… the liberal institutions of our government,” appeared to represent either the independence or full annexation of Puerto Rico (Miles). Nonetheless, the dreadful actions on the ground contradicted the optimistic language expressed by this seemingly democratic regime.

While “the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization” is not bluntly used in contemporary language to justify the colonial US-PR relationship, there is still a significant amount of rhetoric in the present political realm that implies this notion of dependency (Miles). Upon facing criticism of the federal response to Hurricanes Irma and María, President Trump tweeted: “they [Puerto Ricans] want it all done for themselves…” Similarly, when visiting Puerto Rico, the President mentioned how the island “threw our [US] budget out of whack” and must take care of its debt. The President’s language in tweets referring to states under the same circumstances was, in contrast, hugely sympathetic: “TEXAS: We are with you today, we are with you tomorrow, and we will be with you EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to restore, recover, and REBUILD!” Trump reiterated this thought to Floridians: FLORIDA- Just like TX, WE are w/you today, we are w/you tomorrow…” The language placed against Puerto Rico in this debate is regularly not given a fair double standard. Journalism about Puerto Rico’s “dependency” on the United States does not tend to evaluate contributions such as the near $4 billion annual tax dollars paid to the federal government, including Medicare and Medicaid services that Puerto Ricans receive at an unequal rate (Astor). More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in American uniform since 1917, fighting in segregated units (until the Korean War) for a democracy that they cannot enjoy at home (Franqui-Rivera). The dominance of this paternalistic perspective in the US-PR relationship proves that the colonizer has a larger influence in narrating history and current events than the colony.

In the early 20th century, American leaders in Puerto Rico implemented policies to eradicate national identity and assimilate the island’s culture to that of the US. The most destructive form of suppression, however, was the attempted imposition of the English language. ‘Puerto Rico’ was distorted to “Porto-Rico,” a phonetic representation of Spanish, so the island’s name could be pronounced properly with an Anglican tongue. The mainland United States was so out of touch with Puerto Rico’s language that it took Congress thirty-four years to realize that this name had been spelled incorrectly in their peace treaty with Spain. Spanish was set aside as a second language to English in public schools, and the curriculum was transformed into a celebration of “Americanism.” Puerto Rican students were instructed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and a poem in English that began with: “Puerto Rico is a beautiful island. It ‘belongs’ to the United States…” (Denis). Language served as propaganda to assimilate a foreign culture into American lifestyle that Puerto Ricans could not genuinely know or experience through this forced method. In 1909, Spanish was“forbidden” in all public schools. The language barrier resulted in a significant number of Puerto Rican teachers departing to Spain. And new American teachers  were unable to communicate with students. It took six years of elementary school children, who began to boycott classes out of frustration with their low grades, for Spanish to be restored as a valid language for education in 1915 (Denis).

Many Puerto Ricans reacted to American domination on language and culture with the unintentional effect of “hispanofilia.” This fascinating concept describes how, at the threat of a new empire, Puerto Ricans and other Latin American societies rallied around Spanish language and culture that was imposed by the previous empire. Pedro Albizu Campos, considered the “Father of Puerto Rican independence” during the American military occupation, once referred to the times of the Spanish regime as “the old collective happiness” (González). One of Puerto Rico’s most relevant nationalist and pro-independence hymns, “Preciosa, praises the island’s “nobility granted by Mother Spain” when describing the island’s beauty. “Hispanofilia” demonstrates how the colonized can use language to embrace a dark period of subjugation, once a new colonizer takes over.

In the scenario between Puerto Rico and the United States, the language of the colonized represents an affirmation of their culture as a distinct nationality. The success of assimilation to English would have led to a far simpler path to complete Americanization. While language is not strained in the 21st century, many federal politicians consider the issue of English as Puerto Rico’s official language to be vital for the island’s annexation. When voicing his support for statehood, then-Representative Mike Pence added: “I’m equally confident that this Congress will be able to resolve any difficult issues…most importantly the need for English to be the official language prior to any offering of citizenship to that territory.” Pence uses language to rely on the dark precedent of the US to ‘Americanize’ territories before admitting them as states. Under Pence’s sponsored mandate, Puerto Rico would be subject to direct discrimination as the only state with a federally required official language. Puerto Ricans, including those pressing for statehood, have claimed that language should not be a requirement for statehood in a country with no official language. Former pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño once argued: “I am making sure…that our kids speak fluent English. But having said that, I will tell my wife I love her in Spanish…and no one from Washington should come down here and tell us how to go about it.” Language should not be a constraint for Puerto Rico to become a state since there are 19 states that do not recognize English as their official language (Fernández). The most beneficial answer to the official language dilemma is to include both English and Spanish, as various states do, and take advantage of the benefits of bilingualism to a competitive and productive society.

“The Congress of a country which never enacted laws to oppress or abridge…and whose laws permit the largest liberty consistent with the preservation of order…may safely be trusted not to depart from its well-settled practice in dealing with the inhabitants of these islands.” -American delegation in the Treaty of Paris, 1898

Upon negotiating Puerto Rico’s transfer, Spanish diplomats asked the United States for some clarification of the island’s future under its possession. The Spanish, and ultimately the Puerto Ricans, were met with this liberal rhetoric. Even before the United States committed crimes against the Puerto Rican people, this statement is deceptive based on atrocities that the American government has performed on its Asian, African-American and Native American citizens. Along with African-American communities in Tulsa and Philadelphia, Puerto Ricans are the only other American citizens who have been bombed by the United States government. The suppression of the Jayuya Revolt of 1950 was strongly undermined and justified by the US with the use of language. In this incident, municipalities in central Puerto Rico were attacked by 5,000 soldiers, P-47 Thunderbolt planes and mortar fire to neutralize a group of armed Puerto Rican nationalists seeking to declare the Republic of Puerto Rico. After the revolt’s culmination, the entire incident was later described by President Truman and the media as “an interior conflict between Puerto Ricans” (Denis). Most Americans, including Puerto Ricans, are unaware of this bombing because of how the federal and local governments were able to blur it from history.

The Gag Laws of 1948 prohibited displays of Puerto Rican nationalism such as owning a flag, speaking about independence or criticizing colonialism. When those who sought independence during this period were left without the right of peaceful speech, they were forced to rely on violence such as in the Jayuya Revolt to promote their ideals. Language, when only controlled by the colonizers, serves to promote hysteria and misinformation among the colonized. To this day, governors who seek beneficial trade and diplomatic relations with foreign countries are accused by some radicals as “flirting with the Republic.” The words “Republic,” “separatist” and even independentista(pro-independence) are held as taboo by many in the Puerto Rican political arena. Even though the Gag Laws were declared unconstitutional in 1957, their legacy of paranoia surrounding independence limits any kind of serious debate for decolonization to either statehood or the latter.

Those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws…and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice according to Anglo-Saxon principles. Downes v Bidwell Supreme Court Decision, 1901

With this legal opinion, the United States government initiated the systematic unequal treatment of Puerto Rico when compared to states. The Supreme Court’s Insular Cases relied on racist language and theory to determine that Puerto Ricans were unfit for self-governing and constitutional rights. The most ironic facet of this opinion, written by the same judge of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, is that it is still active today (López). As recently as under the Obama administration, the Insular Cases were used as legal background to install the Fiscal Control Board over Puerto Rico’s government. The 3.5 million American citizens of Puerto Rico, and the additional 4 million who live in the mainland United States, are currently labeled as “aliens” in legal terminology. A pertinent definition of “alien,” according to Merriam-Webster, is: “relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government.” Its use for Puerto Ricans in the present day proves that the basic language of the US-PR relationship is outdated, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. Downes v. Bidwell also labeled Puerto Rico with the term “unincorporated territory,” which “belongs to…but not a part of the United States.” This title has been historically given to territories that are either uninhabited or are intended to remain under a static territorial status. It is the Supreme Court’s responsibility and duty to revise the language in the Insular Cases, and rule against the perpetuity of Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship.

Politicians in other branches of government have also been complicit to the ‘alienation’ of Puerto Ricans. In a recent hearing, Energy Secretary Rick Perry referred to Puerto Rico as a country before he was corrected by a Representative. Speaker Paul Ryan additionally stated that “Puerto Rico needs to get back on its two feet” after Hurricanes Irma and María (López). Nonetheless, the most relevant use of colonial language in contemporary politics is Puerto Rico’s description in the Tax Reform Bill. The project clearly labels Puerto Rico as a “foreign jurisdiction,” which would result in companies having to pay a 20% excise tax when buying from their subsidiary in the island. (Hernández). Economists have already predicted that this law would have a sharp blow on Puerto Rico’s businesses, as the island already tries to recuperate from the summer’s hurricanes and a crippling debt. There is no valid reason for Congress to pass a law that places Puerto Rico under language parallel to the Insular Cases of more than a century ago. Puerto Rico’s economic recovery must be based on equal treatment from the federal government.

We can proclaim to all our fellow citizens, the American hemisphere and the world, that the vestiges of colonialism in the relationships between the United States and Puerto Rico have been abolished. Puerto Rico Governor Luis Muñoz Marín,1952

On the fifty-fourth anniversary of the American invasion in the island, a majority of Puerto Ricans rejoiced over the ratification of the “Free Associated State.” This resolution for Puerto Rico’s status was advertised by both American and Puerto Rican officials as “the best of both worlds” between independence and statehood. From a contemporary perspective, the Free Associated State’s language can be analyzed as a major flaw. The words in this term are oxymorons; Puerto Rico cannot be simultaneously free and a state. Adding to this irony, Puerto Rico is a territory neither free nor a state. The word “association” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “A cooperative link between people or organizations.” Puerto Rico’s current relationship with the United States under this status does not benefit either party. The immense resettlement of Puerto Ricans to the continental US is caused by the poor quality of life in the island when compared to states. These new residents are costing significant resources to state governments and taxpayers. Furthermore, fellow Americans in Washington do not use the term Free Associated State because of its ambiguity and unfamiliarity to US politics. Instead, however, most use the similarly confusing term “Commonwealth.”  Referring to Puerto Rico with such language is dangerous when not acknowledging the serious political differences between the island and other “Commonwealths” such as Massachusetts and Virginia. The entire United States would benefit from any permanent status for Puerto Rico that promotes a standard of living in range with competitive states.

“When you consider, Mr. Speaker, that these gentlemen are sent there to make laws… for a people whose customs, and language they do not know… you may imagine, Mr. Speaker, the probability of their doing well.”PR Resident Commissioner Federico Degatau to the US Congress, 1899

Language as part of Puerto Rico’s status dilemma proves that, regardless of the final political resolution, Puerto Ricans must be understood as a unique identity and nationality. The United States has historically been a nation of nations, and Puerto Rico could join the Union only under this context. Nonetheless, both statehood or independence would require a drastic change in the language that is used by politicians, the media, and many fellow Americans citizens when referring to Puerto Rico. The only political change that the Free Associated State contributed to was the removal of Puerto Rico’s name under the UN’s List of Non Self-Governing Territories. A central step that language must take is recognizing the fallacy of this decision, and continue to emphasize Puerto Rico as a 21st century colony. Accurate use of language and rhetoric are essential to educate on Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and to denounce the special interests who lobby against Puerto Rico’s self-determination. Referring to Puerto Rico’s decolonization as the civil rights issue of this era will shed light on the urgency that this humanitarian crisis requires.

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