VANDERVOORT: Puerto Rico must adopt English language for statehood

National unity depends on common tongue

There is a lot of political turmoil in Puerto Rico since the Nov. 6 general election. The pro-statehood governor of the island was defeated by the pro-commonwealth candidate, and the election also resulted in the U.S. commonwealth’s legislature flipping to the control of the pro-commonwealth party. These results cast a dark cloud over the two-part referendum that same day, which asked voters their preference on Puerto Rico’s political status.

The defeated New Progressive Party claims that a majority of voters in the Nov. 6 referendum favored statehood. Yet, due to the rigged nature of the ballot wording, the party says, more Puerto Ricans chose an option other than statehood. When you total the number of voters who left the statehood referendum question blank, plus those who voted for “free association” or independence, there were 978,026 people who voted for something other than statehood. Therefore, only 45 percent actually voted for statehood.

It is also instructive to note that the 2011 recommendations from President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status rightly recognized that, if the commonwealth ever applies to be the 51st state, Congress has the ultimate authority over admission. It will be crucial for the English language to play a central role in the daily life of the island.

The commonwealth is predominantly Spanish-speaking. If or when the issue of Puerto Rican statehood goes before Congress in 2013, these task force recommendations need to be considered so Puerto Ricans realize there would be strict English requirements as a condition for admission to statehood. At a minimum, a large majority of Puerto Ricans — who are U.S. citizens — must become fluent in English for statehood to even be considered.

It is an open secret what statehood proponents had in mind before Nov. 6. Puerto Rico’s statehood party platform in 2008 (Page 179) declared that after a pro-statehood referendum victory, the party would explore all avenues, including a Tennessee-style strategy, to force Congress into admitting Puerto Rico.

The Tennessee reference involves a 1795 census that found a majority of the then-territory’s population favored statehood. After convening a constitutional convention where delegates “converted” the territory into a state, the territorial governor applied for admission by sending “elected” senators and representatives to stand in the hallways of Congress demanding their seats. Thanks to political divisions and the publicity, Congress soon caved and admitted Tennessee as a state.

With Puerto Rico’s legislature next year changing over to one that favors the status quo, there will be a new dynamic. It will be up to Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress to offer some sort of statehood legislation, and then the debate could get messy. The spotlight would no doubt shine on how expensive it would be to U.S. taxpayers to admit an economically depressed state to the union.

At the end of the day, Congress must mandate that any new state adopt English as its official language of government, which would also include the courts and schools. After all, English is our common tongue, uniting all Americans.

Robert Vandervoort is executive director of ProEnglish.

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