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No Puerto Rico statehood without English as 'main language'? Santorum rolls back

 

Christopher Gregory / Getty Images

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum signs an autograph as he walks through the Old City in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday.

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum appeared Thursday to try to undo some of the damage done by his comments that English should be Puerto Rico's official language if the predominantly Spanish-speaking commonwealth -- where he is campaigning ahead of the Sunday primary -- wants to become a state.

“Obviously Spanish would be the language here,” he told reporters before stopping for lunch in Old San Juan, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“We understand that you know the people of different cultures speak different languages, but we have a common language, and that’s what I was saying yesterday.”


Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who have a non-voting representative in Congress and can vote in presidential primaries -- but not the general election.

They will hold a referendum this November to decide whether or not the Caribbean island should become a state – a decision ultimately left to Congress. Past votes have ended with Puerto Ricans opting to maintain their commonwealth status.

'You have to comply'
In comments to the San Juan newspaper El Vocero, in which he also backed Puerto Ricans' right to self-determination, Santorum said English should be the official language in Puerto Rico if it wants to become a state:  "As in any other state, you have to comply with this and any federal law. And that is that English has to be the main language. There are other states with more than one language, as is the case in Hawaii, but to be a state in the United States, English has to be the main language."

On Thursday, he stood by the “condition” aspect of his remarks. “What I said is English has to be learned as a language, and this has to be a country where English is widely spoken and used, yes,” Santorum told reporters, according to ABC News/Univision. The island, he said, “needs to be a bilingual country, not just a Spanish-speaking country.”

About 4 million Puerto Ricans live on the island, with 4.2 million living in the mainland United States.

The U.S., which took over Puerto Rico from the Spanish in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War, tried to anglicize it and its institutions. The “Language Law” of 1902 recognized Spanish and English as official languages, and in the early part of the 20th century an attempt was made to make English the obligatory language of instruction, according to University of Puerto Rico Law School Professor Luis Muñiz-Argüelles. In 1947, the education commissioner ordered that Spanish be the language of instruction except for English instruction classes.

Losing a backer
Santorum’s comments led to the departure of one supporter: Oreste Ramos, a former Puerto Rican senator who rescinded his endorsement, ABC News/Univision reported.

“Such a requirement would be unconstitutional, and also would clash with our sociological and linguistic reality. As a question of principle I cannot back a person who holds that position,” Oreste said, Univision said, citing El Vocero. “As a Puerto Rican and Spanish-speaking U.S. citizen, I consider the position of Mr. Santorum offensive.”

Others in the island questioned the impact of the entire primary since Puerto Ricans can’t vote in the general election.

“It doesn’t even register on the radar for a lot of people here other than it’s in the media,” said Martiza Stanchich, an associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus.

Local officials have organized mayoral primaries for the same day, which could help boost turnout.

But, she added that the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries were “really kind of a disgusting use of the island … what does Puerto Rico get back for this?”

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