SUGGESTING THAT people in American states would be better off knowing English makes eminent good sense; generations of immigrants have followed that advice with impressive results. But to declare, as Rick Santorum did last week, that Puerto Rico must adopt English as its dominant language as a condition for statehood, is an act of surpassing arrogance.
Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, but have chosen to operate as a quasi-independent commonwealth. The question of statehood pops up regularly, and Puerto Ricans have repeatedly voted it down. But another referendum is scheduled for later this year, which could prompt a reconsideration of the statehood issue - or not. Many Puerto Ricans fear that the island’s unique character and history would be diminished.
There is no law requiring that states have English as their main language, though Santorum, in an interview last week with the San Juan newspaper El Vocero, invented one. “As in any other state, you have to comply with this and any federal law,’’ he lectured. “And that is that English has to be the main language.’’ A Santorum aide later explained that the presidential candidate misspoke; he has long supported making English the official language of the United States, and once such a law is in place, Puerto Rico would have to comply. But Santorum’s initial demand probably sent the message he wanted to send - to mainland conservatives, if not Puerto Ricans: No Spanish-speaking island should be allowed to join the union.
It’s a bullying message from someone who seeks to lead a party that decries government interference in people’s lives. Santorum has spent the campaign inveighing against the requirement that people buy health insurance; obliging them to learn English is, apparently, a less onerous demand.
Santorum paid a price for his remarks when he lost Sunday’s Puerto Rican primary to Mitt Romney by a thumping 83-8 margin. But one can already sense the emergence of another wedge issue in the Republican campaign: Speaking Spanish, like contraception and the fantasy threat of sharia law, will become the latest distraction from the nation’s real and urgent problems.
Plenty of English is already spoken in Puerto Rico; no American would have trouble getting around in San Juan. If Puerto Rico ever becomes a state, tightening its bond with the mainland, its residents would face more pressure to conduct business in English. That should be part of a natural assimilation process, which Puerto Rican citizens can choose to join. But there is no need for an English-language mandate, and Santorum should concentrate on solving problems, not creating them.