The current visit by the King and Queen of Spain to Puerto Rico for the seventh Congress of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language has gotten some media attention, focusing mainly on the importance of the Spanish language in the United States, which is now the country that has the fifth largest Spanish speaking population on Earth. Its Spanish-language channels broadcast to the entire planet, and cities like Los Angeles and Miami have become Latin American enough to be considered two of the main global hubs of Spanish-language cultural output.
Optimism was expressed at the Congress about the future of Spanish in the US, with the internet being seen as a greater challenge than the hegemony and daily influence of English. According to the Associated Press, the King of Spain said:
“Spanish has stopped being a marginalized language of immigrants and has integrated itself as a social language and one of culture in American society,” he said.
It is the first time the academy holds its conference in a place where English is so widely spoken, although Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla — who apologized for his rural Puerto Rican accent in which R’s are gutteral — said Spanish is still the island’s dominating language.
I am not entirely sure I share the optimism. The Spanish language in Puerto Rico has not been threatened, mainly, because it has yet to become a state of the union, but this can’t last forever. No territory was meant to be a territory forever, and according to an opinion expressed by the Supreme Court in the case CONSEJO DE SALUD PLAYA DE PONCE, et.al Plaintiffs v. JOHNNY RULLAN, SECRETARY OF HEALTH OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO, in portion III.iii, titled Puerto Rico No Longer Remains an Unincorporated Territory:
The court … today holds that in the particular case of Puerto Rico, a monumental constitutional evolution based on continued and repeated congressional annexation has taken place. Given the same, the territory has evolved from an unincorporated to an incorporated one. Congress today, thus, must afford Puerto Rico and the 4,000,000 United States citizens residing therein all constitutional guarantees. To hold otherwise, would amount to the court blindfolding itself to continue permitting Congress per secula seculorum to switch on and off the Constitution.
This opinion is likely to be cited soon when the re-banning of gay marriage by a local bigot judge is presented for appeal in the First Circuit in Boston. The audacity of the conservative activist judge is comically balanced by the way in which his opinion was completely ignored, with the governor ordering courts to continue issuing marriage licenses and recognizing equal marriage “in deference to courts of higher hierarchy”. The Boston court will immediately, almost certainly, dismiss the opinion of Judge Pérez-Giménez and force Puerto Rico’s legislature to clarify for once and for all in its laws that gay marriage is legal in the territory, and will have to express with clarity that constitutional protections apply to the American citizens residing on the island.
The opinion that Puerto Rico is now an incorporated territory cites dozens of changes implemented by the courts and by Congress that have evolved the Commonwealth from an unincorporated territory (similar to the US Virgin Islands or Guam) into an incorporated one. This may sound unimportant, but it is not: it is a very politically-charged opinion because there has never in history been an incorporated territory that did not eventually evolve into a state and joined the union. What this opinion basically means–and the reason why no one has yet touched it or commented on it, as it is quite politically charged–is that Puerto Rico has organically reached pre-statehood momentum comparable to what other territories experienced prior to statehood. It is in the process of becoming a state.
Let’s now return to the subject of the fate of the Spanish language in a hypothetical future State of Puerto Rico. The only precedent we have for a Spanish-speaking state is the instance when New Mexico joined the union in 1912, with 80 % of its population speaking Spanish only at the time. Let’s consider that precedent and what it may mean for Puerto Rico’s Spanish language.
The language issue was controversial enough that Arizona seceded from the New Mexico territory prior to joining the union, as the US Constitution makes it difficult for states to form out of another state without the agreement of all parties involved. As a result, and citing racial and cultural differences, and specifically citing their refusal to be forced to learn Spanish in the schools, Arizona joined the union only after it was recognized as a separate sovereign state.
Congress also politicized the language issue during statehood negotiations. According to Albuquerque Journal,
Historian Robert W. Larson, a University of New Mexico alumnus who wrote the definitive history of the drive to statehood, sums up the prevailing obstacle over six decades: “… an unfortunate but instinctive distrust of New Mexico’s essentially foreign culture was the last and most durable brick added to the strong wall of opposition that prevented the territory from joining the Union until 1912.”
American nativism raised its head again and again as a dubious nation looked at New Mexico and saw “a race speaking an alien language” (as one congressman put it) and “the heart of our worst civilization … with all the signs of ignorance and sloth” (the New York Times) and made sure the door to statehood stayed firmly closed.
We’re all seeing the circus of racism around Donald Trump, and how with his presidential bid he’s galvanizing extremists on all sides and threatening to drive the country into a racial civil war. With Puerto Rico’s statehood bid, America will have to again face head-to-head its deep, unwarranted shame around its Hispanic heritage.
Let us assume that Puerto Rico statehood does happen–eventually and after a political and media dog-fight between Anglophile and Hispanophile America. The precedent set by New Mexico might help us imagine how this will affect the Spanish language. As a state, New Mexico did not adopt an official language–although states do have that right and PR has two official languages–but was allowed to have clauses in its original Constitution that allowed for special treatment of Spanish as a native language, and ensured that Spanish-speaking Nuevo Mejicanos would have access to education in their language, and that laws that were enacted and other notices from government would be issued in both languages. These laws were revised a couple of times, every few decades, allowing for the original Hispanos of New Mexico to gradually assimilate until, eventually, in order to hold a position in legislature, etc. today one has to be fluent in English.
While in 1912, 80% of the population spoke Spanish only in the territory of New Mexico, today a full century later only less than 30% of the population of the state speaks Spanish at home, according to the most recent census data available. We can expect that many of these Spanish-speakers are not descended from the original inhabitants of the state, but are recent immigrants.
If we include new immigrants and work with the 80/30 figures, we conclude that after one century (approximately 4-5 generations), New Mexicans have lost nearly 60% of the vitality of their native Spanish language and culture as a result of assimilation, migration, and no doubt some level of shame and hostility. Under statehood, Nuevo Mejicanos have experienced huge pressures to assimilate and have lost much of their native culture.
There is no reason to expect that statehood negotiations with Puerto Rico would be any different from those with New Mexico. America has no official language, but it’s a de-facto English-speaking country, and Congress has a right to require a gradual process of assimilation as part of statehood negotiations as it did with New Mexico. Outside of these initial constrictions, states are allowed to have their own cultural and language policies. New Mexico’s current language policy–which it has adopted together with a few other states–promotes proficiency in more than one language, and it’s known as English-Plus.
New Mexican Spanish is its own dialect. It evolved in relative isolation, has as many peculiarities as the dialect of any Latin American country, and is entirely independent from Mexican Spanish. However, today in schools, whenever Spanish is taught, the standard form is from Mexico, not from America. There is little to no awareness, little to no pride, in America’s own 400-year-old brand of Spanish.
There have been language revivals in many countries and regions that have succeeded in bringing a language back. Catalunya comes to mind. But we have no indication that such a process is taking place, or is about to take place, in New Mexico. Ergo, upon joining the union at its current 90-95% rate of native Spanish-speaking population–and IF it experiences migration levels similar to NM–if Puerto Rico were to join the union today, within 100 years and all the same patterns were the same as for New Mexico, it would probably only have less than 35% of its population speaking Spanish at home in 2116, after its first five generations.
There are unknown factors that may play into this. America may change. It may come to embrace a stronger sense of its Hispanic and Latin American sub-identity. It’s estimated that by 2050, Hispanics will be the majority, but this may not mean much because most Hispanic immigrants lose their Spanish proficiency after the third generation. The isolation that results from living in an island, of course, might be greater than New Mexico’s geographic isolation, and result in a higher ratio of Spanish speakers. And finally there’s always a small chance the territory might instead be able to either abruptly or slowly disentangle itself from its complex colonial ties and eventually secede and gain its independence, not now but perhaps within a few generations. It would then be the newest country in the world and, in all likelihood, Spanish-speaking.
One of the ironies of the movement that Donald Trump has galvanized around his figure is that it is an indication that real cultural change is taking place and a confirmation of our national awareness that we are becoming hispanicized as a country. But Anglo-America must understand that the threat goes both ways. By annexing Spanish-speaking territories, the engineers of the country also disrupted forever the cultural lives and identities of peoples who, for over 400 years, had spoken Spanish. And in order to undo America’s hispanization, it would require convincing the majority of these populations to give up their American citizenship and secede. Don’t think it’s going to happen. The King and Queen of Spain have some right to their optimism. I wish I could share more of it.