Santorum’s “English” comments in Puerto Rico cause a stir

Republican candidate Rick Santorum enjoys an “helado de coco” in the streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico as he campaigns ahead of Sunday’s primaries.  (Photo: Getty Images) 

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has been busy in Puerto Rico, meeting with the island’s Governor, evangelical and political leaders, and even enjoying an “helado de coco” in the streets of Old San Juan with his family.

But it is going to take more than some coconut ice cream to take the heat off his recent comments that Puerto Rico would have to make English its main language if it ever wanted to become a state. 

"I think Santorum put his foot in his mouth, or ‘metió la pata’ as we say in Spanish," says Dr. Juan Flores, a professor of Latino Studies at New York University. "It’s just a way of turning the whole country off, no matter what their political stripes or preferences," he adds. 

A former Puerto Rican senator and pro-statehood supporter, Oreste Ramos, said Santorum should no longer count on him as a delegate after hearing of Santorum’s “English” comments.

Today, Santorum tried to do some damage control, saying in a town hall that he used to be called “Senator Puerto Rico” during his time in the Senate for his longstanding support for the island and its residents. But the former Pennsylvania Senator reiterated his support for making sure English is spoken “universally” in Puerto Rico as a prerequisite to statehood.

Though Santorum clarified today he has not used the term “English Only,” he did receive public support for his Puerto Rico comments from US English chairman Mario Mujica, who said he “was pleased to hear Senator Santorum say that he will not support a state in which English is not the primary language.” 

Puerto Rican political strategists and cultural experts all agreed that in Puerto Rico, the “language issue” is not just about language. 

"Language has been a contested issue throughout the history of the island," says Dr. Carlos Suárez-Carrasquillo, who teaches politics at Hampshire College. "Attempts to make English the mandatory language in Puerto Rican schools in the early 20th century were effectively challenged in the island," he adds.  In 1991, a pro-commonwealth governor, Rafael Hernández Colón, made Spanish Puerto Rico’s sole official language. It was lauded in the Spanish-speaking world; in fact, Governor Hernández Colón received the Príncipe de Asturias Award, Spain’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. 

Two decades later, pro-statehood Governor Pedro Roselló made English and Spanish the official languages of the island. However, Spanish is the main language used in the island.  Most Puerto Ricans, regardless of their political ideology, are comfortable with the island’s predominantly Spanish-language identity. 

"Puerto Ricans should learn English, but it should not be mandated," says Washington, D.C.-based Danny Vargas, a conservative Republican strategist, who is Puerto Rican. "I also happen to be a small government conservative, and I don’t think the feds have to mandate that Puerto Ricans should learn English." He adds that if he were advising Santorum, he would have had the candidate stress that while it is in Puerto Ricans’ best interests to learn English, it does not have to replace Spanish." 

Even Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, said in a radio interview to WABC that when it comes to statehood, what is important is that a large majority of the island supports it, not whether they speak English. Rubio said anyone who travels to Puerto Rico knows the majority of young people in the island speak English.     

NYU’s Juan Flores thinks Santorum came across as “arrogant and ignorant, since even neoyoricans and Puerto Rican descendants who no longer speak Spanish defend their island’s native language.”

"It is what it is," adds Flores, "that’s who the people are, and it is the language of their island." 

SANDRA LILLEY, NBC LATINO STAFF   

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