Whenever elected leaders in Puerto Rico determine we, as U.S. American citizens, should learn to speak and write in English as well as Spanish, the Popular Democratic Party leaders, beginning with Luis Muñoz Marín, immediately raised objections based on fears that any such plan would allegedly undermine and weaken our culture and, worst of all, make us less articulate and capable of speaking Spanish fluently. Yet, most of those self-appointed protectors of our Spanish language not only speak and write English fluently, but also ensure their children and grandchildren can also speak and write English fluently.
However, they insist on depriving the rest of the people of Puerto Rico, particularly the poor and the youngest, of the opportunity to learn to speak and write both languages fluently. Not only do they try to prevent our children from learning both languages at an early age, but they also accuse those of us who promote the teaching of both Spanish and English at the earliest possible age of acting only with a partisan political motivation. They conveniently forget what our Commonwealth Constitution states in its preamble.
“We consider as determining factors in our life our citizenship [with] the United States of America and our aspiration to continually enrich our democratic heritage in the individual and collective enjoyment of its rights and privileges; our loyalty to the principles of the federal constitution; the coexistence in Puerto Rico of the two great cultures of the American Hemisphere
” [my emphasis].
Clearly, our territorial constitution establishes that the coexistence and enrichment of the Hispanic/ Latino and U.S. American cultures are determining factors in our lives. Therefore, the establishment of a public policy to provide bilingual education to all children from the time they enter prekindergarten is consistent with the constitutional mandate to continually enrich “the coexistence in Puerto Rico of the two great cultures of the American Hemisphere
The establishment of bilingual schools or bilingual education isn’t the pro-statehood movement’s attempt to Americanize our children, but a commitment to fulfill a constitutional mandate and a desire to provide our children and future generations of Puerto Ricans better educational, economic, scientific and professional opportunities.
The most widely spoken and written languages in America are Spanish and English. Obviously, irrespective of the status option one favors, the more fluent we are in both languages, the more opportunities will be available to us.
It is the pro-Commonwealth proponents who, for lack of good arguments, attack the policy as being motivated by partisan political interests, and insist on delaying the teaching of English until our children reach mid-elementary or high school. Why? Because the pro-Commonwealth proponents continually argue Puerto Rico can’t become a state since they claim about 75% to 80% of our people can’t write or speak English fluently enough for Puerto Rico to be granted statehood.
They argue that if children are taught two languages as early as at prekindergarten, they will never learn to speak and write either language fluently. They cite statements by pedagogues who claim, without sourcing any scientific study, that the teaching of two languages at too early an age confuses children and, as a result, they will never learn to speak and write either language fluently. However, there is a scientific and professional study, made by McGill University in Canada.
It included language teachers, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and neurosurgeons. They concluded a certain section of the brain is used in language development which, when stimulated by the teaching of two or more languages before age 6, children develop a much greater ability to learn both languages, with a larger vocabulary and more fluency in the languages they were taught. If, however, this section of the brain isn’t stimulated until later, its ability to learn other languages is diminished and tends to stagnate for lack of more intensive use.
The majority of students in our public schools aren’t able to speak or write Spanish properly and fluently, not because they aren’t capable, but because their teachers didn’t have the qualifications and capability to teach it properly. However, those who are proficient and articulate in Spanish could also be proficient and articulate in English, if taught by duly qualified English and Spanish teachers. Our public-school system lacks a sufficient number of teachers who are duly qualified to teach Spanish, English, mathematics and science.
To criticize the bilingual citizen policy, which we began during my administration in 1977-1985, based on the belief that all subjects in all public schools, except Spanish, will be taught in English is a distortion of the facts and the policy. In the first place, bilingual schools, as we know them today, are structured using one of two methods.
One method is to teach all subjects, except languages, in both English and Spanish. That means some courses, such as math and science, would be taught in Spanish during the first half hour and in English during the second half hour, a method being used in Washington, D.C.
The other is to teach math and science in English and social studies and history, except U.S., in Spanish. This second method is the one being slowly implemented in Puerto Rico in about 31 bilingual schools. The waiting lists to participate in the program in those schools are very long.
However, we still have a shortage of duly qualified teachers in math, English, science and Spanish. To reach the goal of having bilingual schools throughout our entire public-education system, we must put in place a teacher’s exchange program. Such a program would provide teachers, who want to become duly qualified English educators, an opportunity to achieve their goal in a school in one of the 50 states, while teaching Spanish to the students. The teacher in that state would come to Puerto Rico to teach English and, at the same time, learn more Spanish to become a qualified Spanish teacher.
The vast majority of Puerto Ricans understand that to have better jobs, as well as improved educational, professional and economic opportunities in today’s world, it is very important to write and speak English fluently, not only in the U.S., but also from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and worldwide. To deny our children and future generations of Puerto Ricans the opportunity to learn to write and speak English as early and as proficiently as possible, is to hurt them by not providing them the necessary language skills.
We have to move forward, not backward. Muñoz Marín and his followers created three obstacles to achieving equal rights and obligations as U.S. citizens. He preached fear of our ability to compete and participate as equals with our fellow U.S. American citizens. He convinced a majority of Puerto Ricans that the only way to provide jobs for our people was by providing 100% tax exemptions to Puerto Rico manufacturers. He also convinced the majority of our people that the only jobs that could be provided had to pay starvation wages. Garment workers in Puerto Rico factories were being paid $1 an hour, when the federal minimum wage was $3.25 an hour. The third obstacle to equality he created was that if we achieved equal rights and obligations as U.S. citizens, we would lose our Spanish language and Hispanic culture.
Each of those obstacles to equality have been barriers to our social, political and economic growth. Although we have managed to dispel all three fears, too many people are still afraid of equality. When we stop fearing to enjoy our full rights and responsibilities and compete on equal terms with our fellow U.S. citizens, we will open the way to progress and prosperity.
Carlos Romero Barceló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000) and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years. He is now a consultant involved in real estate, doing business as CRB Realty. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments on this article are welcome at caribbeanbusiness.pr. Go to the “Sign in” link on the homepage to participate. Emails also may be sent to email@example.com.