Our 51st “Estado”

[ Posted Wednesday, June 27th, 2007 – 03:22 UTC ]

In the midst of the immigration debate raging in both houses of Congress, an old chestnut has been revived by Republicans: declaring English the national language. The issue polls extremely high with the general public, and Republicans even passed an amendment in the Senate earlier this month by a vote of 64-33, which means a bunch of Democrats (17 of them) voted for it as well. A similar amendment is part of the debate in the House. My question to these lingual purists is: what happens if Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state of the Union?

This is one of those back-burner issues that comes up for a vote now and again (in Puerto Rico), but then "never actually happens" -- so Americans feel free to ignore it as a whole. Or, I should say, "Americans outside of Puerto Rico," since all Puerto Ricans are already American citizens. But every referendum that happens, the percentage voting for statehood gets larger and larger. While it shouldn't be seen as an inevitability, it should indeed be seen as a strong possibility. Say, within the next ten years or so.

So what are we going to do if an American state speaks Spanish as their primary language? It's a question worth thinking about ahead of time.

There's a joke I heard while I was living in Europe, which goes like this:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?

A: "Trilingual."

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?

A: "Bilingual."

Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?

A: "An American."

This is obviously due to people from countries (who don't speak English) getting very tired of American tourists who seem to think that: "a-NY-bo-DY... who... speaks... ENG-lish... SLOW-ly... E-nough... and... who... e-NUN-ci-ATES... their... WORDS... well... E-nough..." can be understood by anyone on the planet, no matter what language they speak. You can understand their frustration, if you've ever seen an ignorant American tourist perform this embarrassing pantomime in another country.

But back to the home front. The first question raised is: "How the heck does a territory become a state, anyway?" This is the primary question asked by most Americans, which is due to the fact that we are now in the longest period in American history without admitting a new state. The last states who joined the Union were, of course, Hawaii and Alaska, both in 1959. This happened almost 47 years after the 48th state (Arizona) was admitted in 1912 -- but we have now gone almost 48 years without admitting a new state, breaking the previous record.

The answer is a little vague. Here is the relevant text from the Constitution:

Article IV, Section 3. New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.

In practical terms, this has usually meant that (1) the territory in question has to have a certain minimum number of people living in it, (2) they have to vote on it and have the majority favor statehood, and (3) they have to have a state constitutional convention, to enact a state constitution. And then, of course, Congress gets to vote whether to admit them or not.

Now, there really is only one candidate for becoming the 51st state: Puerto Rico. Ignoring deluded fantasies of splitting either California or Texas into multiple new states, and also ignoring the perennial push to declare the District of Columbia a state; Puerto Rico is really the only viable candidate. All the other U.S. territories (mostly islands in the Pacific) simply don't have enough people living in them.

Well, OK, I can't just ignore Washington, D.C. -- simply because they've got one heck of an amusing way of showing how annoyed they are that they have no (voting) representatives in Congress: their vehicle license plates. Since 2001, their license plates have provocatively displayed the following slogan: "Taxation Without Representation."

DC license plate

What a hoot! Using a Revolutionary War slogan on their official license plates to let all the congressional legislators (who see these plates on a daily basis, it should be noted) know how annoyed they are that they have no congressional representation who can cast a vote.

But I digress.

Puerto Rico has been actively considering statehood for some time now. They have held three referenda on the issue in the last few decades. The numbers and the trends they show are interesting, but not conclusive. The first of these three votes took place in 1967. 60.4% voted for continued "commonwealth" status, and 39.0% voted for statehood. The next took place in 1993. This time the vote was much closer, with 48.6% choosing the status quo of being a commonwealth, but 46.3% chose statehood (the numbers don't add up to 100% because other options, such as becoming an independent country, were also on the ballot). That's a spread of only 2.3% -- a pretty small margin. The most recent of these votes took place in 1998. The vote was a little skewed because the "commonwealth" faction overreached and used vague and unpopular language, so the "status quo" vote went to the newly-added "none of the above" option on the ballot. The outcome was 50.3% for "none of the above" and 46.5% for statehood. While the total percentage for statehood was higher than in 1993 by 0.2%, the "spread" was also higher, at 3.8%. So, statistically speaking, it's not clear what would happen if another vote were held today -- the trend could go either way, in other words.

But you've got to admit, it's still a pretty small margin. Which means that at some time during the next 10 years, another referendum could happen on the island, and if they reach a majority, then they will begin working on ratifying a state constitution and applying to Congress for statehood.

And it's an absolute certainty that their state constitution will not be "English-only" or proclaim English as the state language. Quite the opposite: they may set into their state constitution that the state government will conduct its affairs in two languages: Spanish and English. Or they may even (gasp!) declare Spanish their official state language.

So what is Congress going to do when faced with such a dilemma? What will the president (whomever it happens to be) say about the issue? Republican presidential candidates are already on record, with the exception of John McCain, of supporting English as a national language (it plays to their xenophobic base). But even John McCain, after denouncing such efforts, voted for that English-only amendment to the immigration bill (mentioned earlier). The Arizona Republic article skewers McCain thusly: "Anyone know the Spanish translation for flip-flop?"

What would we all do if a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico became our 51st state (after we redesign the U.S. flag, that is)? Obviously, at this point, any "English is our national language" nonsense will have to be repealed.

Of course, it would all be a lot easier if Democrats wouldn't vote for such silliness in the first place, but that may be too much to ask during the horse-trading which is currently at the center of the immigration debate. The most intelligent commentary I've heard on the subject comes from a retired Air Force officer, in an op-ed to the tiny Central Shenandoah Valley News Leader. It's worth reading for the common sense he offers.

I say let's not be the butt of the rest of the world's jokes. Let's admit that America can still be America with two official languages. Let's welcome Puerto Rico (if and when it happens) as our 51st state -- with no linguistic jingoism. We will wind up as a stronger country for having done so.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

14 Comments on “Our 51st “Estado””

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Hi Chris,

    I liked the joke :)

    But...lots of countries have an official national language or even two so I don't see a problem with having one. I think though that the US as the "melting pot" should be multi-lingual.


  2. [2] 
    Mjolnir wrote:

    I like Arnie's comment the other day about turning off Telemundo to hasten the immersion process, and the English language law, if it would require that all official forms be in English only, would certainly provide deeper water to proverbially throw immigrants into to help them swim with the rest of the country. Plus, think of the job creation, you'll get a whole slew of H&R Block style places opening up to help people with their paperwork!!

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    ["valbrady" posted two comments to a different article which really belong here. I have reproduced these to add to the discussion. -CW]


    First, to the English only issue. Although more and more other nations are being economically forced to learn English, we Americans see no need to strain our brains to do so. Experts know that the VERY best age for people to learn a second language is pre and primary school. So we delay such learning until high school which makes no sense at all. A second language should be mandatorily learned along with English all throughout elementary and high school. Instead of pushing Spanish or French, our students should be learning Arabic and/or Chinese or even Hindi.

    When I taught GED many of my students were Hispanic and applauded the election ballots (as well as the driver’s test) being written in Spanish. I don’t know of any other country that returns the favor. Although my immigrant (and we won’t go into their legal status) students were appalled that one had to be American born to run for president, they fell off their chair laughing when I suggested any other than a native born Mexican run for the Mexican presidency.

    I suggested to them that one solution to the immigration problem would be to make Mexico a part of the United States, they were very upset. They didn’t want to be part of the United States, they wanted the US to be part of Mexico. They had no intention of becoming Americanized (as so many of our early and other country immigrants are so eager to do), they want to be Mexicans (or El Salvadorians, or Columbians) living in Mexico and fully expected the American to cater to them. Isn’t this a case of the tail wagging the dog? If Puerto Rico wants to be a U.S. STATE, then I think it should be an English-speaking U.S. State.

    [2nd valbrady comment:]

    In my first post I said that the Hispanics wanted to live in Mexico and expected the Americans to cater to them. I meant the Hispanics want to live in America, but NOT as Americans.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Val -

    I think that you're right about teaching languages early. To strain the metaphor, I think we blew our chance to force Puerto Rico to speak English back when we got the island after the Spanish-American War. If we had made speaking Spanish illegal, forced everyone to learn English only, then today we'd be in a different place.

    But I am most definitely not advocating such naked "power of empire," I merely point it out as historical fact.

    Take Ireland as an example of how this actually worked. England outlawed Gaelic ("Irish"), and punishments were harsh. Outlaw "hedge schools" defied the ban, and the language does indeed still exist today. But very few people (other than in the sparsely settled western parts) actually speak Gaelic as their first language today. The Irish proudly display Gaelic on every street sign in big letters, but they also display the English (in much smaller letters, underneath), since that's what everyone speaks. I know of Irish students (who are forced to take Gaelic classes in school) who, later in life as adults, know only one or two phrases of Gaelic.

    But the point is, we didn't do that 100 years ago to PR, back when nobody had heard the term "politically correct." Successful empires are supposed to crush colonies, and force them to knuckle under. But we as a country have always been wary (or even amibivalent) of actually "being" an empire, so we didn't act as harshly as some other European empires at the time.

    So we've now got an island full of American citizens, whose primary language is Spanish. The question remains, what should the US do if PR joins the Union? Outlaw Spanish? Punish it harshly?

    I personally don't think that would work, either politically or practically.


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Mjolnir -

    Yeah, I thought Arnie had a good point too. If you read his entire commentary, he basically said "When I got to America, I watched TV and listened to the radio constantly, since it was the best way of picking up how to speak like an American. If Spanish-speakers in the US want to improve their English, they need to turn off Telemundo and watch English TV."

    Having lived in a foreign country, that's exactly what I did to improve my language skills, so it's hard to disagree with Arnie.

    And those language service places already exist. While California gives you forms in 17 different languages (I'm not exaggerating... well, not much -- you can get your DMV forms in Tagalog, for instance), the US government, and private businesses like banks, aren't always that accomodating. So there is a booming business in "filling out forms in English" at least out here in California.


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Stan -

    While I agree with you in substance, I think a lot of what drives this issue for average Americans is fear, due to their unilingual (monolingual?) nature.

    I can sum up this argument best as: "This is America, dammit, and those people over there shouldn't be talking in a language I don't understand. Who knows WHAT they're saying about me?"

    Maybe I'm oversimplifying it, I dunno...


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Personally, I am as open-minded and all encompassing as the next liberal, despite accusations to the contrary..

    But, I have a real problem with people coming to this country for all it's benefits, yet not wanting any of the responsibilities that go with it.

    If you want to come to America for it's benefits, then get off your lazy asses and learn the language.

    If I immigrate to Germany or France, I don't expect them to talk to me in my language. Sure it would be nice, but I don't expect that. I sure as hell wouldn't DEMAND it..

    This is America. We speak English.. With the great "power" of all our benefits, comes the great "responsibility" to learn the fracking language...

    Spiderman meets Battlestar:Galactica..... :D


  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    As to the issue of Puerto Rico???

    You want to be a state.. The English language comes along with it..

    You don't want to speak English?? Then you don't want to become a state..

    What could be more simple???


  9. [9] 
    Herm71 wrote:

    Yeah, I read Arnie's comments about turning off Telemundo too. As one of not-very-many white bilingual Americans, I'm a bit conflicted about them. My second language is Spanish (I'm a Californian, it's practically my first) and one of the ways I stay up on the language is ... by watching Telemundo. So I know it can work in reverse. CW did the same when he lived in Europe in order to learn the language. Sweet, I'm all for that. Moreover, yes, we should start teaching second languages in primary school. American kids should be well on their way to fluency by the time they're sophomores in high-school, instead of deciding then to take "Spanish 1" because it looks good on their college applications.

    What I'm against, however, are folks who gripe that government forms ought to be in English only and if you can't read 'em, tough. In my opinion, printing forms in English when the majority (or significant minority) of the population to whom you are charged with communicating doesn't speak the language is grossly irresponsible and more costly in the long run. Here's an example: I live in Oakland, CA. The SF Bay is pretty dang polluted, but folks still fish from the shoreline. In my area, the people who do this are predominantly S.E. Asian immigrants (Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Hmong). There are warnings posted at every public shoreline access I know of about mercury poisoning and how much fish or shellfish one should limit their consumption to. "English only" advocates would not have these warnings posted in any other language. My reply would be to ask: What's a better use of taxpayer's money, printing the warnings in the other languages of the targeted population or, using taxpayer money and suffering the associated rising insurance premium costs in order to treat this non-English, most-likely under insured, population once they get heavy metal poisoning from eating too many mussels because they couldn't read the posted warnings? I'm no economist, but it seems to me an ounce of prevention is definitely worth the pound of cure here. Same thing applies to DMV: Folks are going to drive anyway, wouldn't it be nice if they could read the DMV handbook so they'd know the laws? Wouldn't it be a better use of public funds to print the handbooks in different languages than suffer the social cost of increased accidents and subsequent higher insurance premiums?

    We're a mongrel nation. Our citizens' ancestry comes from every corner of the globe. There are *always* going to be non-English speaking immigrants here; our country was designed that way. We can't afford the chauvinism of other more homogeneous nations of requiring "English only". It's not in our best interests as a nation.

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Herm71 -

    OK, let me play devil's advocate a moment here. While I largely agree with your comment, I have to bring this up. What happens when there's a wreck/road construction/other out-of-the-ordinary siguation on the freeway, and a cop/emergency road sign tells a driver to do something unusual (like detour, or move to the left lanes, or whatever). Should the emergency signs be up in 8 different languages, or should the cop be fluent in all languages the driver's handbook is? Otherwise, the driver may be missing (through not understanding English) instructions which endanger him, or those around him. Because the state has tacitly agreed that he can drive (by printing the handbook in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Russian, etc.), who is really at fault if he disobeys the instructions and kills someone? Would you feel differently if the person he kills is near and dear to you?

    Like I said, devil's advocate worst case sort of situation, but this has indeed happened before in California, so it's not just a hypothetical situation.

    I actually agree with you about the fishing warning signs - print them in every language, no problem. But fishermen don't pose a threat to the public on the roads the way a driver does....


  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    And CW raises the perfect point?

    Where do you stop??

    If you have things printed in Spanish, then the Chinese immigrants are going to want things printed in Chinese. And, since the Chinese are getting their way, of course the Norwegians are going to DEMAND that things be printed THEIR way... And, since the Norwegians got their print, the Upper Moldavians are, of course, going to have to have things printed in THEIR language. And, not to be outdone by the Upper Moldavians, the Klingons are going to have to have things in Klin'zhai or else blood will be spilled. And, once the Klingons get their way, of course, the Rihannsu are going to.... and so on and so on ad nauseum..

    And, since the US does that in PRINT for all, then, of course, it stands to reason that we must do it for the SPOKEN word.. Poor little Joe's Diner is shut down by the Politically Correct Police, because he can't find someone who speaks fluent Klin'zhai or Rihannsu....

    Herm, you made the point that the US is a mongrel nation. Fair enough. Another way it has been put is a "Melting Pot"....

    The US is a melting pot.. OK.. Fine. So melt! Learn the language of your adopted home...

    It's always been a constant source of amazement to me. People from all over the world come to this country because (apparently) something is lacking from their own country.. And yet, they do their damndest to make THIS country INTO their old country..

    Yea, I know.. I come across as some xenophobic redneck.. But that's not it at all... I have no problem with people coming to this country (LEGALLY) to become American citizens... That's great... But for chreest's sake, BECOME Americans.. Don't make America into YOUR country... Because, frankly, I can't afford to give you everything YOU want, just because you are too lazy to learn the fracking language...



  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Historical tidbit for everyone to chew on --

    [Actually, two. That should read "historical titbit"... American spelling was bowdlerized due to Puritanism around 100 years ago.]

    But what I really wanted to say was: the Founding Fathers considered having a "National Language" -- but it would have been German. That's right. Much as President Bush came into office determined to do everything 180 degrees the opposite of what Clinton had done, the FF wanted to totally break away from England in a big way, and breaking away from the language was one thing they considered. At the time, German was the biggest "second language" in America (lots of Pennsylvania Dutch, who really aren't "Dutch" but "Deutsch," or "German"), and most people with a higher education already spoke it.

    So be glad they decided not to have a national language, otherwise we'd all be debating this issue in German!

    Come to think of it, we'd still be making fun of Schwartzenegger for his Austrian accent, but only because it was different from our "American German" accent.



  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    >That should read “historical titbit”

    Now yer just teasing... :D


  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To anyone interested in this article --

    I got what appears to be a Clinton appointee to The President's Interagency Group on Puerto Rico as a commentor to the Huffington Post version of this article.

    It's the fourth comment down.

    Sorry to beat my own drum, as it were, but he's the highest ranking commentor I've ever gotten, and he has some interesting information.


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