[Program Note: I am taking today off and instead had to dig out a column from five years ago, because of one election result not many are paying attention to. Actually, I will be taking tomorrow off, but I'm spending today writing up the Friday Talking Points column, which will not only appear on schedule, but will actually appear tomorrow much earlier in the day than normal. But today I thought would be a good day to take a look back to five years ago, and a meandering prediction I made which, again, nobody really seems to be noticing in the media right now. I'll have much more to say on this subject tomorrow, and in the days to come. Because the American voters in Puerto Rico have just approved moving towards becoming one of the United States of America. This hasn't happened in two generations worth of history, it bears pointing out, but the media hasn't woken up to what it is going to mean yet. So, as background to what I'll be saying tomorrow, here's what I had to say five years ago.]
Originally Published June 17, 2007
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?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
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."
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.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant