Bilingualism among Puerto Ricans

"When I travel to the States I feel as Latina as Chita Rivera.  But in Latin America, I feel more American than John Wayne.  To be Puerto Rican is to be a hybrid.  Our two halves are inseparable; we cannot give up either without feeling maimed."  Rosario Ferre

"It's not unusual for writers to be the children of foreigners.  There's something about the two languages engaging one another in the child's ears that makes her want to write things down.  She will want to say sentences over and over again, probably in the host or dominant tongue.  There will also be a certain amount of syntactical confusion which, if not driven out of her head by heavy schooling, will free the writer to stand a sentence on its chauvinistic national head when necessary.  She will then smile."  Grace Paley on Clarice Lispector

For over 400 years, Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain.  In 1898, the island came under the control of the United States of America.  During the nineteenth century, Puerto Ricans hold U.S. citizenship and can travel to and fro mainland USA. without restrictions.  The island now has a population of just less than 4 million persons, and almost 3 million Puerto Ricans reside in mainland USA.  

During the Spanish rule, the principal language was Spanish.  When the Americans assumed control, there were attempts to introduce the English language, but Spanish remained the official language.  The recent political landscape in Puerto Rico is divided amongst those who want independence, statehood or commonwealth status.  Of all the issues, language is perhaps the most important one, since it permeates political, economic, educational, social and cultural lives.  The adherents of all schools of thought are in agreement that Spanish should be the language of Puerto Rico.  Still, the fact remains that a certain amount of official and commercial business in Puerto Rico is conducted in English.  More importantly, most of the very large number of Puerto Ricans living on mainland USA have certainly found themselves learning English, either out of necessity or circumstances.  Here is a short paragraph from the bilingual version of Esmeralda Santiago's book about growing up Puerto Rican in Brooklyn, New York City.

There were two kinds of Puerto Ricans in school: the newly arrived, like myself, and the ones born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican parents.  The two types didn't mix.  The Brooklyn Puerto Ricans spoke English, and often no Spanish at all.  To them, Puerto Rico was the place where their grandfathers lived, a place they visited on school and summer vacations, a place which they complained was backward and mosquito-ridden.  Those of us for whom Puerto Rico was still a recent memory were also split into two groups: the ones who longed for the island and the ones who wanted to forget it as soon as possible.

Había dos clases de puertorriqueños en la escuela: los acabados de llegar, como yo, y los nacidos en Brooklyn de padres puertorriqueños.  Los dos grupos no se juntaban.  Los puertorriqueños de Brooklyn hablaban inglés, y ninguno hablaba español.  Para ellos, Puerto RIco era el sitio donde vivían sus abuelos, un sitio que visitaban durante los vacaciones, un sitio que era, se quejaban, poco desarrollado y lleno de mosquitos.  Nosotros para quienes Puerto Rico era una memoria reciente, también nos dividíamos en dos grupos: los que no podían aguantar hasta el día que regresaran, y los que lo querían olvidar los más pronto posible.

We will present now some survey results from the TGI Puerto Rico study, a survey of 2,055 individuals aged 12 or older, who were interviewed between February and April, 1999.  In response to the question, "Which language(s) do you speak?" 72% said "only Spanish", 12% said "mostly Spanish", 15% said "both Spanish and English" and 1% said "mostly or only English."

The ability to speak English is correlated with actual experience in mainland USA.  In the table below, we show the percentage of people who have traveled to somewhere on the United States during the last 12 months.


Speak only Spanish Speak mostly Spanish Speak Spanish+English Speak mostly/only English
13% 10% 18% 20% 17%

(TGI Puerto Rico, Mediafax Inc.)

The next table shows the demographic characteristics of the bilingual people.

Demographic Characteristic % who speak both Spanish + English
     Male 12-17
     Male 18-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-49
     Male 50-64
     Male 65+

     Female 12-17
     Female 18-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-49
     Female 50-64
     Female 65+

Annual Household Income
     $9999 or less
     $10,000 - $14,999
     $15,000 - $19,999
     $20,000 - $24,999
     $25,000 - $29,999
     $30,000 or more

Total 15%

(TGI Puerto Rico, Mediafax Inc.)

For island Puerto Ricans, Spanish is unquestionably the principal language of daily use as well as the essence of their self-identity.  But for those Puerto Ricans who have stayed in mainland USA have found that it was necessary to acquire some command of English in order to function.  For those Puerto Ricans who have lived extensively in mainland USA, they may in fact be better in English than Spanish.  In fact, the experience of the diaspora has led to the development of Spanglish.  This has led to the matter of language competency and its relationship to economic welfare, with the question of whether bilingualism among Puerto Ricans has hindered the development of linguistic, cognitive and educational skills such that they are unable to compete effectively in school and at work.

To quote from the book of Zentella:

I am sometimes pessimistic, sometimes optimistic, about the nation's ability to achieve a common language of respect, and about the future of the New York Puerto Rican community.  It is impossible not to be disheartened by the anti-immigrant and anti-Spanish fervor that has accompanied the adoption of English-only amendments by 18 states since the 1980s, the rise of anti-Latino racially motivated attacks in NYC, the socio-economic disparities that leave almost half (49.6%) of Puerto Rican children living in poverty, the proliferation of guns that terrify María with what she calls their "boom-boom," the sick and orphaned children left behind by drug addictions, AIDS and TB epidemics, the over-representation of Puerto Ricans in special education classes, the revival of genetic inferiority theories to explain Latino test scores, and the public demonization of women who are forced to raise their children with welfare benefits that amount to less than half of poverty level income.  What can I say to Isabel when she protests: "I'm not garbage.  And my children are not garbage."?  If I manage to summon up the "audacious hope" that the African American philosopher Cornel West urges, it is inspired by Isabel's courage and resilience, and that of her children and friends.  Their repudiation of a stigmatized identity for their Puerto Ricanness, their color, their poverty, and their bilingualism places them in the vanguard of the opening of the nation's cultural, racial, and linguistic frontiers.  Their contribution is both revolutionary and essential: to help their fellow Americans see that the browning of the US is underway for the benefit of all, and that as the country is changing what it looks like, so it must change how it looks at itself.  That home is not where only English speakers reside, and the American dream is not dreamt in English only.  (p.287)



(posted by Roland Soong on 3/25/00)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)