Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Popular Democratic Party's myopic view on language

The Popular Democratic Party's myopic view on language
Edition:Caribbean Business September 25, 2008 | Volume: 36 | No: 38

When the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) won its first election in 1940, it began a peaceful socioeconomic revolution that was sorely needed in Puerto Rico.
With President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s help and support, together with Rexford Guy Tugwell’s outstanding executive and organizational ability, Muñoz Marín’s socioeconomic platform was put into effect.

The poor farmers and the blue-collar workers saw hope and opportunity as never before. From the beginning of World War II in 1941, unemployment on the island was substantially reduced as most young men volunteered or were drafted to serve in the U.S. Armed Services. Military roads, military camps, airports, port facilities and other needed infrastructure were built with federal funds.

PR-2, which was called “Carretera Militar,” was built during the war. The road between Cayey and Salinas, Fort Buchanan, Fort Brooke Military Camp, the Naval Air base in Miramar, Borinquen Airfield in Aguadilla, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads and many other infrastructure works started a construction boom in Puerto Rico during the war.

After the war, federal funds for public housing, to purchase land and distribute it to the poor in parcelas, funds for education and health were increased, benefiting our underprivileged, and a middle class started growing and expanding as more and better-paid jobs were created.

Nevertheless, the most significant and important of all federal programs over the long term was the G.I. Bill of Rights (Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944), which provided funds for technical, specialized and professional education of veterans. The number of Puerto Rican veterans that benefited from the G.I. Bill of Rights was enormous. No other program has meant so much to so many in Puerto Rico as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who would never have had the opportunity to study, could now became master electricians, master plumbers, medical technicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, business managers and teachers.

The G.I. Bill of Rights allowed Puerto Ricans to reap the benefits of education to put the island on the industrial map by providing workers and professionals with the know-how necessary for economic development and to attract outside investors.

Muñoz Marín and his PDP benefited from the war and the federal programs. The funding and the education achievement stimulated by federal monies were wisely used by Muñoz and his party. The economic growth in Puerto Rico from the beginning of the WWII in 1941 through the 1950s was so impressive that Puerto Rico was hailed as “The Showcase of Democracy.”

However, as Puerto Rico developed economically, the people started wondering more and more whether we wouldn’t be better off as a state. Muñoz Marín and his party leaders were leery of the growing pro-American sentiment in Puerto Rico and the growing demand for political equality with our fellow citizens in the 50 states. As a result, they structured a plan to undermine the growing demand for equality.

The plan consisted of setting up barriers against statehood. They decided upon three “impediments” to becoming a state. They planned and carried out a massive public relations campaign in Puerto Rico and on the U.S. mainland.

The arguments they presented were that if Puerto Rico become a state, our economy would plummet because: (1) as a state, we couldn’t grant federal income-tax exemption to industries and, without the tax exemption, manufacturing companies wouldn’t invest in Puerto Rico; (2) if we had to pay federal minimum wages, Puerto Rico would be afflicted by massive unemployment; and (3) if Puerto Rico became a state, we would all have to speak English and Spanish would be lost.

Muñoz and his PDP cohorts were afraid that the more people spoke English and the more English people spoke, the easer it would be for statehooders to convince people that Puerto Rico should become a state. As all negative movements inevitably do, this one ended up by espousing a strategy that has done much harm to our people.

Their strategy was to reduce the use of English as much as possible, especially in schools. Before this anti-English campaign, all classes in Puerto Rico, whether in public or privates schools, were held in English, with the obvious exception of the Spanish class. Under Muñoz Marín’s leadership, teaching in English was alleged to be antipedagogic. The Teacher Exchange Program—through which teachers from the States came to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish and teach English, while teachers from Puerto Rico went to the States to teach Spanish and improved their English—was terminated. As a result, we have never had enough teachers proficient enough in English to teach our children adequately. The teaching of English has deteriorated at an accelerated pace.

Today, if it weren’t for cable TV, the movies and Puerto Ricans returning from the mainland U.S., our proficiency in English would leave much to be desired.

In the meantime, right after the end of WWII, migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland grew by leaps and bounds and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans and their families had difficulty finding a good job, because of their inability to properly communicate in English.

While all nations around the world are teaching English to their children—because it is the world’s most widely used language in commerce, banking, aviation, science and technology—we in Puerto Rico have been hurting several generations of our people who haven’t been taught enough English to take advantage of the opportunities available to those who can speak and write both languages. We, who as U.S. citizens need to know English to get along better with our fellow citizens, have not only been neglected, but maliciously denied the opportunity to be fully bilingual.

Today, all over the 50 states of the union and in Central and South American countries, bilingual individuals have many more job and economic opportunities than they would if they were fluent in English or Spanish only.

In contrast to the PDP’s attitude against English, in Washington, D.C., there is a bilingual public school where half the course is taught in English and the second half in Spanish. The name of the school is Oyster Bilingual School and the waiting list of students whose parents want them to be bilingual is very long.

The harm done to the future and aspirations of several generations of public-school children by the PDP as a result of denying them the opportunity to be fluent in both languages can’t be easily undone. However, we must commit and dedicate ourselves to work hard toward developing a bilingual community. Whoever in America (whether North, Central or South) doesn’t realize the importance of being proficient in both Spanish and English is either being obtuse, or is very prejudiced against the United States.

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