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Conscientious Objector

Oh say, can you see, in the not too distant future, a Puerto Rican star on the American flag?

Not too many Americans give much thought to our "associated free state" at the gateway to the Caribbean. For some of us, our knowledge and perception of Puerto Rican life is limited to West Side Story. Such stereotypes are an easy handle for us to grab. My siblings and I referred to the pointy, shiny shoes of a generation ago as "Puerto Rican fence climbers"

Of course, there is an element of truth to all such stereotypes: Puerto Ricans do like to look sharp. But the story of Puerto Rican-American ties is more complex than a Broadway musical. My visit over New Year's provided me at least a glimpse into the real story.

It's a strange and sometimes strained relationship that the Isle of Enchantment has with its mainland Uncle Sam. Taken by the U.S. as a Caribbean trophy in the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico suffered abuse of its resources and neglect of its people for much of the 20th century. It was not until 1917, almost 20 years after coming under American control, that citizenship was granted to the island's people.

But under the yoke of Gringo occupation, Puerto Ricans have had to put up with their forests being stripped, their people impoverished and their beaches used as military target ranges.

The decades of second-class treatment have left their marks, not only on the landscape, but on the people as well. There is some resentment of the invasive influence of mainland America on the unique culture of the island.

Though officially bilingual, Puerto Rico is really Spanish in language and culture. Occasional English words are used in everyday speech, and some have been appropriated into "Spanglish." But there are no local TV stations broadcasting in English, and precious few radio stations, either. While the island's more educated and influential upper-middle class tends to be fluent in English, there are those who learn to understand English, but refuse to use it out of principle. They are a people rightfully proud of their unique culture, and one can easily understand their resistance to being swallowed up whole by English-speaking corporate globalization.

But the language question may be the key issue for the future of the island. In its current commonwealth status, Puerto Rico has access to American economy and stability. Tourists need no passports, and there is no currency to exchange. The island enjoys the protection of the United States without being subject to U.S. taxes. But statehood for Puerto Rico, while providing its citizens with full participation in elections and legislation, would throw the whole nation into the difficult debate of what America really means.

Could we have one state that speaks Spanish while the rest of the country speaks English? Is the United States prepared to recognize Spanish, which is already spoken widely throughout the contiguous states, on an equal basis with English? Is mainland America ready to become bilingual? Unfortunately, the answer to all of these questions seems to be no.

America still wants to be white, and it still wants to be English. While the forces of globalization press onward, America remains surprisingly provincial: We expect others to accept our ways, while we reserve the right to reject theirs.

It would be nice to think otherwise, but the notion of multilingualism and multiculturalism stands more of a chance of happening in Europe than in the Americas.

Up in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, as you wind along roads filled with insane drivers, is a monument to the simple people who settled and cultivated this island. The monument features El Jibaro Puertoricceño, what we might call the Puerto Rican Hillbilly, born of three races, white, black, and native Taino, who have mixed themselves into one. It is a monument to humble beginnings, simple lives and basic human values. While listening to my host speak about it, I am struck by two things: First, there is a deep sense of pride about this motley heritage; and second, in Puerto Rico at least, it's worked.

We won't have to worry about the question of statehood for the island, at least for the foreseeable future. In the November elections, Puerto Ricans threw out the statehood party and overwhelmingly elected their first woman governor, Sila Calderone, pledged to a continuation of the commonwealth. San Juan rejoiced over New Year's as the former Republican governor fled the island for a waiting job at Harvard. For him, the future is in America. But for the majority of Puerto Ricans, their future is their own home, their own culture, their own language and their own flag, which sums up their situation: all the elements of America, but with its own unique design.


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