“Puerto Rico, you lovely island…”

In Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Anita, the daughter of an immigrant, extols the virtues of “America” in contrast to what she sees as the drawbacks of Puerto Rico. Today, the country’s governor also wants the people to become more American than Hispanic.

“Puerto Rico
My heart’s devotion
Let it sink back in the ocean
Always the hurricanes blowing
Always the population growing
And the money owing
And the sunlight streaming
And the natives steaming
I like the island Manhattan
Smoke on your pipe
And put that in!”

The Caribbean islands that make up Puerto Rico are unincorporated territories of the United States. The nature of the country’s political relationship with the U.S. is the subject of ongoing debate within Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress, and the United Nations. The fundamental question is whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory, become the 51st U.S. state, or become an independent country. The larger questions have to do with culture, economic sustainability and, crucially, the islanders’ long-term identity.

Originally populated for centuries by indigenous aboriginal peoples known as Taínos, the island was claimed for Spain on 19 November 1493 by Christopher Columbus. Under Spanish rule, the island was colonized and the indigenous population forced into slavery and almost wiped out due to, among other things, European infectious diseases. The population that survived was emancipated by Carlos I in 1520.

Spain kept Puerto Rico for over 400 years until the Spanish-American War when, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, it ceded the island to the United States. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917 and the United States Congress determines many aspects of Puerto Rican life, even though undemocratically the islanders may not vote in U.S. presidential elections. The country’s symbols include the Kapok Tree and the Flor de Maga.

Puerto Rico’s official tongues are Spanish and English – the former being the primary language. The present governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno, wants Puerto Ricans to be bilingual in both English and Spanish by 2022. To meet that goal, he plans to establish an intensive curriculum in public schools, which is already being tested at early grade levels. Public schools in Puerto Rico provide free non-sectarian education at the elementary and secondary levels and English is taught as a second language in both public and private schools.

Fortuno says learning English will enable the country to become more competitive in a growing and globalized economy. But some of his critics accuse him of trying to impose a political agenda that serves the USA, especially in an election year that will see a referendum on the island’s future relationship with its not-so-neighbourly neighbour.

West Side Story ends with the hint of reconciliation between the feuding American and Puerto Rican factions. It remains to be seen if reality will imitate art. All bets are off.


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