The Language Barrier for Puerto Ricans

The Language Barrier for Puerto Ricans

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The Language Barrier for Puerto Ricans

"Pollito, Chicken
Gallina, Hen
Lapiz, Pencil
y Pluma, Pen.
Ventana, Window
Puerta, Door
Maestra, Teacher
y Piso, Floor

I sing in English, I sing in Spanish, so all my friends can understand."

The issue of language is central to the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. Living in a land where the dominant language is English, this Spanish speaking population is involved in a historical struggle to overcome the language barrier. Among other things, their unfamiliarity with the English language has been a major obstacle to the progression of the Puerto Rican people as a whole.

The inability of Puerto Rican’s to speak English has served to exacerbate their situation in the United States; a situation where they are already met with discrimination simply for being foreigners. In the classrooms, Puerto Ricans have met only minimal success, largely due to their inability to properly communicate with teachers and peers. In the workplace, Puerto Ricans have historically been given only menial jobs. Due to their inability to speak English, many Puerto Ricans are unable to conduct themselves in job interviews, fill out application forms, or communicate with customers. As a result, the more competitive job fields show an under-representation of Puerto Ricans. Finally, many Puerto Ricans find it difficult to conduct themselves in places such as hospitals, courtrooms, and post offices due to the language barrier. This leads to the issue of bilingualism. Should the mainstream environment of the schools and workplace of America consist of two languages? This issue has been debated for many years.

This paper focuses on the issue of bilingualism in Hartford, while also looking at the context under which Puerto Ricans in Hartford find themselves in their current situation. These issues are examined with the use of historical fact, along with information and sentiments on current events in the Hartford community concerning the issue of bilingualism and culture.

Puerto Rican History

In the year 1508, the Spanish arrived in Puerto Rico and began the Spanish colonization of the island. At this time, the island was called Boriquen and was inhabited by an Indian tribe called Tainos. During this process, the Spanish established their way of life on the island while decimating the Tainos in terms of population due to Spanish disease, slavery and oppression.

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In order to avoid this fate, many Tainos escaped into the hinterland or left the island. Some Tainos mixed with the Spaniards and/or their African slaves through intermarriage. Over the course of time, Spanish became the dominant language of the island.

On July 25, 1898, the United States arrived in Puerto Rico and the island fell under the reign of US colonial rule. The presence of the US had adverse effects on the island politically and economically. Economic power fell into the hands of US corporations and the political future of the island was at the mercy of the US government.

The US implemented English only legislation in an attempt to Americanize the Puerto Ricans on the island. The Americans felt that Puerto Ricans learning English was imperative to their assimilation into American mainstream culture. English was authorized as the language of instruction in the classroom despite the fact that most of the native teachers did not understand or speak English. The native teachers, who often disregarded these English-only rules, had to be wary of US monitors watching the native employer’s actions. As part of their job, native teachers were required to take English language classes and explain themselves in the event of an absence (Fernandez 55-56).

The economic situation created by the US on the island of Puerto Rico left many Puerto Ricans in a state of poverty. While professionals connected to the US lived comfortably in the island’s capital, the laborers lived in crudely built shacks containing one to two rooms and lacking furniture and indoor cooking and bathroom facilities (Dietz 128).

Looking to improve their economic conditions for them and their families, many Puerto Ricans looked to the US as a place of opportunity and promise. The Jones Act had made the inhabitants of Puerto Rico citizens of the US, therefore, they could travel back and forth between the island and the US freely. Many Puerto Ricans envisioned the US as place where they could find a job and acquire improved economic status.

The greatest period of migration from Puerto Rico to the US took place from 1946 - 1970. Many Puerto Ricans settled in industrial centers where there were opportunities in the manufacturing and garment industries. The majority settled in New York City, and gradually found their way into Connecticut and then Hartford (Pagan 47).

The Puerto Rican population in Hartford has grown considerably over the past decades. From 1960 to 1990, the Puerto Rican population has increased from 2,307 to 38,176. In 1960, Puerto Ricans made up 1.4% of the total population of Hartford. By 1990, that number increased to 27.3% (Pagan).


Cruz, José. Identity and Power: Puerto Rican Politics and the
Challenge of Ethnicity. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,

James Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico (Princeton:
Princeton U Press, 1986), 98-134

Fernandez, Ronald, "The Disenchanted Island", (Praeger,
Westport, Connecticut London) 1996

Figueroa-Martínez, Luis. ed. Hist. 247 Reader. (January 1998).

Pagan, Armando. "Puerto Ricans in Hartford and the legacy of
the Underclass." Undergraduate Senior Thesis submitted to the
Department of History, Trinity College, May 1999

Interviews from Park Street residents (5/5/99): Francisco
Acevedo, Liz Perez-Balesky, Epifanio Garcia

Interviews with Bilingual Education faculty at Hartford Public
Highschool (5/6/99): Mrs. Aida Ramos (Vice-Principal), Ms. Clara
Velez (Bilingual Math Teacher), Mrs. Irene Killian (TESOL), Ms.
Zoraida Ortiz (Bilingual Science Teacher), and Ms. Nancy Harrison
(TESOL/Bilingual Computer Lab Teacher).
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