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"The attempt by conquerors to impose their language on the conquered is a recurrent historical theme" (Morris 162).
In 1493 the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the island of Borinquen where, there was an attempt by the Spanish to impose their language on the native population of Taino Indians. The Tainos believed that the Spaniards were gods and so were willing to learn all that they could from them. The virtual annihilation of the Taino population in the short period after the Spanish arrival caused by the importation of illnesses the Tainos were not immune to as well as their horrid working conditions as slaves. After close to 400 years of rule on the island the Spanish language was adopted to be the official Puerto Rican language.
Today the Spanish language is the number one identifying factor of Puerto Ricannness, meaning that when Puerto Ricans are asked what is Puerto Ricanness, the number one answer is language. As demonstrated by Nancy Morris in her book, Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity.
Since 1898 Puerto Ricans have given the Spanish language enormous importance as part of their culture and history because of American colonization of the island. The United States attempt to Americanize the island by way of enforcing their language and history in public schools on the island has continually been rejected by Puerto Ricans. The Americans made no attempt to learn Spanish in order to understand Puerto Ricans because of their belief that Puerto Ricans were inferior.
"In U.S. eyes the first problem Puerto Ricans faced was their Spanish blood. In the United States this heritage is called the Black Legend and is the basis of prejudice focused, not on the color of skin, but on cruelty of behavior" (Fernandez 13).
Perhaps the competition between the Spain and the United States for global domination during the late 19th Century may have lead to a disliking of the Spanish culture. U.S. attempts to Americanize the island may have also been influenced by the competition between the countries. Competitive nature getting the best of the U.S. and making them so competitive they would try to convert an island to demonstrate the superiority of the English language and the American culture.
In Ferrés’ novel this unwillingness by the Americans to learn the Spanish language and try to improve conditions on the island are clearly depicted by several characters. For instance, The typical governor is described as:
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"A civil servant, the governor was usually named to the post to repay a political favor at the level of national politics, making his involvement with events on the island frequentlyhalf-hearted. It was the executive branch that really ruled. The governor rarely went out of the mansion and preferred to exercise his authority from there keeping his distance from the local population" (Ferré 123).
Much like the isolated governors there was Madeleine Roich whose father was an Italian immigrant to the Unites States and later to Puerto Rico. Madeline was also unwilling to learn the language and her marriage to Arístides Arrigoitia, Quintín Mendizabal’s grandfather failed because of it.
"Madeleine never learned to Speak Spanish. She spoke English at home with her father and with her husband and sign language with everyone else. Even thirty-seven years later, when she finally returned to Boston, she couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, though she understood most of it" (Ferré 94).
One could perceive the marriage between Madeline and Arístides as the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. The marriage is a failure just as the relationship is a failure because the Americans (like Madeleine) are unwilling to learn to speak Spanish. Therefore, proving their interest in personal gains rather than in the well being of the partner. Madeleine’s unwillingness to learn Spanish made her feel isolated from the island but she continued to live on the island because of her father. Once her father passed away she decided to return home to Boston, leaving behind her husband. Arístides takes a mulatto mistress after his separation from his wife, which forces him to leave his family because it was considered a disgrace to do so.
The novel’s description of the governor’s lack of initiative to change island life is indicative of the U.S. contention with having economic and political conditions remain the same on the island. This was because having Puerto Rico under American control, as an "unincorporated territory" was the original plan for the island. It was in the United States best interest to maintain the island as such, regardless of the Puerto Rican’s state of living.
"We Puerto Ricans have to learn English, not as the route to cultural suicide whereby we becopme dissolved into the turbulent mainstream of American life, assimilated to that "brutal and unruly North that so despises us," to quote José Martí, but so that we may with greater ease and profit intergrate ourselves into that rich Caribbean world to which we belong by historical necessity. (González 30).
In response to this statement made by González, Tania Lopez wrote:
"Perhaps Puerto Ricans did not understand the great importance and implications of learning another language could have, especially in being located in the Caribbean."
I must agree that it is very important for people to be able to communicate in order to prosper not only economically and politically but also personally. This being so, perhaps the United States should consider learning the language spoken by the largest percent of people throuout the world rather than attempting to take the language away from the Puerto Ricans. Learning Spanish to the Americans would be of particular importance because of its strategic location neighboring South America, a continent where over 90% of its countries are Spanish speaking.
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Scarano, Franciso. Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico, 1815-1849: An Overview from: Scarano, Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico: "The Plantation Economy of Ponce, 1800-1850. (Madison U. of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 3-34.
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Lopez, Tania. Personal Web Page http://frontpage/tlopez