PUERTO RICO has brought the United States face to face with the prickly issue of bilingualism. The question before the US Congress: Should an island whose principal language is Spanish be admitted as the 51st state?
Next week, a Senate committee begins marking up a bill that would give the people of Puerto Rico three choices: statehood, independence, or enhanced status as a commonwealth.
Puerto Rico's future - particularly if voters choose statehood - involves broad policy issues for the entire US. One concerns the growing tension between the use of Spanish and English in the US.
Already, the escalating use of Spanish has caused political flare-ups, particularly in southern Florida, where signs in shops often say, ``English Spoken Here.''
The language question is nothing new for Congress. Four times Congress has imposed a language requirement as a condition for statehood - in Louisiana (1812), Oklahoma (1907), New Mexico (1912), and Arizona (1912). Lawmakers mandated that English be used in the legislatures, or the schools, or both.
Puerto Rico, however, could be different.
Sen. J.Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, who is sponsoring the Puerto Rico bill, wants to duck the language question. He worries that if English or Spanish is mentioned in the bill, it could kill it.
``Language is like religion,'' Senator Johnston warns. Trying to impose English on Puerto Rico would raise fears on the island of ``cultural uprooting.''
Johnston, coming from Louisiana, empathizes with the concerns of Puerto Ricans. He implies that imposing of English upon his state in 1812 was a mistake: ``It worked so well that we have lost our French,'' he laments.
Puerto Rican leaders adamantly insist that Congress attach no conditions to statehood that would involve making English the principal language of the island.
Furthermore, some Puerto Rican leaders wish to take steps to strengthen Spanish. They would, for example, insist that in federal court cases in Puerto Rico, any litigant could insist that the language used in a trial be Spanish.
That has brought a thundering protest from the federal judiciary. Levin Campbell, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals in Boston, told Congress that such a Spanish option would give the US court system ``enormous problems.''
Judge Campbell explained, ``The federal district court [in Puerto Rico] is part of an exclusively English-speaking system in which the use of any language but English poses a number of major problems.'' One such difficulty: What happens if the case must be appealed to higher courts, including the US Supreme Court? All the records and documents would require translation.
``If Spanish becomes an official language in the federal court in Puerto Rico, [it] will tend to become an isolated enclave in what is and has always been a unified federal court system,'' Campbell warned.
Yale Newman of U.S. English, a group favoring English as the official language of the US, puts it more bluntly. Without a single language, ``we are not a country, we are regional enclaves,'' Mr. Newman says. ``We will be a true tower of Babel.''
U.S. English has won recognition of English as the official language in 17 states - Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
All this may be academic if Puerto Rico chooses independence or remains a commonwealth. Only statehood would cause potential language problems. But in recent years, the statehood faction in Puerto Rico has gained strength. In the proposed plebiscite on Puerto Rico's status, now expected in 1991, statehood could win.
In Puerto Rico, Spanish is the language of local government, of education, and of everyday life. Most people on the island speak Spanish, though about 42 percent speak at least some English. It is said that a majority of Puerto Ricans understand English, even when they cannot speak it.
At a series of hearings over the past two months, senators have heard both Spanish and English praised.
Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo, who heads the Statehood Party, observes the advantages of being bilingual: ``I have been able to enjoy Shakespeare in English and Cervantes in Spanish. ... I have had the best of two worlds. I think that is what we want to have in Puerto Rico.''
The current governor, Rafael Hernandez Colon, opposes statehood partly because of the language problem. He says: ``Statehood ... is unworkable because it ... does not take into account ... that Puerto Ricans form a people, a distinct society, with its own culture, ethos, and language....
``This most unequal of states would resist to melt or blend. It would be a state with a different primary language, marching under its own flag....''
Former Governor Romero takes a different view: ``The two principal languages in America are Spanish and English. ... Accepting a Hispanic community as an equal partner ... and at the same time respecting our Spanish language and cultural heritage will go a long way in helping to crumble down the walls of misunderstanding.''
The pro-Spanish and pro-English advocates both make economic arguments.
U.S. English, for example, wants Congress to promote English in Puerto Rico as a means of lifting its citizens into the national economy. Without a working knowledge of English, Puerto Ricans would be second-class economic citizens of the US, the group contends.
``Not knowing English in the US enslaves you to persons who do, and creates a class of citizens dependent on others,'' says Luis Acle of U.S. English. Knowing English boosts a Puerto Rican's income by as much as 50 percent, it is said.
But Spanish advocates also make economic claims. There is a strong feeling among some Puerto Ricans that their location in the Caribbean puts them at a crossroads for trade.
``Puerto Rico's geographical position makes it important for us that we are the place of exchange, interchange, between the nation and Latin America because we speak both languages. We want to keep that,'' says Romero.
There are also emotional and cultural factors that pull strongly at Puerto Ricans, and which weigh heavily even on those in favor of statehood. Former Gov. Luis A. Ferre told the senators:
``Spanish is our mother language. And you cannot change the mother language of any community which is constrained to an island like Puerto Rico. So there is no use trying to think of that as a possibility. ... Certainly, if anybody tried to change our mother language, they would be destroying our right to the pursuit of happiness. ... It would be like saying English is better. ... Spanish is not good enough.''
Senator Johnston worries that the language debate could undercut efforts to improve the island's status. He explains the danger:
``You get the whole focus of debate ... about how different Puerto Rico is and that it is [98 percent] Hispanic. It doesn't want to be American. They want to insist on their separateness. I think it [the language controversy] just emphasizes separateness.''