Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Attempts to Americanize Puerto Ricans by imposing English as the language of instruction in elementary and secondary schools ended in 1949. The end of the perceived attack on Puerto Rican culture also brought an end to the island’s separatist movement, and Puerto Rico soon became a commonwealth of the United States.

Summary of Event

When the United States occupied Puerto Rico in 1898 as part of the spoils of victory in the Spanish-American War, a prolonged struggle began over attempts to “Americanize” the island. Congress annexed Puerto Rico as an American territory, and resident commissioner Henry Carroll Carroll, Henry urged Washington to grant the new acquisition self-rule, as with other territories. Congress rebuffed Carroll and passed the Foraker Act Foraker Act (1900) of 1900, which gave the American government direct control over the island’s political life. The act imposed an American governor appointed by the U.S. president, who also named other high-ranking executive, legislative, and judicial officials in the territorial government. It also empowered Congress to annul any Puerto Rican legislation. Congress took these unusual steps out of apprehension that Spanish rule and culture had not prepared the island for democratic self-rule, necessitating a reshaping of Puerto Rico’s culture before it could enjoy the typical prerogatives of a territory. Puerto Rico Education;language issues Nationalism;Puerto Rico Anticolonial movements;Puerto Rico Languages;cultural importance United States;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico] [kw]Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico (Aug. 6, 1949) [kw]Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico, Spanish Becomes the (Aug. 6, 1949) [kw]Instruction in Puerto Rico, Spanish Becomes the Language of (Aug. 6, 1949) [kw]Puerto Rico, Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in (Aug. 6, 1949) Puerto Rico Education;language issues Nationalism;Puerto Rico Anticolonial movements;Puerto Rico Languages;cultural importance United States;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico] [g]Caribbean;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] [g]West Indies;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] [g]United States;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] [c]Education;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] [c]Language, linguistics, and philology;Aug. 6, 1949: Spanish Becomes the Language of Instruction in Puerto Rico[02970] Muñoz Marín, Luis Vanga, EpifanioFernández Padín Rodríguez, José García, José Miguel Gallardo Clark, Victor S.

American actions puzzled and appalled Puerto Ricans, who had supported U.S. intervention in the war. Nationalists had hoped that American victory would liberate their homeland from Spanish rule. Although some nationalists were willing to accept a degree of political alignment with the victor, they resented the extreme domination of the island by Congress.

Educational policies set by the United States also alienated many Puerto Ricans. From the outset, American politicians decided that the island could not become a true part of the United States as long as it retained its Spanish culture. This was particularly true in regard to language. The military government at the conclusion of the war named General John Eaton Eaton, John and Victor S. Clark to oversee the establishment of public schools on the island. They created a free system, which made it possible for many more Puerto Rican children to attend school, but they also attempted to transplant the American pattern in its entirety, regardless of local conditions.

The two Americans also decreed that teachers were to instruct in English rather than Spanish, and that the schools were not to teach any Spanish at all. This policy met with some initial enthusiasm on the island. Because of their liberation from Spanish rule, many Puerto Ricans were exuberant about the United States, and elementary school children delighted in learning American songs and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Difficulties soon became obvious. Teachers proficient in English were scarce, and those recruited on the mainland often proved to be either adventurers or homesick young women who abandoned their posts within a year. Many children could not understand sufficient English to learn the other academic subjects, so instructors furtively began to teach in Spanish. The aims of American-style education also conflicted with Puerto Rican culture. For example, the United States established coeducational public schools on an island where boys and girls traditionally did not study together. Middle- and upper-class families protected their daughters from contact with the opposite sex. If they received any education, it centered on domestic arts and manners. Lower-class girls received no education at all. Undergirding traditional attitudes toward female education was the bias that females lacked the intellectual ability of males.

Early American policies with regard to the new territory consequently created a political and cultural conflict almost impossible to resolve. On one hand, the United States was determined to retain the island in a form of tutelage until Puerto Ricans became fully Americanized. On the other hand, most islanders refused to abandon their Spanish language and traditions as long as the American government discriminated against them and denied them full citizenship. With neither side willing to back down, a clash ensued, with the debate over which language should be used in the public schools becoming the chief symbol of the struggle. The language issue also became embroiled in the political factionalism that beset the island.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress abolished the Foraker Act and granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans but still refused to allow self-government. At about the same time, the commissioner of education altered the policy regarding English, permitting teachers in the first four grades to instruct in Spanish while teaching English as a special subject. He reversed the status of the two languages for the more advanced students. This change attempted to address the reality of education in Puerto Rico: Many students, particularly in rural areas, attended only for three or four years before dropping out. If taught in English, they did not achieve any mastery of the language, and the linguistic difficulties prevented them from learning much in the other subjects. The new policy preserved congressional insistence that students be as knowledgeable in the English language and American culture as they were in the Spanish language and Puerto Rican culture. Bilingualism and biculturalism remained primary objectives of Puerto Rican education.

Both the Teachers College of Columbia University Columbia University and the Brookings Institution Brookings Institution completed surveys of Puerto Rican education and socioeconomic conditions in the 1920’s and offered opinions on the language question. Published in 1926, the Columbia findings concluded that instructors of the early elementary grades should teach in Spanish, not because Puerto Ricans opposed learning English but because more than four-fifths of them left school by the fourth grade. The Brookings analysis of 1928 reported that study of English was a magnet that attracted students to schools. It further asserted that unless the government remedied the severe shortage of rural teachers competent to instruct in English, it would create severe class divisions, with middle- and upper-class urban students learning English and poor rural populations denied this advantage.

In the meantime, Puerto Ricans who favored independence had taken up the language issue as a means of rallying support, and by the 1930’s, during the Depression, discontent made the islanders more attentive to nationalists. Devastated by hurricanes in 1928 and 1932, the island’s economy offered little hope. Enthusiasm for the United States waned as that country sank into economic crisis. Although Puerto Ricans could emigrate to the mainland, the Depression made employment scarce. This gave the islanders less incentive to learn English.

While the Republican Union Republican Union, Puerto Rican and Socialist Socialist Party, Puerto Rican parties advocated statehood for Puerto Rico, the Liberal Party, Liberal Party, Puerto Rican led by Luis Muñoz Marín, demanded independence. More extreme was the Nationalist Party Puerto Rican Nationalist Party of Pedro Albizú Campos Albizú Campos, Pedro , which turned to violence in 1937, staging an uprising in Ponce that killed a number of people. The Liberals attacked the school language policy, claiming that Americanization would destroy Spanish on the island and would never make Puerto Ricans anything more than second-class American citizens.

A leading Liberal advocate of this viewpoint was Epifanio Fernández Vanga, who in 1931 published a compilation of articles entitled El idioma de Puerto Rico y el idioma escolar de Puerto Rico Idioma de Puerto Rico y el idioma escolar de Puerto Rico, El (Vanga) (the language of Puerto Rico and the school languages of Puerto Rico). In it, he argued that the United States imposed English to subvert Puerto Rican culture and maintain political control over the island. Previously tolerant of bilingualism and biculturalism, the Liberals now rejected both.

As the dispute over language grew more heated, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico] supported the customary American position. When José Padín Rodríguez, the new commissioner of education, changed the policy in 1934 to make Spanish the elementary-school medium, Washington resisted and the president asserted that Puerto Ricans must become proficient in English in the event they moved to the mainland. To the delight of the pro-independence parties, Padín finally resigned in protest. Thereafter, between 1937 and 1948, the United States had difficulty in persuading any Puerto Rican educator to assume the post of commissioner for fear of being branded a traitor to Puerto Rico by the opposition. José Miguel Gallardo García eventually accepted the office and, under instructions from Washington, intensified the use of English. He permitted instructors to use Spanish in the first two grades but insisted on an increasing emphasis on English thereafter. English was to be the sole permissible language of instruction in high school.

The controversy intensified. In 1940, the Popular Democratic Party, Popular Democratic Party, Puerto Rican headed by Luis Muñoz Marín, won control of the Puerto Rican legislature, advocating commonwealth status for the island. Five years later, Muñoz Marín and his followers in the legislature voted to make Spanish the language of instruction. The American-appointed government vetoed the bill. The next year, legislators and the governor repeated the frustrating process, but this time the legislature overrode the veto. U.S. president Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico] responded by disallowing the bill. Other nationalists sought redress through the judicial system. A private citizen sued for the establishment of Spanish as the language of instruction on the grounds that English was harmful to his children’s education and culture. The Puerto Rico Teachers Association Puerto Rico Teachers Association entered a similar suit.

In 1947, U.S. representative Fred Crawford Crawford, Fred of Michigan opened an avenue to resolve the language issue when he proposed legislation to permit Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. When Congress approved, the islanders chose Muñoz Marín. He appointed Maniano Villaronga Villaronga, Maniano as commissioner of education, and Villaronga decreed Spanish as the language of instruction on August 6, 1949, although strongly advising that students also learn English. The following year, Congress allowed Puerto Rico to draw up its own constitution Constitutions;Puerto Rico , and the island effectively became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952. Postcolonialism;Puerto Rico


The new political status and the associated change to Spanish in Puerto Rican schools quieted much of the sentiment for independence on the island. After 1952, most Puerto Ricans opted either to remain associated with the United States in the commonwealth arrangement or to support statehood for the island. The militancy of the Nationalist Party and the resort to acts of terrorism, such as the attack on Blair House in 1950, no longer persuaded public opinion. In fact, after 1952 support for the Independence Party steadily declined from election to election.

The island made significant educational progress. In 1900, less than 10 percent of school-age children attended class, but attendance had risen to 65 percent by 1950, and under its new constitution, Puerto Rico legislated compulsory education between the ages of six to seventeen years. Great disparities still existed between the quantity and quality of schools and teachers in rural and urban Puerto Rico. All too often, rural children lacked satisfactory facilities and had to attend part-time because overcrowding dictated that the school staff operate a morning and an afternoon session. Wealthier families also tended to shelter their children from the educational problems by sending them to private schools, where English was often the language of instruction.

If the change to Spanish as the language of instruction did not solve the educational problems of Puerto Rico, neither did it end the corrosive effects of Americanization upon traditional island society. Economic opportunity in the United States continued to attract many Puerto Ricans, who consequently were eager to study English. The high rate of investment in Puerto Rico by U.S. companies fueled rapid industrial growth and an impressive increase in both standards of living and per-capita income. The economic expansion, however, tended to benefit the Puerto Ricans who were receptive to Americanization. Knowledge of English gave them an advantage in seeking employment with the American firms.

At the same time, most of those who became proficient in the new language remained culturally tied to traditional Puerto Rico. Drawn to the economic dynamism and democracy offered by the United States, they still thought of themselves as Hispanic and Caribbean in culture. Knowledge of English did not erase the Puerto Rican roots of those who immigrated to the mainland and left them ambivalent regarding their true culture. Their Puerto Rican roots acted as obstacles to their complete assimilation into American society, and many experienced serious difficulties in adapting to their new home.

Cultural nationalism continued to surface on the island. In 1962, Commissioner of Education Cándido Olivares Olivares, Cándido touched oft a tumult when he threatened to deny accreditation to some Catholic schools that taught in English rather than Spanish. Parents sending students to the church schools were outraged, since many had purposely chosen such institutions to ensure that their children would learn English. Luis Ferré Ferré, Luis , the prostatehood governor of the island, immediately criticized Olivares for trying to deny parents control over the education of their offspring. At roughly the same time, a congressional commission investigated the political status of Puerto Rico and its potential for becoming a state. Senator Henry M. Jackson Jackson, Henry M. voiced a concern that permeated the commission: To be granted statehood, Puerto Rico would have to accept English as the official language.

In effect, the 1949 decision to make Spanish the language of instruction did not resolve the problems of bilingualism and biculturalism, because the ultimate political status of the island remained to be determined. Modernization and industrialization continued to confront Puerto Ricans with ambivalent feelings about their language and culture. By the 1970’s, the island and the United States had become more conciliatory regarding Americanization. Most Puerto Ricans agreed that their culture was valuable and deserved preservation. Thus, if they eventually sought statehood, it would have to be under conditions that permitted them to retain their cultural roots. In the meantime, the mushrooming Hispanic population in the United States forced many non-Hispanics to accord them linguistic and cultural tolerance, if not complete acceptance and equality. Puerto Rico Education;language issues Nationalism;Puerto Rico Anticolonial movements;Puerto Rico Languages;cultural importance United States;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barreta, Amílcar Antonio. The Politics of Language in Puerto Rico. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Analysis of the relationship between language, politics, culture, and identity in Puerto Rico. Focused particularly on laws and policy changes of the early 1990’s, but provides insight into the 1949 decree as well. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Columbia University. Teachers College. Institute of Field Studies. Public Education and the Future of Puerto Rico: A Curriculum Survey 1948-1949. 1950. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1975. Provides a dispassionate look at the state of Puerto Rican schools just before Spanish definitively became the medium of instruction. Chapter 15 deals specifically with the language issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Erwin H., ed. Politics and Education in Puerto Rico: A Documentary Survey of the Language Issue. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1970. Contains articles, documents, and speeches outlining the difficulties inherent in preserving Puerto Rican biculturalism, given the island’s political ties to the United States. The selections deal primarily with the period after 1949. Epstein is sympathetic to the Puerto Rican dilemma.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gutiérrez, Edith Algren de. The Movement Against Teaching English in Schools of Puerto Rico. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. Although primarily concerned with the rhetoric used by those who opposed English as the language of instruction, Gutiérrez includes brief historical descriptions of the conflict during its various stages. Brief but informative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Gordon K. Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1963. A sympathetic analysis of Puerto Rican culture and the island’s struggle to survive as a colony first of Spain and then of the United States. Although it is a general survey, it does address the language issue briefly. More important, it provides the historical context for understanding the ambivalence many Puerto Ricans feel toward the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osuna, Juan José. A History of Education in Puerto Rico. 2d ed. New York: Arno Press, 1975. Moderate in tone. Originally written as the author’s thesis at Columbia University in 1923, it was later expanded in an edition published in 1949. Although it deals only with the language problem until 1948, the year before it was resolved, Osuna’s work is the classic study of Puerto Rican education during the island’s first half century as an American territory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodríguez Pacheco, Osvaldo, ed. A Land of Hope in Schools: A Reader in the History of Public Education in Puerto Rico, 1940 to 1965. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Editorial Edil, 1976. This useful collection of transcribed speeches and other documents contains a chapter on the language question, along with other material on the period when the crisis was finally resolved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, Catherine E. Pedagogy and the Struggle for Voice: Issues of Language, Power, and Schooling for Puerto Ricans. Critical Studies in Education. New York: Bergin & Garvey, 1991. Written from the perspective of radical social science theory, this study reviews the language debate in Chapter 1. To the author, the American imposition of English as the language of instruction was an attempt by a colonial power to subjugate the island.

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Categories: History